My neighborhood in Pittsburgh has been invaded by Airbnb guests
One evening this spring, as I was taking out the trash in front of my house in downtown Lawrenceville, our street was quiet. There was no one walking around, no cars driving down the road, and it was early enough that there were no longer any echoes of bar patrons on Butler Street.
Suddenly, two black SUVs pulled up, and what appeared to be between 12 and 14 women piled up outside. “Come on, Jessica… Hurry, Samantha. Let’s go now,” I heard over a flurry of loud exchanges. As the bags were being hauled up a set of stairs, I saw the leader, wearing her signature wedding veil, talking about another bachelorette party. They entered the house, and I remembered an all-too-familiar sight in my neighborhood: another set of short-term rental reservations on the weekend.
Even though I’m 37, I know I sound like a corny old man screaming ‘get off my lawn’. But rising short-term rentals are – in my humble opinion – eroding my neighborhood and my sense of community. Sometimes I feel like I’m screaming into the void when I tell others. Friends suggested simply moving out of Lawrenceville. Worse still, family members suggested moving to the suburbs. But at this point it seems as if my partner and I have settled into our home in central Lawrenceville. And I’ve probably been spoiled my whole life when it comes to having a strong community of neighbors.
I grew up in Buffalo in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the West Side, and I have fond memories of the events that brought the community together: the elaborate parties, the friends coming and going to neighboring houses unplanned. There were always large crowds of pranksters, and people would spill into the street to discuss worthwhile events.
I know, different time.
But even when I lived in Squirrel Hill, Pittsburgh during my twenties, I found comfort in the same neighborhood things. I felt a strong sense of community on isolated Fernwald Road, where I could practically name every one of my neighbors. I’ll never forget the day we moved in, when a family of four showed up from several doors down to ours with a whole chocolate cake and a promise to help with anything we needed. All we had to do was ask. Fernwald Road provided a strong sense of community.
We moved to 42nd Street in central Lawrenceville in 2018, mainly because the house we found was so quaint, it had a unique history combined with ample space. I’m also obsessed with the walkability to the shops on Butler Street.
But the atmosphere was different. There are no neighbors gathering in the streets to chat, no block parties, no doorbell ringing with chocolate chip cookies. We settled in and met a few neighbors here and there who would at least wave at us when we walked the dog, or check on how we were doing.
I was in the backyard one evening when I struck up a conversation with a group of our neighbors who have a yard crowded with ours. They flippantly mentioned that they sometimes rent their house as an Airbnb when they go out of town on weekends. Quite well, I thought – and it was. There are no crazy parties, and we rarely noticed most of the tenants except for the occasional screaming match on the weekend. However, that was in 2018, when short-term rentals had not yet taken hold.
Today, as I walk down the street, things are different. It’s become the norm for random drivers to drop off groups of people carrying suitcases, cars parked on sidewalks instead of parking spots because visitors want to be close to their rentals and the mysterious cones that provide spaces for people who don’t live here. Of the 24 homes on the block I live in in central Lawrenceville, I noticed six of them are being used as short-term rentals. There is speculation that another one is about to turn based on its September sale to an unidentified LLC.
When I’m walking dogs, it’s hard not to notice hanging lock boxes or installed electronic keypads. There is garbage that accumulates because there is no one to remove it every week, which sometimes leads to rat infestations. Our neighbor a few doors down constantly finds guests from nearby short-term rental homes parked in his driveway.
And of course we saw random Tuesday night parties spilling into the street, 25 to 30 kids deep. In fact, two Airbnbs have doors next door. It is a very perfect arrangement for a double house party.
The biggest difference is that there are no neighbors to fill those six houses, and I definitely remember my days in Squirrel Hill and Buffalo.
Lawrenceville isn’t the only neighborhood in the city seeing this problem. You may remember the 2022 fatal double shooting at an Airbnb in East Allegheny. That prompted Councilman Bobby Wilson to try to pass legislation to create a short-term rental registry, though implementation has been complicated by court decisions.
There is also the issue of affordable housing.
Take a look at the Airbnb right in front of us that in 2021 transitioned from a private residence to a New York City-based company for just $200,000. Although it’s not cheap, it’s certainly less expensive than most properties in Lawrenceville. It’s the perfect example of out-of-town companies picking up cheaper properties and renting them out. As property values continue to trend upward, these modestly priced homes are becoming fewer and fewer, only to be snagged by absentee landlords.
Last month, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance requiring inspections on all rentals (not just short-term), and establishing a requirement that landlords provide personal contact information. As someone who has seen what other cities are doing, I don’t think this plan will prevent more short-term rentals from popping up.
New Orleans is considering allowing only one short-term rental per city block. In Austin, placing a short-term rental in a residential area requires a license. Florence, Italy, is seeking an outright ban, and in Denver, you have to prove that the rental is also your primary residence and apply for a license. Such a system can prevent out-of-town companies from taking over low-income properties, and also allow you to rent out your home from time to time.
I see the purpose of short-term rentals, especially for homeowners wanting to make extra money. If I am visiting Pittsburgh I will enjoy staying in Lawrenceville! Go to Café Geppetto for breakfast, shop at Wildcard, late afternoon at Arsenal Bowl, then have dinner at The Vandal and drinks at Bar Botanico.
But Lawrenceville’s appeal as a destination has weakened its sense of community.
Over the past two years in Lawrenceville, we’ve gotten to know some neighbors who have moved in with the intention of staying. Back in Squirrel Hill, families are everywhere and people are out in much more places than they are here on 42nd Street.
Maybe I need to do more: Don’t talk about it, talk about it, as my partner and I like to say. Maybe I should knock on more doors, throw parties, and start up those random conversations you have while walking your dog. It’s hard to be a change when short-term rentals continue to change the landscape around me. However, if you move to 42nd Street, I might be the one with chocolate cake on your doorstep one day.
Andy Kelemen is a business director and small business owner in Pittsburgh, in the form of his own production company Dessert before dinnerIt can be accessed via its website.
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