House-rich, cash-poor: why these older LA homeowners are standing with Airbnb

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Debbie Pollack speaks fondly of acting in 80's teen comedy “Sixteen Candles” and playing a "pscyhotic nun" on a daytime soap. But these days she says her most important role is that of Airbnb host.

Pollack found she could make enough extra income renting out a bedroom and her pool house so that she could keep paying the mortgage on her Sherman Oaks home. And she could still pursue acting and producing, even though work is harder to come by as a woman in her late 50s.

“My greatest income of source is my home, and if I lose both of those – honestly, it’s not an option for me,” Pollack said.

The unthinkable for home sharers has become a looming possibility as city officials move toward capping the number of days they can rent out a listing, part of a set of new rules proposed for a booming short-term rental industry. In Los Angeles, one of the world’s biggest tourist markets, Airbnb alone generates $670 million a year by the company’s count.

A call for home-sharing rules comes as the city receives complaints that short-term rentals are disrupting residential neighborhoods with the constant flow of guests. Another concern is that landlords are converting long-term rentals into more lucrative Airbnb listings, further diminishing a tight housing supply, especially in tourist-heavy neighborhoods.

Debbie Pollack's rental room opens to a courtyard pool at her home in Sherman Oaks, California, on July 10, 2017.
Debbie Pollack's rental room opens to a courtyard pool at her home in Sherman Oaks, California, on July 10, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC

A coalition of groups, among them union workers from the rival hotel industry and affordable housing advocates, have lined up in support of more restrictions on Airbnb and competitors such as VRBO. 

But an army of Airbnb hosts has risen to the company's defense, with hosts in their 50s and 60s among the most prominent at rallies and hearings and in company advertisements.

Many of these older hosts have built up equity in their homes, but are struggling with basic expenses following crises such as the recession, illnesses or job losses. Senior organizations, including AARP, have recommended home sharing as a way to defray costs on a fixed income. 

At a hearing before the Los Angeles City Council’s planning committee last month, some older hosts talked about how Airbnb offered a lifeline.

“No one’s hiring 69-year-old people anymore," said Venice host Joe Handy. "So I actually created this job for myself and I feel like I can survive through retirement because of it."  

In California, Airbnb has been an increasingly appealing option for people over 60, who now make up half of the home-sharing platform's hosts, according to spokeswoman Connie Llanos. Women over 60 are the fastest-growing segment of hosts, and among the best-rated, she said.

Llanos says it’s no surprise that the company’s older hosts are especially active in fighting the cap on rental days because as a demographic, they tend to have more time to volunteer, and are particularly passionate about home sharing. 

“We know that it’s a powerful economic empowerment tool for seniors in Los Angeles and we want to make sure people are aware of that,” Llanos said.

Debbie Pollack welcomes a newlywed couple from New Hampshire.
Debbie Pollack welcomes a newlywed couple from New Hampshire. Josie Huang/KPCC

Los Angeles Councilman Mike Bonin, who proposed the home-sharing regulations, said he “loves the Airbnb hosts,” but wants to stamp out commercial operators who list multiple short-term rentals on the Airbnb platform.

“The proposal tries to strike that balance between what we call "good" short-term rentals - genuine home sharing - and "bad" short-term rental units which are the ones stealing untold units of rental housing in Los Angeles,” Bonin said.

Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an Airbnb critic, estimates these commercial operators make up 11 percent of Airbnb hosts in LA but account for 46 percent of the revenue. 

Home sharers have distanced themselves from the commercial operators, and say the proposed ordinance unfairly groups them together by imposing a rental cap on all hosts.

But those who feel Airbnb has grown unfettered for too long argue that home-sharers, even older hosts, shouldn’t get special treatment. 

“I question their need for home sharing to make ends meet," said Roy Samaan, an alliance policy analyst.

Samaan said in L.A.’s brutal housing market, homeowners using Airbnb at least have alternatives, like getting roommates or renting to long-term tenants. 

“In neighborhoods of the city where there really is that deep economic need, that’s where we see people doubling up and having multi-generational homes,” Samaan said. “That’s how the aging in place occurs.”

Pollack did find a roommate after a divorce several years ago, but she said Airbnb offered more flexibility and greater income. She also enjoys the revolving door of guests, many of them coming from different countries.

“People have actually proposed in my backyard,” Pollack said. "I've received a birth announcement from someone in France that said, "Look at what we made in your pool house." 

Debbie Pollack hosts many visitors who leave notes in her guest book at her house in Sherman Oaks, California, on July 10, 2017.
Debbie Pollack hosts many visitors who leave notes in her guest book at her house in Sherman Oaks, California, on July 10, 2017. Daryl Barker/KPCC
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