AirBnB and LA’s Housing Hell, PART THREE: The Killing Fields

By Ann Sterzinger


In which the conspiracy sends a teenager to try to disgustingly fuck me (so what else is new?) and tragically kills my little cat.

Something (Else) Rotten in the State of California

In California, I soon discovered, AirBnB has metastasized into a whole new economic underworld.

The ridiculous prices listed on regular apartment rental sites are just the tip of the vast iceberg of housing limbo that lies between the penthouse and the tent-house. There’s still that high-rent bulge at the top of the market, and that high-visibility explosion at the very bottom, where long-term homeless bunker down in their hand-built trash castles. But there’s also a melon-sized colonic tumor on the bottom-middle end of the socio-economic ladder — where the “normal” rental market no longer functions, even if you aren’t quite camped on the sidewalk — and it’s become a crazy little society unto its own.

(Catch-up: Click here to read Part I and/or Click here to read Part II.)

Like Uber, the AirBnB site began with all kinds of yammering about the sharing economy. In theory it was designed for vacations.

The bottom has opened out into insane goddamn tenements that operate beyond the pale.

Remember those delusional show-biz kids who all need housing (Click here to read Part II)? Most of them have no real job skills that would allow them to pay the rent on an apartment. And not all of them have rich parents.

But most of them are filthy assholes, as I was soon to find out. Christ, even the young poors are entitled slobs now.

Boojie Vacays on a Dime: The Good Old Days

AirBnB used to be cheap and nice. For a fleeting moment, it was the holy grail of the broke but curious; it was where you cleverly finagled a charming studio in Berlin for $30 a night, and it felt like a genuine sharing-economy situation: it was a real person’s apartment, with all the comforts of home (or a home, anyway; you got to know a new way of comfort) plus all the quirks of a new city and of your host as an individual. Most of the hosts were fellow vacationers, renting out their place to recoup expenses while they stayed in another city, or struggling tenants hiring out their living room for a few days at the end of the month to make rent.

That was the ostensible theory, anyway. But as their reach and expenses both expanded, AirBnB’s fine-print policies (as well as new laws in places like, yup, LA!) have slowly grown to favor landlords with multiple (or multiple-bed) properties. The pros.

So now when you’re vacationing (or homeless), you need to make damn sure your AirBnB isn’t actually a low-grade hostel, or a dirty studio that’s been trampled by so many visitors it no longer looks like the photos.

Flophouse Time!

Nice, semi-personal places still exist — but they’re not $30 a night anymore. In fact, the average private (entire-apartment) AirBnB price is a tick over $150, only about $10 less than an average hotel room. This is in part because rent prices are going up, so tenants who are temporarily hosting have to raise prices to make any money, while landlords raise them to cover opportunity costs.

In other words, if the landlord could make $3500 renting an apartment to a single tenant for a month, he isn’t going to give it to you as a vacation rental for $30 a night and then clean up after a new person’s ass every week. And if the tenant is paying $1300 a month in rent for a bottom-end studio, renting it to you for $40 a night means she only just breaks even (unless you’re one of those asshole AirBnBers I had who punched holes in the walls or ran the air conditioner at 60 degrees when they weren’t even there; in that case, she will be paying for your fucking vacation and then plotting your demise).

Many people are now hosting AirBnB with an eye to quitting their day jobs, which also drives up prices. You can’t make a living renting a property for $10 profit a night short-term. In fact, a lot of people don’t consider renting a property that nets them $100 a night to be much of a living. Which is why many AirBnB “hosts” rent out several properties. And yes, you are correct: this takes housing stock off the rental market and drives rent prices even higher.

So how, my child, can a simple, honest AirBnB landlord keep making a profit in this craaaaaaazee housing market they’ve helped destroy? How can they undercut their competitors? Well, your fixed cost for the apartment is always going to go up… but who says you can’t cram four bunk beds into what used to be a single bedroom?

That way, people who want merely a cheap place to rest their heads after they spend the day out exploring the city can pay you $20-$30 bucks a night each. No problem; they’re here to see the sights, short-term, right? Fill each of three bedrooms in a house with four bunkbeds; that’s eight people to a room, 24 people a night, and suddenly your pop-up hostel can make you more money than renting the entire place to a bunch of toffs.

