Airbnb lands on Martha’s Vineyard

The online room-rental and accommodations site has proven irresistible to Island homeowners, but critics say there are consequences.

The Airbnb web site.

For last-minute visitors to Martha’s Vineyard and those looking for a bargain rate, and for homeowners who want to supplement their incomes, Airbnb is a boon. Not so enamored of the online rental site are those working to increase the stock of Island affordable housing, and business people who claim it allows competition without taxation. Irrespective, appears to be here to stay.

Airbnb, which began life in 2007 as AirBed & Breakfast, is a user-friendly web site for international room rental. It was founded by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who, finding it difficult to meet the rent on their San Francisco apartment, inflated three air mattresses in their living room and rented them out during a hotel-filling conference.

They developed a web site to continue the lucrative short-term rentals of their living room, and eventually expanded to more than 800,000 listings in more than 190 countries, according to the web site. Airbnb became one of the pioneers of what is called a “shared economy,” or “collaborative consumption,” bringing the lodging trade into the average Joe’s or Jane’s private home. Since its inception, Airbnb has inspired other sharing startups, like direct competitors VRBO and HomeAway, and car-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft, and Breeze.

Overflow alternative

On the Vineyard, Airbnb has become an alternative to hotels, motels, and traditional B & Bs. A search of on Feb. 15 for the weekend of Feb. 27 to March 1 (two nights, two guests) produced 70 potential rentals from a $40-per-night private room in Oak Bluffs to a $2,000-per-night entire private home in West Tisbury. The prices in between varied considerably, and were augmented by the service fee charged by Airbnb, and frequently by a cleaning fee.

And there is versatility — even in the summer. A search of Airbnb for the week of June 29 to July 5 produced 68 rentals, from a private room in Edgartown for $95 per night to an entire oceanfront house in Oak Bluffs for $2,542 per night. Also available is a glassed-in private room for $225 per night and a bedroom composed of vintage factory doors for $235 per night (both in Aquinnah), and a sailboat close to the action in Oak Bluffs Harbor at $325 per night.

Megan Ottens-Sargent, who rents out two small bedrooms in her home/art gallery in Aquinnah through Airbnb, used to run what she called a “low-key” traditional B & B. “I was pretty much, and still am, more about overflow,” she said. “I’m not competing with my neighbors’ B & Bs. They would call me when they were booked. That was how I operated before Airbnb.”

What’s appealing about Airbnb, said users interviewed, is its ease of use to both the host and renter. To book a room or home, a potential renter goes to the web site and fills in the dates, desired location, and number of guests. A variety of filters — price range, room type, amenities, and host language — narrow down the search. A number of options appear in the form of pictures with an inset map that shows the location of each rental. A click on a photo brings up details, renter-generated reviews, and a star rating system that aid the potential renter in finding the ideal property.

It’s about as simple for the host to advertise a rental on the site. Betsy Shands posts two rooms in her Vineyard Haven home on Airbnb. “I was on in 2013 with just one room, and added the second in 2014,” she said.

Ms. Shands found that Airbnb gave her the flexibility to have the rooms available when her children visited in the summer. Dates can be easily blocked out for family visits or off-season trips.

The subscribing process for the host is step-by-step, and includes supporting nontechnical documentation. “It was really easy,” Ms. Shands said. “I don’t fancy myself terribly technical, but I had it up within a few minutes.”

Homeowners can post rules regarding smoking and noise, as well as amenities like availability of Wi-Fi and transportation. And there are reviews of the renters available — a tool hosts may use to turn down a potential renter they may judge to be less than ideal.

It is a luxury not available to inn and hotel owners, who are bound by laws with regard to whom they may turn down and the responsibility to pay taxes.

Not a fair share

John Tiernan, co-owner of the Dockside Inn in Oak Bluffs, is not concerned with the ability of Airbnb to siphon off business. “It’s not about filling rooms,” he said. “Even hotels that are kind of notoriously run down, from the day the kids get out of school in June to the first week of September, should be celebrating 95 or more percent occupancy.”

But what does rankle the Oak Bluffs businessman is the effect of the rental site on available rental-housing stock, and the ability of Airbnb users to operate like an inn without paying an occupancy tax, or any service fee.

“What homeowner on Martha’s Vineyard would want to rent out their home for a year at a reasonable rate, when they know they can just go into business for themselves without town approval, without paying [occupancy] taxes, very easily by just subscribing to Airbnb?” he said.

“It’s brutal,” he continued. “I probably talk to 10 college kids a week that want to come out and work at the hotel. I say, all right, get your housing sorted. Out of the 10, I’ll probably get one call back. It affects every hotel, every retail shop, every bar, every store.”

Mr. Tiernan said as with every Island inn and hotel, a state occupancy tax of 11.7 percent is levied on every stay of 30 days or less. Of that, approximately 5 percent is returned to the town in which the business is located.

“If there’s 1,200 rooms to rent on Martha’s Vineyard, and every taxable hotel room has four guests in it, 5,000 people are staying in occupancy-tax-paying rooms,” he said. “We know that there are 100,000 tourist transients laying their heads on beds every day from basically May through October. When you take that into account, there are 95,000 people that are not paying occupancy tax.”

Mr. Tiernan thinks this represents lost revenue for towns that are already strapped to support services in the summer. “There are as many people visiting Oak Bluffs daily as at Disneyland,” he said, “and we’re trying to clean up with a minute fraction of the crew. I believe that the occupancy tax was designed to offset the impact on a town like Oak Bluffs with an influx of 100,000 people.”

Josh Goldstein, manager of the Mansion House on Main Street in Vineyard Haven, agreed. “We wish the towns would be more aggressive in collecting the occupancy taxes,” he said. “It’s about a town having more money for snow removal, for a new police car, for paving the roads. All the towns are missing out on a big chunk of revenue that could be benefiting all of us.”

“It’s also a safety issue,” he added. “The fire department doesn’t inspect these places; the health department doesn’t inspect these places.”

In response to complaints from the hospitality industry, particularly in Boston, state legislators are beginning to take a look at the provisions of the current occupancy tax.

“No matter how much room tax is, I don’t think it would stop my business,” Megan Ottens-Sargent said. “You raise the rates or add it on. I’m still cheaper than the hotels.”

Betsy Shands agreed. “The formula [Airbnb] came up with really works,” she said. “And more people are tuning into it.”

Other consequences

That formula may also be affecting the availability of affordable rentals. Increasingly, house owners who might have been inclined to rent for the summer or winter and take advantage of a county program designed to make up the difference between affordable and market rates are not renting.

The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce allows chamber members to post job openings, and allows anyone to post housing openings for those. According to executive director Nancy Gardella, “Housing was at its critical point last year — a crisis point — for both year-round residents looking for housing and seasonal employees.” Is this related to the popularity of Airbnb? “It’s possible,” she said.