For many nomadic week-to-week renters, this past year’s been both terrifying and enlightening.
Imagine: The end of the world begins, and you wake up living in a house full of zombies.
Last March, as restrictions and lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic began to get serious in Boston, that is how I felt. At the time, as is still the case now, I was living in an Airbnb in Brighton, and as a result of my living situation, the apocalypse hit that much closer to home, or rather my lack thereof.
For someone like me, who doesn’t know what to do with his life and who doesn’t have enough money for the three or four months you have to pay in advance to rent a room (first and last and deposit plus broker fee), Airbnb seemed like a solid way to find places before the pandemic. In Brighton, I pay $240 a week for a bright and spacious room with a queen-size bed, two convenient desks with comfortable chairs, useful cabinets, and four windows. The three-story home has 10 bedrooms, four nice bathrooms, and a spacious and meticulously equipped kitchen—all recently restored. Also Wi-Fi and laundry. In addition to being a comfortable and inexpensive place to live, compared to other options in and around Boston, Airbnb was my best bet because, as a freelance journalist, when I have to travel, I simply leave for the allotted time and do not have to pay for weeks that I’m away.
After the coronavirus arrived, however, Boston became a ghost town, and unknown people kept arriving at my Airbnb to stay for a few days. Those zombies, with their unrecognizable faces and deadly habits, could kill you with their breath; or by opening the door of the house, the bathroom, or the refrigerator; or by tapping a frying pan.
I am not alone in living under these pandemic conditions.
Most of the people who have come to stay for just a few days during the pandemic have been backup nurses from all over the country and abroad. I have barely exchanged more than a few words with any of them, though from their license plates I have deduced that two came from Texas, one from California, two from Minnesota, and another from Nevada.
They hardly ever use the kitchen, usually preferring delivery food that they eat behind locked doors in their rooms. They enter and leave at untimely hours and I rarely even see them, though one morning I was able to thank one of them for her work by inviting her to breakfast. Marie is a French nurse and was on vacation in the US when the pandemic started. As part of her studies here, she has been allowed to practice on a volunteer basis.
Sharing close quarters with strangers can be odd, scary even, but that doesn’t mean that some of them aren’t good people.
The fear of contagion from living in an Airbnb during the COVID scourge gets diluted as one gets used to taking proper precautions, and also learns to trust that others also take the virus seriously.
Still, for the kinds of working people who live in these rooms, the biggest dangers aren’t necessarily posed by other tenants.
Among those who live in my Airbnb for the long term is Enrique, a young Colombian who has taken advantage of various pandemic opportunities through modern web apps. At the beginning of the crisis, he was driving for Lyft and Uber, but stopped out of a fear of being infected by a passenger. All his fellow temporary tenants rejoiced at the decision.
Still, Enrique hasn’t stopped being productive. In the mornings, he works for Uber Eats: “Bro, these gringos are crazy,” he reports in Spanish with a chuckle. “There are those who pay more than $25 dollars for a coffee because what the drink is worth, what the delivery costs, and the tip they leave. On top of that, the coffee comes cold.”
Enrique checks for potential orders via Instacart, Doordash, and Drizly until he finds one that might make him some decent money. At specific hours in the afternoon, he ogles the Amazon app until he finds a block with more than $80 in profit that he can deliver in 45 minutes. Hearing Enrique talk about his daily adventures in our shared kitchen as we cook together has become one of my favorite pastimes during the pandemic; there are some days when he makes more than $300 in six work hours.
Living under the same roof, using the same appliances, it’s been impossible for me to keep socially distant from Enrique. On the positive side, he’s taught me to cook Colombian arepas and tamales with chocolate and cheese.
Marcus and Nina
A common profile of medium and long-term tenants this year on Airbnb is someone who was about to move into a house, rented or bought, and who could not do so because evictions were prohibited by the emergency moratorium and the previous tenants didn’t move out.
That is the case of Nina and her son Marcus. The young man in his twenties spent all day, every day, leaving the Airbnb to get stoned in his car parked in front of the house starting at six in the morning. Buying weed got a bit difficult at the beginning of the pandemic and Marcus became my supplier. In return, I taught him how to cook lentils with chorizo, tortilla española, and paella valenciana. I explained to him the characteristics and differences between the different types of Spanish chorizos and Puerto Rican rums.
A kind housemate in her own right, Nina gave me a bottle of three-star Ron Del Barrilito to thank me for everything I taught her son. She often insisted that I try to convince him to do something with his life besides smoking pot. They left the Aribnb at the end of the summer when they finally managed to rent an apartment. I never told Nina that Marcus was my dealer.
Much of my time during the pandemic has been spent in the Airbnb kitchen. There, I’ve had a rich time with Nazeek, a young Muslim woman from Sudan. Like Enrique, she was already living at the Airbnb when I arrived in March and is still living there today.
Nazeek is an agronomic engineer, and back in her home country was a government official with the department of agriculture. The income from that job was not enough to live with dignity, and so she emigrated. When I met Nazeek, she worked at a Dunkin’ Donuts, but her hours were cut due to the pandemic. Eventually, she stopped working altogether.
