Native Detroiters Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza, now living in Chicago, returned to the mitten state this week to visit family. But they skipped the hotel.
Instead, the couple turned to Airbnb.com, a San Francisco-based website founded in 2008 as a way to connect travelers looking for a place to stay with locals who have extra space.
“It’s a more personable relationship; it’s not just a financial transaction,” said Lessins, 49. “It’s a refreshing alternative to hotels, which tend to be expensive and offer very little.”
They connected with Riet and Mark Schumack, who own the Knuckle Head Farm Bed and Breakfast tucked among the empty lots and abandoned homes of Brightmoor, a neighborhood on Detroit’s west side.
“We have so much vacant land here so improving quality of life is very much geared toward green space,” said Riet Schumack, 59. “We have this vision that maybe at some point we could become a real eco-tourism destination.”
To achieve that goal, Schumack set aside the urban farm’s master bedroom as an Airbnb rental. It is booked during the summer more than 20 days of each month.
“To stay at an urban farm in the Detroit area, that’s very unique and attractive to us,” said Esparza, 49. “When we come to the city it’s usually to visit family, but this just adds another dimension to it.”
On the other side of town, Corktown resident Erik Fabian frequently travels for work, and shuns hotels at every stop.
“I wanted to get a deeper sense of these cities I was staying in,” he said.
In the past year, he has used Airbnb to stay in cities from Boston and Baltimore to Sayulita, a village in Nayarit, Mexico.
“I was spending less on work travel and having a greater experience,” Fabian, 39, said of the site. “I’ve never booked a hotel room since, quite honestly.”
He also used the site in June while transitioning from Portland, Oregon, to his new home in Corktown.
“In the last year especially, there’s been a lot of exciting things happening in the city,” he said. “I wanted to come and try to participate and assist in any way I could.”
Airbnb is steadily gaining popularily, growing from 300,000 listings in late 2012 to more than 800,000. It has hosted more than 17 million guests in 190 countries worldwide.
The number of listings in Metro Detroit has doubled in one year as interest spreads about the city’s revitalization efforts, according to site spokeswoman Amanda Smith. A search of the website’s database reveals hundreds of area listings, with options ranging from a $225 per night, five-bedroom colonial in Holly to a couch in Canton for $20 a night. A one-bedroom home in Birmingham during last weekend’s Dream Cruise was posted for $225.
And not all the listings have four walls: A 30-foot Catalina sailboat is offered for $179 on Lake St. Clair, and $85 will rent a vintage motorhome in La Salle.
The site’s growth is indicative of an economy turning to the Internet in lieu of more traditional outlets, according to Steve Yencich, president and CEO of the Lansing-based Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association, which represents hundreds of bed-and-breakfasts, hotels, motels and resorts statewide.
“No one is surprised when these kinds of things develop,” he said. “They tend to get legs and grow rapidly.”
The success of peer-to-peer websites like Airbnb brings with it a host of logistical issues for state and local governments, Yencich said.
“They’re largely unregulated,” he said. “What about fire safety (like) the availability of fire extinguishers and fire escapes? Some are serving food, so what about food safety?”
Officials in Grand Rapids have proposed regulations requiring hosts to secure a permit and notify neighbors of their intent to rent space. Rentals also would have to be owner-occupied, with no more than one room rented to two guests at a time.
Such measures may be hard to enforce, Yencich said.
“Grand Rapids’ city government is to be commended for taking these kinds of steps,” he said.
“But it’s one thing if you’ve got a few dozen of these (Airbnb rentals) within city limits, and it’s another thing entirely if you’ve got 500.”
Airbnb hosts also usually do not pay taxes required of established hoteliers. This is changing in San Francisco and Portland, where officials recently partnered with the site to begin collecting taxes.
“I actually contribute 11.5 percent in occupancy taxes,” said Fabian, the recent transplant to Corktown, who also uses Airbnb to rent out his old home in Portland.
“There are also other regulations they put in, like an annual inspection (to look for) working smoke detectors.”
Many Detroit area guests and hosts said they support plans for limited Airbnb regulations and taxes.
“It would be very smart for governments to realize fighting something like this is 100 percent a losing battle,” said Alex Torpey, village president of South Orange, New Jersey.
“Instead, regulate it in a way that is beneficial to the industry.”
Torpey, 27, used Airbnb this month to rent an apartment on Washington Boulevard for his first visit to Detroit.
“I wanted to see what isn’t always talked about,” he said.
“You hear the stories of blocks of abandoned buildings, but you don’t necessarily hear about the little independent cafe or restaurant that opens up, locally sourcing as much of their ingredients as they can.”
'Do their own thing'
Whether as a host or guest at an apartment or urban farm, those who have used Airbnb in Detroit said the site offers experiences not found at traditional hotels.
“It’s more like a roommate situation,” said Eric Bernstein, who owns the 6,000-square-foot Corktown loft where Fabian stayed while moving into the city.
“You want the guests to come in and feel like they can make themselves at home and do their own thing.”
The site also offers unusual lodging options, including castles, treehouses, yurts and entire islands.
The myriad options gives Torpey an idea.
“What I’d like to do is take a vacation that is organized around visiting different, unique Airbnb places,” he said. “It would be fun to try and identify all the different types of housing units they have, and try to stay in one of each.”