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August 27th, 2014 AARON MESH | Cover Story
 

In the Companies Of Strangers

I spent a week renting from Airbnb, Uber and other sharing-economy startups. Here's what your neighbors are up to.

lede_scroller_4043ILLUSTRATION: Todd Saucier

The summer wind presses Marquam Hill like the dank breath of a stranger talking too close. I’m lying on the hardwood floor of a barely furnished apartment along with two dentists, a Bronx high-school teacher and a tourist from Stuttgart, who’s watching The Dark Knight dubbed in German on his laptop.

I’ve paid $43 to sleep on the floor with four men I’ve never met before. My back hurts, I worry that my stirring is keeping my new roommates awake, and every time I drift off someone gets up to use the toilet.

I’m starting to think this was a bad idea.

I landed on this patch of floor via the website Airbnb because I’m trying to understand why everyone in Portland seems eager to rent out everything they own—homes, cars, bikes, kayaks and even goats. It’s been called the “sharing economy,” this surge of direct exchanges between people connected by an app.

More than 1,600 Portlanders are loaning out their houses, apartments or spare rooms to visitors on Airbnb. Across the Columbia River in Vancouver, customers use Uber to hail people driving their own cars to taxi them around. Here and elsewhere, regular citizens rent out their cars on Getaround and RelayRides, their boats and tents on Ayoopa, and their bikes, skis and surfboards on Spinlister.

Startups now operate in New York and San Francisco that allow people to rent designer dresses, office cubicles and Legos. Portland residents are using DogVacay to hire neighbors to board their pets. This summer, a man in the Sunnyside neighborhood became the first Portlander to place a listing on EatWith, a meal-sharing site. He offered to cook guests an English sausage breakfast for $28.

In the future, everyone will get to rent your stuff for 15 minutes.

The bigger sites, such as Airbnb and Uber, go after existing industries that require heavy capital investment—vehicles and buildings, for example. Their members simply use existing investment, the ownership of their stuff, to undercut prices and tailor services to consumers. Do this on a wide enough basis and you have what economists call disruption. The startups, meanwhile, collect a percentage of this redirected spending: Airbnb is valued at $10 billion, Uber at $18 billion, all for providing a virtual service.

The sharing economy is a libertarian idea: Anything can be a moneymaker, and business works better when people do it themselves. Maybe that’s why it suits Portland, where homebrewers are heroes, and customers want to know their cheesemaker.

It’s not the economics I’m trying to understand here. It’s the desire to connect.

The sharing economy attracts people who want to create a sense of connection with strangers—they prefer someone’s spare bedroom to a Marriott, or a lived-in car to an impersonal taxi. It’s all about cutting out faceless corporations and prevailing industries by seeking out people like themselves on the other end of their iPhone.

My reaction to this phenomenon has been bafflement, suspicion and dread. I cherish my personal space. I love the structured anonymity of hotels, with safety codes, health inspections and a squad of trained hospitality professionals on hand for my needs. The idea of letting a tourist sleep in my apartment causes me to catalog the darkest possible outcomes. Who would expose their life to a stranger for a few dollars? 

It doesn’t feel like an economy of sharing. It’s oversharing.

The best way to understand what’s going on here—and face my fears—is with a headfirst plunge. For a week, I’ll sleep in a baby’s nursery and in an Airstream trailer, and get around in other people’s cars and on other people’s bikes.

To reach the furthest edge of the sharing economy, I’ll rent at the cheapest rates I can find. That’s how I ended up on the floor of a place advertised online as “OHSU Quiet Chill Crash Pad 1.”

Let the sharing begin.


ROOM AND BOARDS: Jason Kung offers bedrolls, blankets and pillows to people sleeping on the floor of. his Marquam Hill apartment. When his two rooms are crowded with guests, he sleeps on the balcony.
IMAGE: nataliebehring.com


Jason Kung has turned a fake-wood bookshelf in his living room into a tiny concierge’s station, stacked with fresh towels, sample-sized soaps and TriMet schedules for bus route No. 8. His Airbnb is one of six units in a beige, two-story apartment complex, tucked amid the dingy housing that surrounds Oregon Health & Science University.

Kung, who’s dressed in a plaid shirt and doctor’s blue scrub pants, is an OHSU dental resident from Santa Clara, Calif. He recalls the sense of waste he felt after spending his first night in Portland at the Inn at Marquam Hill.  “I paid $100,” he recalls, “just to wake up.”

Kung now runs what amounts to a men’s dorm, renting through Airbnb. He doesn’t rent to women and will take couples only if they agree not to have sex in his apartment.

Elsewhere, Airbnb is engaged in battles with cities because of the threat it poses to the lodging industry and because people object to neighbors turning their spare rooms into motels.