The pandemic break was good for Nazeek’s studies, as she’s training to be a nurse in this country. In the meantime, she cooks the best custard and lamb dishes I have ever eaten. She misses her mother very much; that distance is what hurts her most about being here. Sometimes, when we’re together in the kitchen, she tells me about the traditions of her land, home of the beautiful Blue Nile.
Michael and Michelle
Michael and Michelle have spent the entire pandemic jumping from Airbnb to Airbnb.
The couple arrived in December at the house where I live carrying backpacks, suitcases, and contractor trash bags loaded with things. They were going to move into a new rented house when the pandemic began. The previous tenants refused to leave as the crisis exploded and they lost their jobs, and Michael and Michelle found themselves living in hotels first, and then Airbnbs.
Michael doesn’t want to talk about his pre-pandemic past, nor will he tell me how he makes a living. In his 50s, he recalls how the pandemic hit Mass in March, when restrictions began along with the closure of certain businesses.
Across the country, 30 million lost their jobs, so a state of emergency moratorium was put in place so that those who could not pay their rent could not be evicted. Michael explains that many people who were planning to move, who had even left their previous houses, suddenly changed their plans.
Michael and Michelle first went to a hotel in the suburbs, but April came and many of those places either closed or were designated exclusively for essential workers. So began their journey through the Greater Boston Airbnbs. These days, they’re experts on the subject of short-term rentals.
Sometimes, the couple stays for several months. Other times, they bounce after a few days, all depending on how comfortable they are and how clean the accommodations are. Everything has happened to them, from arriving at apartments where the photos on the Airbnb website did not correspond with reality, to having a group of drugged and disoriented young people invade their private space.
At one point, Michael says the availability of Airbnb in the city fell by about 60%. As one host explained to him, some commercial cleaning companies stopped providing their services to the rental units due to their employees contracting coronavirus. Even with this decrease in supply, prices dropped by roughly 50%, presumably because demand had also fallen. Many Airbnbs began to empty. Michelle and Michael arrived at apartments where they rented a single room, but had the whole house to themselves.
Michael says Airbnb has done a great service to society during the pandemic. Along with Michelle, he’s met students; nurses; researchers from many US states, including Hawaii, and from Yemen, Singapore, Korea, Saudi Arabia, Germany, and Italy. The couple told me about a teacher he met in one apartment; the guy had temporarily separated from his wife, also a teacher, and his children as a firewall against a possible infection. This way, they guaranteed that if one of the parents was infected, the other could take care of the children.
In their own routines, Michelle and Michael use their own dishes and kitchen utensils, and sanitize all surfaces before and after cooking. They say they take “standard precautions … just common sense stuff.
“Look for hosts with good housekeeping references,” Michael says.
“We love to meet people from all around the world,” he adds. “You don’t have conversations with people in a hotel, you say hello in the elevator or have a beer alone at the bar. In the Airbnb, you cook with other people. You sit on the porch and you end up talking to someone from anywhere in the world.”
The cancellation of the Boston Marathon, college graduations, conventions, and Boston Calling, plus any number of other major events, destroyed business for many Airbnb operators. Not all of them are individuals trying to get some extra income by renting a room in their house, though certainly those people have felt the pain as well.
Michelle and Michael have met many hosts for whom Airbnb is their main business. One has 40 buildings dedicated to Airbnb. There’s probably not too much sympathy out there for these types of hosts, whose impact on the local housing market is controversial to put it mildly; nonetheless, they are seemingly the ones who have suffered the most from the pandemic.
It’s not all bad news; according to an industry analysis of hotel and short-term rentals covering the time period between January 2019 through the end of last June, average daily rates were higher for rentals in mid-2020 versus the previous July. But that data’s rooted in the vacation and luxury markets, with average nightly room rentals north of $300. Such statistics may be hopeful for the larger hospitality industry, but for those who own, operate, or rent $30-a-night futons, these are hardly boom times.
In June and July, Airbnb prices in Boston rose. In August, they began to fall again. Meanwhile, the platform’s business model also changed during the pandemic; it’s still a resource for vacations, sure, but for many it’s also a lifeline to sheer survival.
By the end of 2020, Airbnbs that had been left empty by the cancellations of events were filled again with students who had been removed from campuses and dormitories, and who were not willing or able to return home. More and more researchers, doctors, and nurses have also turned to Airbnbs; some are passing through, others want to be closer to the hospitals where they work and avoid driving many miles home and risking infecting family members after hellish shifts.
Despite the pandemic, 2020 was the year that I traveled the most. For different reasons, I flew twice to Puerto Rico, traveled through North and South Dakota, and covered the last elections in Bolivia as a journalist.
When I returned to my usual Airbnb at the end of November, the first snow had already wiped out the last of the tomatoes growing in the yard. As I walked up to the door, I saw Nazeek parking her new Corolla in front of the house. She was wearing scrubs. That’s great, I thought, she finally started her new career.
“What’s your work consist of?” I asked.
Nazeek got a job in a nursing home. Humble and proud, with her big Blue Nile smile, the former agronomist explained.
“Basically, what I do is help the elderly to do everything that they can no longer do.
“It’s nothing fancy, but I like it.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of its initiative to report on housing, homelessness, and related issues. To support this kind of independent news coverage, please contribute at givetobinj.org.