The coronavirus pandemic has turned the tourism industry on its head. Hotels are struggling to fill rooms while their restaurants and events are shut down. All leisure travel is prohibited. In coastal communities where short-term rentals like Airbnb are popular, they, too, are feeling the pinch.

In San Mateo County, short-term rentals are allowed by virtue of falling under the “residences” category in the current shelter-in-place order. Local trends show that renters are continuing to serve guests, and some are even pivoting to providing longer-term stays.

Half Moon Bay resident and Realtor David Oliphant rents a private section of his home on Airbnb. In early spring, he fielded a slew of cancellations from international travelers who were expected to come later this year.

Oliphant purchased his home with the intention to rent part of it as a vacation rental. Without the prospects of travelers during the pandemic, he was worried about the lost revenue.

Then he got a request from a first responder who needed a place to isolate for a month from her family to keep them safe. Shortly after, he got another similar month-long request. It was a chance to keep his place rented out while abiding by the local health orders. But he said it wasn’t his only option.

“If the secondary market went away, we’d rent it long term,” Oliphant said. “... that is our backup plan.”

He said it’s not ideal because the space also doubles as a guesthouse, but without any other options he would consider it.

Some rental experts are speculating that short-term landlords like Oliphant may want to transition to longer-term rentals.

Ulrik Binzer, founder and CEO of Host Compliance, which is owned by data company Granicus Inc., said perhaps surprisingly that he isn’t seeing many differences in short-term rental listings. On average, there’s been about a 3 percent reduction in rentals.

Granicus works with 400 jurisdictions, including unincorporated San Mateo County, to help local governments monitor short-term rentals and ensure they’re complying with the laws. His company scans almost 50 sites, including Airbnb and Vrbo, to gather data and analyze market trends.

“It’s a little counterintuitive because there have been a lot of public health bans on short-term rentals,” Binzer said. “What we’re not seeing is

everyone stopping this practice at all.”

Binzer summarizes three different types of renters, all of whom are adapting to the pandemic differently. The first is mom and pop renters, who typically share the space with guests and can’t easily change their renting practices or transition to a long-term rental.

The second group, like Oliphant, rent out a separate space that they still use and are unlikely to give up to a full-time renter.

The third group is best poised to transition to long-term rental. These are what Binzer calls “professionals,” and have one or many rentals run as businesses. But even they are waiting to see what the long-term effects of the pandemic will be before deciding to convert.

Binzer sees the demand for short-term rentals making a comeback sooner rather than later.

“The market will be coming back, and it will be coming back with a vengeance,” Binzer said. “... People have been locked up for so long, going to a vacation rental seems less risky than going to a hotel.”

Binzer said that similar to the last recession, the economic fallout could create an increased need for supplementary income while also prompting a renewed focus on affordable housing. He projects even greater conflict between the two groups.

“I think cities and counties are going to have to side with the residents,” Binzer said. “Housing is a human right. You’re going to see more conflict and more restrictions on short-term rentals in the future.”

Evelyn Stivers, executive director of the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County, said she expects housing prices to increase on the coast as more people seek to leave densely populated areas and can now work remotely.

“If you can live anywhere, wouldn't you want to live where you can see the ocean?” Stivers said.

Her group is focusing on working with local cities and the county advocating for policies that ensure rentals are managed fairly. She said secondary units, like Airbnbs or rentals on a shared property, are tough to regulate because each case is different and relies on strong relationships between renters and guests. She said HLC is encouraging the city and county to provide loans in exchange for restricting and regulating rent.

In Half Moon Bay, at least one short-term rental has converted to a longer-term unit, according to Community Development Director Jill Ekas. She said there may be more similar occurrences, but the city won’t know that information for some time.

“That type of transition could be good for housing supply, at least in theory,” Ekas said. “That said, meaningful data is not evident or available yet.”

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