But the San Francisco-based startup has leveraged its experience in Portland to buy itself legitimacy. Earlier this year, the company agreed to locate a call center here. The city made some of Airbnb’s previously rogue operations legal by changing zoning code.

And Airbnb volunteered to start collecting the 11-percent lodging tax that goes to the city and Multnomah County (“City for Rent,” WW, July 9, 2014).

Despite this new legitimacy, Kung talks about his cash flow in a hushed tone. “I’m not sure I’m supposed to say this,” Kung tells me, “but in July, I made more than $1,000.”

That’s enough to cover his rent and utilities. On the night I stayed there, Kung has rented all four of his listings—all in the same apartment. His prices vary. The floor costs $37 a night (plus tax), while a twin bed goes for $60. The most economical is a balcony overlooking a wooded canyon that will run you $27.

ILLUSTRATION: Todd Saucier
A German tourist named Moritz has the balcony. When Kung leaves the apartment, Moritz pulls out a Mason jar of marijuana, lights a 4-inch spliff and offers me a hit. I decline. “I’m not really a ‘weed person,’” he says, while naming the strains—Blue Dream and OG Kush—given to him by pot farmers he visited outside Grants Pass. (Kung later tells me he didn’t know his guest brought weed.)

Max, a dental extern wearing a Baltimore Orioles cap, has been staying at other Airbnb rentals while working at OHSU. “This one is closer,” he says. “It has a parking space.” There’s a long pause. “And it’s cheaper.” Then he issues a warning, “I’ll be setting my alarm for 6 am.”

It’s all very awkward. My floormates and I seem to have drawn invisible lines around ourselves, isolated in a room with little space.

As I try to get to sleep, I wish I had paid extra for the bed. When I wake, everyone is gone except Paul, a teacher from New York who had come in after midnight. He’s been staying in hostels while traveling through the Northwest. It’s his first Airbnb rental and probably his last.

It’s impersonal, he says, then shrugs.

“I just need a place to crash,” he tells me as he’s strapping on his backpack. “I don’t really need a bed. Although it’s preferable.”


EXPECTING GUESTS: Christine Sullivan is renting her unborn daughter’s nursery on Airbnb. “I’m just trying to get some things done before she gets here,” Sullivan says. “I have maybe a month and a half.”
IMAGE: cameronbrowne.com


Three nights later, I fear I’ve contaminated the crib of an unborn baby.

Christine Sullivan has rented me a bedroom in her home on Northeast Dekum Street for $61. It’s got gray, stenciled elephants marching along the walls, spraying pink hearts out their trunks. I’ll sleep in a full-sized bed topped by a blue pillow with glow-in-the-dark rocket ships. The bed is next to the wooden crib that will soon hold her daughter, Audrey, who’s due in September.

My host has a soft smile, hip plastic-framed glasses, and a black-and-white striped shirt stretched over her belly. She serves me a vegan chocolate cupcake and opens a baby present while we talk.

“It’s a baby monitor!” she crows. “Yay!”

At 42, Sullivan is having her first child. “I got to an age where I hadn’t met anybody, and I decided I’m ready to be a mom,” she says. “I’m so excited to meet her.”

She works three jobs—as a middle-school science teacher, a nanny and a private tutor, but needs extra cash for the mortgage.

“Making money in your third trimester, this is a fairly easy way to do it,” she says.

But I’m dubious. Isn’t it awkward having people she doesn’t know invade her baby’s nursery? No, she says. She’s had roommates for years. “It doesn’t seem that strange to me,” she says.

But there’s one big rule: no smoking on the property—especially not in the backyard, where the smoke will blow right into the baby’s room.

But I really want a Camel. I tell Sullivan I’m going for a walk but instead stop at the corner and light up. I feel guilty—like I’m betraying the trust of a pal.

Walking back into the house, guilt turns to panic. She must smell the smoke on me. I’m sullying the place she’s prepared for Audrey. I sit down at the far end of the couch and, without betraying any suspicions, she invites me to join her for a show I’ve never seen, the BBC America series Orphan Black. She explains the background of characters and gasps at the plot twists before the commercial breaks.

It’s not quite like spending the evening with an old friend. But for $61, it comes pretty close.


ALL HAIL UBER: John Lauck found the Uber ad recruiting drivers on Craigslist. Now he uses his iPhone to claim riders who order a ride in Vancouver, Wash.
IMAGE: cameronbrowne.com


John Lauck is driving me in circles.

He’s chatting away while trying to ferry me out of a Popeyes parking lot in Vancouver, Wash. We do laps of the lot before he pulls his green Toyota Camry into the road and nearly strikes the median.

“Oh my gosh!” he says. “The talking and driving, they don’t go together so well.”