After all, even the toffs are going to draw a line at around $250 for your three-bed if it isn’t in a super upscale neighborhood with a pool and a fire pit. But those 24 people paying $20 each a night in your crumbling Boyle Heights hacienda are going to gross you $480 every night!

Now that I type it out loud, I have to wonder why anyone is still a regular landlord.

Well, probably because turning the cheap housing stock into even cheaper-to-live-in (and yet more-lucrative-to-rent-out) has had some, er, perhaps unintended consequences. You landlords thought you were going to get a steady stream of nice backpacker kids, eh? Here one week, gone the next, leaving nought but a few cocaine bindels and granola wrappers in their wake.

Ah, landlord, even you are a victim of your own success.

Don’t Worry, I’ll Only Be Here Till I’m Famous

Because as it turns out, the poors and wannabe actors can be kinda cagey, too. Economic self-interest ain’t just for those who earn a lot of interest. As the professional AirBnB hosting market gets more competitive, and prices in the normal, long-term residential rental market gets ever more looney-tunes, a fact has begun to to trickle down to the economically marginalized newcomers to LA:

These new low-end AirBnBs are cheaper than the cheapest apartment.

Do the math, McGrath. Remember when I said above that somebody renting a tiny studio of the crappiest variety is still paying at least $40 a night just to have a place to lay his head? And the nightly breakdown of the rent doesn’t even take into consideration the barriers to entry in the rental market. You need a security deposit, which is often equal to or greater than your astronomical monthly rent payment.

So the would-be renters slowly wander from the rental site to the AirBnB site. You can still get a $20–30 AirBnB; it’s just very crappy. But you can handle living there till you save up for a real place, right?

— Ha ha, not if you spend all your time and money drinking to deal with your dozens of shitty roommates!

Six months later… two years later… you still haven’t scored that great acting gig… and you’re still living in the center bunk of one of those horrifying three- or four-level bunk beds. My ASS if those things are earthquake-safe; you’d better hope there’s not some 6’4″ bodybuilder two or three bunks above you, cause he’s gonna hit full velocity on the way down.

Under Silverlake

When I headed to Silverlake (see part II of this series for the ghastly possum-diseased tale of how I ended up working as a cleaner in an AirBnB in Silverlake), I was not wise to any of this.

What I expected to find was a house full of travelers, whose beds I would make every couple of days as one person checked out and the next checked in. There was a kitchen, but I figured it was used for snacks at most.

What I found was a motley crew of ten “guests” who were living there for $20–30 a night for multiple months on end — who used the single bathroom to take several showers a day apiece and left lakes on the bathroom floor — and who made elaborate meals every single day, all for me to clean up after.

And all I was paid was a bed in a hallway.

I had to share the hallway with my coworker, too. Having a coworker sounded promising as well, but as it turned out, it was a Jesus freak Polish guy who did jack shit and snored like a freight train, and all that separated us was an Ikea curtain.

Not that anyone can help snoring, but the fact that he played for the same ethnic team as the owners meant that they didn’t actually expect him to work. They were just giving him a free bed — at my expense — while he attended classes in pursuit of his degree in jazz guitar, at which he was loudly terrible (and he demonstrated this at all hours).

Not only did he do no work, he cooked his fat self the most elaborate, messy meals of them all, and left a stinking fridge full of rotten vegetables that he refused to allow me to throw away. Not only did I have to clean up after this pig, he and the “guests” made it too disgusting for me to eat in the house. I lived on Starbucks bagels while I cleaned up after them for five or six hours a day, and then had to do my own freelancing work.

And then the piggy Pole started letting his drunk homeless friend sneak in and live in the basement.

Nothing like going to clean up the yard and stepping in poop in the high grass.

All this for a $20 bed in a hallway.

But AirBnb, for all their vaunted hippy-dippy “sharing economy!” bullshit, allow their hosts to get away with this totally unregulated slave labor market. I’ve mentioned their behavior to the AirBnB “community” and gotten a shrug, since most “hosts” are slumlords at some level, and the customer service folks privilege larger accounts.

