What's Causing the Housing Shortage in Your Hometown?

With municipalities looking to restrict short-term rental sites like Airbnb, here are tips for working around rising rents.

U.S. News & World Report

What's Causing the Housing Shortage in Your Hometown?

Backlit apartment building against dramatic sky(Getty Images)

Short-term rental site Airbnb has taken the hospitality and real estate markets by surprise worldwide. People traveling to different cities use the service to take advantage of nightly rates that cost less than a hotel, and many renters and landlords are converting a room or entire home into a place travelers can book for a few nights through Airbnb or another short-term rental site.

But with U.S. real estate largely seeing low inventory and rising rental and sale rates as a result, can we afford to have spaces taken up by short-term rentals?

The U.S. cities with the most Airbnb listings are Los Angeles and New York – with 20,891and 38,810 available listings, respectively, according to third-party analysis site Inside Airbnb.

While Airbnb is the largest short-term rental site, the company's listings make up less than 0.5 percent of housing units in the U.S. Airbnb had 550,000 listings in 2015, according to data from Airbnb and analysis company Airdna, compared to the more than 134 million estimated housing units in early 2015, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

To consider Airbnb, even combined with competitor sites like HomeAway or VRBO, a serious threat to housing availability or rates over other factors would be an oversimplification of U.S. housing. The lack of new inventory for mid- to low-income households and the cost of living increasing faster than wages are more significant contributors to the shortage of available, affordable housing. Of course, that's not to say Airbnb isn't causing at least a few headaches when it comes to residential space.

Where Is Airbnb Causing a Problem?

The popularity of short-term rentals may be creating nightmares for legislatures regulating where businesses can operate and neighbors who don’t enjoy living next to tourists, but it’s not the primary cause of housing shortages in cities throughout the country.

The idea of shorter-term renting isn’t new: Corporate and furnished housing has long provided a few weeks’ or months’ worth of housing for people in an area for work or an extended visit. Jackie Tom, president of the San Francisco-based company Rentals in SF, says she leases some furnished units, though many property owners who choose to enter the short-term market return to long-term, unfurnished rentals after a year or two because they incur more costs when maintaining an apartment that is often vacant.

“Over the course of a year, you’re probably better off doing unfurnished [rentals],” Tom says.

Leasing out corporate short-term rentals is a business with regulations, but many local governments are struggling to convey to Airbnb hosts that income earned by renting space must be reported for tax purposes, and they must provide sound, safe quarters for paying customers.

Much of the legal work involving Airbnb hosts centers around ensuring they are properly registered and paying the appropriate taxes for the additional income, as well as running a business out of their residential property. Real estate attorney Avi Sinai of the Sinai Law Firm in Los Angeles works with many people looking to become legal Airbnb hosts.

“[There are] a lot of people calling in asking, ‘How do I do it right?’ They want to make sure they’re following the law,” Sinai says.

While Boston’s short-term rental market isn’t as big as the likes of New York and Los Angeles, it has more than 2,500 Airbnb listings, according to Inside Airbnb. Nancy McCreary, vice president and manager of the Hammond Rental Group with Hammond Residential Real Estate in Boston, says many landlords want a clause in lease agreement to ensure renters can’t list the space themselves.

“Landlords want it in the lease that you can’t Airbnb,” McCreary says.

But Sinai also notes that short-term rentals and home exchanges are a reality homeowner and condo associations, landlords, neighbors and city officials will have to get used to. While local legislation and association bylaws may need to be updated to take transient occupancy into account, “There’s no way you can stop something like this,” Sinai says.

So What Is Contributing to Housing Shortages?

Residential real estate development has risen in many major U.S. markets in recent years, with more than 1 million housing units approved for construction in 2015, compared to less than 583,000 units approved in 2009, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. While there are a substantial number of units coming on the market now and in the near future, many new apartment and condo developments are in the higher price range.

In highly desirable markets like San Francisco and New York, general interest in living in the city remains high, contributing to population growth and increased density. As a result, newly available housing can't keep up with the growing demand, and to live there, people are willing to pay the price to live in the right location.

While there may be ample new housing inventory, it could easily be outside your budget. Here are four tips to help you find your next place to rent in a tough market.

Rethink location. This isn’t a new idea: Anyone looking for their next home will likely have to consider cost versus location. “The first compromise they have to make is location,” McCreary says.

If you prefer a downtown location, you’ll often have to pay a steep price. But if your budget doesn’t allow for that, neighborhoods outside the city center and in the suburbs can often give you a better price.

Find a roommate or two. Co-living is an easy way to be able to rent a larger space while cutting down on costs for rent, utilities and more.

In San Francisco, Tom notes the millennial generation in particular is taking advantage of four- and five-bedroom units with multiple roommates, which allows them to live in a nicer community than they would be able to afford otherwise.

“They want to save their money and have a better quality of life and travel and buy things, versus spend $4,000 on a one-bedroom for rent,” Tom says.

But before you pack five people into a two-bedroom apartment, be sure to take your comfort level into account. Sometimes it's better to pay a couple hundred extra dollars and avoid fighting for the bathroom or space in the fridge.

Avoid short-term competition by checking association bylaws. If you’re concerned about having a landlord who will want to convert his or her space into a vacation rental, pursue neighborhoods or condo communities that have bylaws restricting Airbnb and other short-term rental use. Inquire about bylaws or association rules with the landlord, leasing agent or property manager.

“Condo buildings are starting to change their bylaws to either make Airbnb impossible or very restricted,” McCreary says.

Check again down the line. Real estate trends tend to be cyclical, so if a building was just out of your price range before, once new inventory comes on the market, it’s possible that same place could come back within your budget.

“They’re building so much that there’s a lot of inventory for one- and two-bedrooms,” Tom says, noting that in San Francisco, rents are slightly down for smaller apartments, while rental rates are up for three- and four-bedroom units because there isn’t as much development of the larger spaces.

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