I’ve spent the evening hailing rides through Uber, a phone app that connects you with everyday people who will charge you for a ride in their cars. It’s banned in Portland, where the city taxi board (and pressure from unions) has kept out the San Francisco-based startup.

The closer the sharing economy gets to duplicating an existing industry, the more of a threat it becomes. Airbnb appeals to people who don’t want to stay in traditional hotels. (Even the most lavish place I stayed—a 1986 silver Airstream trailer hidden in a King neighborhood grape-and-honeybee garden—still felt more like camping.)


Take a closer look at the Airbnb rental made out of an Airstream trailer.


But an Uber ride is like a cab ride, except faster and cheaper. Taxi drivers here see the threat: Radio Cab and Broadway Cab have bought into an app called Curb that tries to mimic Uber.

I go to Vancouver, where there’s not much to do in the evening. So to get the Uber experience, I just hail rides between downtown and the Westfield Mall. I tap my iPhone, a virtual pin drops and I watch as a tiny digital cab on a map draws closer to my location. I also see a photo of my driver, Levi. He pulls up in a 2006 Ford Five Hundred SEL. He’s a 34-year-old merchant mariner on three months’ shore leave who loves the disruptive nature of Uber.

“It’s way more competitive than a taxi,” he says. “It’s way cheaper. I once waited four hours in South Carolina for a taxi.”

ILLUSTRATION: Todd Saucier

“Four hours?” I ask. He tells me a long story of being stranded in a sketchy neighborhood. He’s proud to be part of a movement he calls a “decentralizing” force.

“It’s exciting to be one of the OGs of Uber,” he says. “But in Vancouver? I don’t know how much that’s worth.”

My second driver is Lauck, a portly 53-year-old with a trim white mustache that matches his crisp dress shirt. This is his third night driving for Uber.

“Would you care for some water, by chance?” Lauck asks, and grabs me a Fred Meyer bottled water from the armrest console. He says the Uber training video suggested winning customer approval with such perks. He also offers me butterscotch candies.

Lauck is worried about his rating. After every ride, the driver and passenger in an Uber cab get to score each other from one to five stars on the app. He’s got five stars after having just three customers. If his average dips below 4.86 stars, Lauck says, Uber will yank his contract.

The driver also rates the passenger, allowing future drivers to know whether they want to pick the fare. He pledges to give me a perfect rating, which he does for every customer. “As long as you don’t throw up in my cab,” he says, “I don’t care.”

He’s keeping $17.84 of my $22.30 fare. (The same trip in a Radio Cab costs me $26.50, not counting the tip.)

I promise Lauck he’s getting five stars. He then gets lost. He doesn’t know Vancouver. He’s lived in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland his whole life. We’re trying to find where I parked my car. It’s dark, I’m giving bad directions, and he’s trying to read my destination on his iPhone. We’re going in circles again.

He tells me he was an environmental inspector at wind-turbine sites, but he’s been out of work for 26 months. “I saved up money for a rainy day,” he says. “I didn’t expect the rain to last this long.”

He met with Uber recruiters in Vancouver in July, watched the training video, and got his car inspected. He also filled out a background check—which Uber says is evidence against taxi-industry claims the company is unregulated and dangerous.

“It was so generic, I actually forgot I spent the five minutes filling it out,” Lauck says, steering the Camry south. “It was about as painless a transition to a job as I’ve ever had in my life.”

I like talking to him, so I decide to leave my car in Vancouver and have him drive me home to Portland. Uber cabs can deliver to Portland, they just can’t pick up here.

Lauck confesses he doesn’t want to drive an Uber car for long. He’s training to become a certified nursing assistant, and plans to open his own home care facility for the elderly—a recession-proof business, he hopes.

“I was just sort of floundering,” he says. “But I’m not giving up. You can’t give up.”


SPIN CITY: Corey Osman and Jenn Dymond rent out bicycles on the app Spinlister, and offer them to their Airbnb guests. “We’re not going at this as strict capitalists,” Dymond says, “looking for profit margins.”
IMAGE: cameronbrowne.com


Corey Osman is convinced I’m a thief.

I’ve rented his $550 Motobecane five-speed bicycle from his Concordia neighborhood home. I picked up the white bike in the morning and promised to be back by 6 pm. But I am a lousy cyclist. My pedaling is slow and steady, but I wobble and dismount whenever I hit the brakes.

I’m 45 minutes late, and Osman resigns himself to the likelihood that I stole his bike.

“When you didn’t show up at 6,” he later tells me, “I was like, ‘Oh, shit. He could have faked a profile. Did you check his identification? That bike is gone now.’”

That’s also part of the sharing economy: risk. Osman and his wife, Jenn Dymond, have gambled that the bike they rented to me through Spinlister will come back as promised. In fact, that morning Dymond had given me a suspicious look and asked how long it had been since I’ve ridden a bike. I tell her a half-truth: “It’s been a while.” It had actually been 18 years.