Who knows how many unregulated employees are stuck in this situation? After I finally yanked myself back into a position where I could tell them to kiss my ass, they roped another poor girl into it. I still see their messages, as they didn’t bother to unloop me; I’ve died laughing reading about explosions of cockroaches. They didn’t know how good they had it when I was working my ass off.

The first time I threatened to walk, they told me they would start giving me some of the cleaning fees they charged each guest; catch was, the guests only paid a $15 cleaning fee once for their entire stay. And 8 of the 10 beds were semi-permanent guests. So the owners continued to merrily collect all the cash while I did all the work. So much for the hardworking Pole stereotype. Oh wait… that was never a thing.

I don’t know if I feel sorry for the guests or not. They were all in a shitty position, as they were either students or entertainment industry wannabes who had bitten off more than they could chew. And they were living in each other’s slop as much as I was.

On the other hand, they were absolute fucking pigs who would be nice to my face but then show no regard for the human being who they knew would be cleaning up after their heinous asses. The places I found dirty tampons would make an OB-GYN faint. It was the worst of both worlds: people were there long enough to get real bold and comfy and leave layered, disgusting messes. But they weren’t there long enough to feel any ownership, much less custodianship, over the place.

And they knew me well enough to siphon off what little time I had free to do work for money by luring me into small talk to entertain them — which was pleasant, I love to entertain; yet they never seemed to know me well enough to think, “Gee, Ann is a human being… maybe I’ll close the shower curtain, stop shitting on the rim of the toilet, and not shave my pubes into the sink.”

One of the young men even tried to get me to sleep with him… on the same day that he had created a giant lake on the bathroom floor filled with grey toilet paper clods and hair from all areas. Here’s some pickup advice: don’t bother making a move on a female if you’ve already trained her mind to associate your body with hairy floor porridge. (Although I suppose it didn’t help that he tried it within earshot of the snoring Polish dude.)

Since the kid was so piously Muslim he had to splash water all over the damn house five times a day to purify himself — and he normally had impeccable manners aside from the wanton filth-leaving — I found myself somewhat surprised by this irreligious essay; but honestly, I shouldn’t be fazed by goddamn anything anymore.

Hostile, Mach One

This was what I now call a long-term hostel, Level One: a supposed “vacation rental” that people were living in. I call it Level One because there was some pretense at community, it still looked more like a house than an orphanage, and at least most of the beds in that shitpit were not the triple-decker bunkbeds that populate Level Two hostel hells. I was about to do better, but see worse.

The last straw? I ran a fund-raiser on Facebook to get my own apartment, and many generous people helped me do so. (Thank you so much to everyone! I am eternally grateful.) However, the process was held up by one person who owed me money. We were almost safe, though — we were within 24 hours of getting a studio apartment. But 24 hours before that happy event, our number was reduced by one: A guest at the house carelessly let my poor little black cat out into the beautiful semi-wilds of Silverlake, and she was torn up by a coyote who wanted to eat the good parts.

I found her eviscerated little body. That was worse than being raped. I will never forgive myself, nor the person who delayed my acquisition of an apartment, nor the guest who let her out and didn’t even bother to look for her. In these places, you may have a cheap place to lay your head, but you have nothing to call your own. Not even the creatures who love you, trust you, and depend on you.

Tumblecakes was the best animal in the world and you killed her. Look at that tail wagging. Hope you enjoyed that bottle of wine, bitch.

I had long known I had to get the fuck out. But getting the fuck out — and too late, at that — would lead indirectly to my discovery of a world below Level One — where grown men and women live like Little Orphan Fucking Annie, but with wayyyyy more funk. They are, after all, grown-ups. And grown-ups have grown-up scent glands.

When they start stacking the bunkbeds higher than a prison cell and there’s still only one bathroom, you can’t take two showers a day anymore.

Written by

Ann Sterzinger

Author of NVSQVAM, DISASTER FITNESS, the ELEKTRA’S REVENGE sci-fi series, (Bk 1: LYFE out now) &the SEINE VENDETTA, book one in the Lisa LaRoche action series.

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