Residents welcome travelers into homes as trend toward shared economy grows

Later this week, Janna and Jeremy Maron are planning to welcome another paying guest to their two-bedroom apartment in midtown Sacramento. They only know he’s from San Francisco and rented their spare room, with its jungle-green dresser and big oil painting of Elvis Presley, once before.

He’ll sleep in the next room, share their bathroom, and pay $59 a night.

“It looks like we’re having some Europeans stay with us over Christmas,” said Jeremy Maron, 43, who was excited about the holiday guests. Other than one awkward instance when a drunken woman passed out in their bed, the couple said they’ve had only good times hosting strangers.

The Marons are among a fast-growing number of Sacramento-area residents who use their homes as makeshift hotels, renting out rooms, couches or apartments by the night. They use websites that cater to the Internet’s so-called sharing economy, in which people rent their homes, cars and bicycles to help pay the bills.

Airbnb, founded five years ago by roommates who began renting out air mattresses on the floor of their San Francisco apartment and became high-tech moguls, is probably the best-known sharing site.

It has attracted about 150 devotees in the Sacramento area who use it as a way to meet travelers and bring in extra cash. There’s been a 50 percent increase in the number of Sacramentans hosting guests through the site since last year, according to Airbnb.

Some cities have taken issue with the practice. San Luis Obispo, on California’s Central Coast, has said it violates the city’s ban on short-term vacation rentals. New York and San Francisco, which have thousands of Airbnb rentals, have challenged the fact that guests don’t pay hotel occupancy taxes. Residents of Los Angeles’ trendy Silver Lake neighborhood have complained about noise and parking congestion.

Sacramento officials said the city doesn’t restrict short-term rentals but is looking at ways to make Airbnb hosts adhere to local tax and business codes, including by requiring them to collect the city’s transient occupancy tax.

“Our revenue folks have heard about this and are looking into it as of now to bring these types of operations into compliance,” said city spokesman Maurice Chaney in an email.

Airbnb executives say the company is open to working with cities to provide tax revenue.

“Our hosts are not hotels, but we believe that it makes sense for our community to pay occupancy tax, with limited exemptions for those who earn under certain thresholds,” Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in a blog post last month.

For now, it’s a casual practice that residents and guests say works well for those who want a low-cost, homey alternative to hotels or traditional vacation rentals.

Hosts interviewed for this story insisted they aren’t worried about the safety risks of opening their homes to strangers, partly because Airbnb provides a certain level of screening. The service verifies identities through drivers’ licenses and social media sites such as Facebook. Hosts and guests also review each other on the site, weeding out bad actors, they said. And Airbnb provides $1million in insurance to hosts.

In exchange for its middleman role, the privately held company charges guests a 6 percent to 12 percent fee for every booking depending on the rental value and takes a 3 percent cut from hosts.

Megan Fidell said Airbnb guests actually help protect her purple Craftsman bungalow in midtown. It was burglarized two years ago when she and her boyfriend were away for Thanksgiving. Thieves stole computers, jewelry, musical instruments and all her boyfriend’s clothes.

“Basically everything precious is gone,” she said. “We had no jackets when they were done.”

Now, when the couple travel for holidays, family visits and camping trips, they keep their house occupied by renting it out for $100 a night.

“For me it’s someone to house-sit while I’m away,” Fidell said. “They pay you.”

The couple’s cat, Lady, stays at the house. “She’s the hostess,” Fidell said. Guests are asked to feed the cat but can choose whether she sleeps indoors.

Fidell said she rarely sees her guests. She leaves before they arrive and comes home when they’re gone. But some leave clues to their behavior.

One group, which claimed to be from a church in San Francisco, left empty liquor bottles and the wrappers from 300 frozen Otter Pops in her trash can. Every sheet and pillow in the house had been used, and there was a still a full bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the freezer.

“It was clear they packed the place and had a party,” Fidell said. “I don’t know what kind of church group that is.”

Nevertheless, the house was spotless by 11 a.m. the next day, she said. Fidell said she hasn’t had any truly negative experiences in the nine times she has rented her house since posting her ad with Airbnb about a year and a half ago.

Some guests even leave gifts. Visitors from Vermont left maple syrup; others left flowers.

“Every guest has left the place completely neat,” she said. “We haven’t had one that wasn’t conscientious.”

Fidell, a state water engineer, said that after paying income taxes she makes about $200 a month by renting out her house. It helps pay the bills but doesn’t come close to a significant income source, she said.

Jeremy and Janna Maron, on the other hand, said their Airbnb income covers about a third of their $1,500-a-month rent. Without it, they said, they might not be able to keep their apartment on the second floor of a vintage home with tall windows that let in lots of sunlight.

The couple runs the ThinkHouse Collective, an office space for Sacramento artists and entrepreneurs.

Unlike Fidell, they are generally home with their guests and enjoy playing tour guides to the city. “A lot of times people don’t know Sacramento is a happening place,” Jeremy Maron said.

Few visitors come to Sacramento on vacation, hosts said. Most are in town on business, for weddings or conventions. Many aspiring lawyers come to take the bar exam. Airbnb provides a cheaper and different way to stay in the city’s urban core.

Linda and John Elgart, of Curtis Park, frequently stay at Airbnb homes in California when they travel as sales representatives for a bicycle clothing maker. They also stay with Airbnb hosts in Spain, Mexico and South America when they go on vacation.

“You have to enjoy sharing space with people,” said Linda Elgart, 57. “We’re totally agreeable to that.”

Their favorite stays have been at a house in Fresno where the host fills the table with homemade Korean food and treats them like family, Linda Elgart said. Last year they stayed with a concert pianist in Guanajuato, Mexico, in her art-filled home on a hillside above the city.

But their experiences haven’t all been so pleasant.

One time, when they had an early business meeting scheduled, they stayed with a family whose teenage daughter “went in the only bathroom in the morning and was in there forever showering,” Elgart said. Another time they stayed in a travel trailer in someone’s driveway and had to stumble through the dark, cluttered house to use the bathroom.

“It was gross and dark and dirty,” she said.

The Marons said most of their visitors have been delightful and some have become friends, including a couple from Italy. But they also had one instance in which Jeremy Maron woke up to find himself pinned beneath the covers by a large, drunken woman who had passed out next to him in bed.

He figures she came out of the wrong side of the Jack-and-Jill bathroom and got into their bed by mistake. He had to wake her husband to help him out.

“Jeremy got up and went to other room,” Janna Maron recalled. “He said, ‘Hey, brother, I need your help. Your wife’s in our bed.’”

The guests left the next morning before their hosts woke up.