“Well,” she says, “it’s just like riding a bicycle.”


Watch a WW reporter attempt to ride his rented bicycle.


I rent the bike for the day for $25—of that, $20.63 goes to the Osmans. Two days after I rent the bike, I drive a beige Prius (rented on Getaround, another sharing app) back to visit the Osmans. I sip coffee and they drink blackberry and kale smoothies as they tell me how they got started in the sharing economy.

In February, the couple moved into their new home. It’s got solar panels and is twice the size of any other house on the block.

Osman, 35, is a Apple consultant who spends a lot of time in San Jose, Calif. In June, he and Dymond, 33, decided to fill the house’s empty rooms using Airbnb.

“Stranger danger is a big issue with the sharing economy,” Dymond says. “Your first thought is, ‘Are they a murderer?’ But all the people we’ve met, they’ve been wonderful.”

They bought the bike specifically to loan it out to guests, and then started using Spinlister to monetize it. Like the bigger sharing-economy apps, Spinlister transforms Portland into a Google map filled with potential rentals. Click on the icon of a nearby bicycle, and you can reserve wheels by the hour or day.

“Most of our guests don’t have cars,” Dymond says. “I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ve got these bikes, too.’”


The sharing economy thrives because it lacks the structure of traditional businesses, but its conspicuous weakness is that it makes the people who take part in it vulnerable.

When I started this week of borrowing spaces and things, I expected the people I’d meet to be opportunistic or crazily naive. I thought they were taking huge risks that benefit unaccountable corporations, just so they could get a little taste of the profit.

I still think that. But sitting in Christine Sullivan’s living room, next to her baby gifts, I envy her trust in people. I wish I had her optimism about opening up her life. It’s like how hearing a love song when you’re not in love can make you want to cry.

After a week of sharing the city, what I can’t get over is how many people trusted me. They let me into their bathrooms, handed me their car keys, and pledged to give me five stars if I’d return the favor. They made me want to join their hope: That we’ll all be better off if we rely on each other.

Earlier I had asked Sullivan whether it’s awkward to have visitors in her unborn child’s nursery. I wanted to know if it made her feel at all vulnerable. So I asked her, “Doesn’t letting strangers sleep in your unborn daughter’s room seem…strange?”

“It doesn’t,” she told me. “My mom was nervous that people were coming through my house. I was like, ‘Mom, they’re paying $50. They’re nice people.’” 


DESK JOB

Hailey H. stares at my desk. It looks like a tornado blew through a government-records archive, then Diet Coke cans rained down from a bottling-plant explosion.

She searches for something nice to say.

“It’s very well lived-in,” she decides.

Hailey, who asked that her last name not be used, is a TaskRabbit. She’s one of several dozen people in Portland who keep a listing on the personal-assistance website, charging by the hour to clean, organize, deliver groceries, run errands or do research. There is, for example, a TaskRabbit page featuring Portlanders who will assemble your IKEA furniture.

The TaskRabbit site often gets lumped into the sharing economy, where definitions are malleable. But the people participating aren’t renting out their stuff. Instead, they’ve found a new place to advertise the kind of freelance help that used to be listed in the classifieds and Yellow Pages. Observers of tech trends call it the “gig economy”—people offering their services by the job.

Hailey charges up to $25 an hour for cleaning and organizing. For my office desk, she gets $50.


How big a cleaning job did Hailey have? Check out her reaction to Aaron Mesh's desk.


She digs through stale cookies, candy wrappers and soda cans. She holds up a sweater she uncovered deep in the paper pile, and drapes it over my chair.

She wants to throw papers and documents out, but I ask her to sort them instead. Soon, she’s uncovering receipts I was supposed to file as expenses but hadn’t seen in months.

“I found some amazing treasures,” she says, dangling a pair of iPhone earbuds. “Have you been looking for these?”

As Hailey shuffles manila folders, she tells me that advertising on TaskRabbit lets her work on her own schedule and find child care for her three kids, ages 10, 8 and 4. She’s making $1,000 a month from three regular customers. Her fiance, who does handyman work on TaskRabbit, is pulling in double that figure.

Meanwhile, TaskRabbit takes a 20-percent cut. Hailey says the company gives her free advertising for her services, while providing her with a W-9 tax form at the end of the year. It also conducts background checks on the people providing services—“so you know you’re not getting robbed blind, or maimed or killed.”

My desk gleams, polished with Hailey’s homemade cleaning spray, called “Purity.” Hailey says this was a standard job. “Most people,” she says, “when they call for a cleaning task, it’s because they really need help.” AARON MESH.

ILLUSTRATION: Todd Saucier

 

 
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