I Know Where You Sleep: What It’s Like to Be Airbnb Concierge

New Yorkers will do almost anything for money and a place to live.

When I first moved back to New York City, I did it in the most asinine way humanly possible. I made the decision overnight, packed an extra suitcase and, of course, booked an Airbnb. I had no job, no (real) place to live, and quite frankly, no idea what the fuck I was doing. What I did have was a 2-week long reservation on the popular lodging site to figure it out.

A couple days before I was set to arrive, my host let me know that someone other than himself would be meeting me to give me keys to the apartment. I’d Airbnbed in New York before, and it’s not unusual to have to get the keys to your temporary home at a third party location; I once had to pick up keys at a barbershop. This is because many Manhattanites rent out their places back-to-back, while they travel or live another apartment for which they use their Airbnb earnings to pay for. More on that later.

I also needed a job to pay for said apartment, or at least something to plug the gunshot wound New York City had inflicted onto my savings account

I was greeted at the building by a lovely young woman, we’ll call her Elizabeth, who gave me a set of keys and a stack of fresh towels. She also gave me her phone number, should I need anything regarding the apartment and a card for the concierge service she worked for. That’s right, concierge. Oh la la.

Eventually, I did need more towels, as I had extended my stay while I looked for a real apartment to move into. I also needed a job to pay for said apartment, or at least something to plug the gunshot wound New York City had inflicted onto my savings account. When Elizabeth returned, I asked her about the job. Turns out her brother owned the startup concierge service for which she worked, and she encouraged me to get in touch with him.

If we ever found something a Swiffer Wet Jet couldn’t fix, we were to notify the host, but we were not expected to deal with it ourselves

The job seemed simple enough. Show up an hour or two before the guest arrived to clean the apartment– nothing too intense, just the basics– empty the fridge and trash, make the beds with fresh linens and stock the unit with towels. Depending on the level of service provided (no cleaning, just towels, etc.), a single job paid up to $140. Not bad for two hours of work. And if a guest ran more than hour late, a frequent occurrence for international travelers, hosts incurred a late fee. The founder had even patented special backpacks to conveniently carry all the cleaning supplies and linens. So, I signed an Independent Contractor Agreement, and just like that, I was good to go.

To be clear, concierges are not maids,at least not where I worked. We were not expected to do any heavy cleaning, and if we ever found something a Swiffer Wet Jet couldn’t fix, we were to notify the host, but we were not expected to deal with it ourselves. Fortunately that never happened, but the job did make me aware of some pretty unsettling facts.

My employer didn’t run a security check on me, for all he knew I could have been some nutjob

The first is that the duvet cover in any home that is not your own might as well be an incubator for viral plague. We changed the sheets but not the duvets. For the month that I worked as a concierge, I would visit the same apartment maybe 3 times to welcome a new guest, and all of them shared the same duvet cover. I couldn’t help but think about the last Airbnb I had stayed in. I had used the bed for more than just sleeping, you know?

Also, we kept an extra set of keys in case the guest lost theirs. Maybe I’m paranoid, but as a guest, if I knew ahead of time that some random person with relatively zero personal connection to the host could have access to where I sleep, I’d think twice. My employer didn’t run a security check on me, for all he knew I could have been some nutjob.

I’m just as much a fan of free-market capitalism as any red blooded American, but this shit was out of control

Most upsetting, however, was my newfound awareness of the havoc Airbnb was wreaked on the housing market in New York City. I’m just as much a fan of free-market capitalism as any red blooded American, but this shit was out of control. One of our host clients had multiple properties in prized neighborhoods like SoHo and the old money part of the Upper East Side that he used solely for Airbnbers. I called him “The Slumlord.” It’s not that his apartments were in particularly bad shape, but he did convert what should have been, at maximum, a 3-bedroom Soho space into a depressing 6-bedroom youth hostel. The furniture and decor (or lack thereof) was purely utilitarian. These places were not homes, they were dorms made possible by greed and a half-assed trip to Ikea.

I’m not sure if The Slumlord owned or rented his properties. If he did in fact own them, what he chooses to do, or rather who he chooses to let live in them is his choice, I guess. However, most of our hosts were definitely renters. And for serial Airbnbers, the lodging service is more than a way to save money. When you want to go out of town, it’s an alternate source of income. Hosts generally charge double or more their per diem rent, plus the concierge services. That means they can use the profits made on one apartment to pay for two and live rent-free.

Hosts were turning a profit by double fisting precious NYC realestate

If I hadn’t gotten my writing career in off the ground quickly, my conscious would have made me quit concierging just as soon. I was struggling to find my own apartment, and I was intimately familiar with how difficult it is to simply find a place to live, let alone one you can afford. Meanwhile, some of our hosts were turning a profit by double fisting precious NYC realestate. It’s not fair, and I don’t think it’s right.

Apparently the city has taken measures to stop this kind of behavior, and many landlords forbid Airbnb in their lease agreements. But log onto the site and you’ll see that’s not stopping anyone. As a concept, I love Airbnb. If you’re not abusing it, it’s a great way to save a little cash when you go out of town, or get yourself through a financially tight time. Then there’s the fact that it’s birthed ancillary industries, such as the concierge service for which I worked. And as the saying goes, you ought not bite the hand that feeds you.

The entire industry may be eaten by its own success

What does future hold for Airbnb? If concierge companies and other startup hospitality services continue to proliferate, the entire industry may be eaten by its own success. Guests opt for Airbnb for reasons other than price; they want the authentic experience of staying at a local residence and being a guest in a real person’s home. When you formalize the experience with the trappings of a traditional hotel, not only do prices go up, but it dilutes the nomadic and communal culture on which Airbnb is built.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Doug Tanner

Julia Reiss is a Los Angeles-born writer and humorist alive and mostly well in New York City.
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