When it comes to affordable housing and gentrification in Raleigh, I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers. But I would like to suggest that I might be able to help with at least one answer. 

If you follow the contentious debate about affordable housing in Raleigh at all, you know a common refrain is that there is no single answer, but success will require a combination of many different answers and solutions. 

Meanwhile, if you recognize my name, it may be because you heard it during Raleigh’s six-year battle over the legalization of short-term rentals via platforms like Airbnb. Or you may have heard my name associated with the “Save Six” movement in Five Points a few years ago which was launched to prevent the destruction of six older homes that provided affordable housing for renters downtown. 

As far as “Save Six” goes, I helped convince the Hayes Barton Baptist Church, which owns the homes, to tear down as few of the houses as possible for their expansion project and then designate those homes which could be “saved” as affordable workforce housing for local teachers, healthcare workers, and first responders. 

On the Airbnb front, I was the first person in Raleigh cited for having a short-term rental in my house. Rather than roll over when I got the citation requiring me to pay up to $500 a day for every day I continued to rent out the granny unit in my house, I kept renting the room out and fought City Hall. And finally won. 

I began renting out the room on Airbnb in October 2014, and over the next five and a half years until the beginning of the COVID lockdown, that room enabled us to earn almost $110,000 in income. 

I also learned a lot of new lessons about business, met a lot of great people, and learned to be a great ambassador for the City of Raleigh to the people who stayed at my house.  

One of the reasons I have always been such an enthusiastic promoter of short-term rentals in Raleigh is that I have always believed that a platform like Airbnb could be leveraged to provide additional value beyond making money. For instance, I think the Airbnb platform offers great tools that could be used by a city like Raleigh to help address affordable housing. 

Take my house. Renting one room in my house as a short-term rental paid our entire mortgage every month. For over five years. That’s affordable housing. And it was Airbnb that made it possible for us and lots of other folks throughout Raleigh to create their own affordable housing plans.

But what about people who are at risk of losing their homes because of gentrification or for other financial reasons? 

 Could platforms like Airbnb be used to help them turn their existing homes into affordable housing, too? 

And just to add a curveball: Could Airbnb also be used to help create new tourism and cultural outreach opportunities for the City of Raleigh?

If I was in charge, here’s how I would make all of that happen:

Over at the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau’s website, there’s a page that lists more than 50 “African-American Heritage Attractions in Raleigh, N.C.” Have you ever heard of these sites? I’ve shown this webpage to lots of people, and their responses are almost always one of complete surprise. 

Meanwhile, there is little correlation between where those sites are and where most Airbnbs are located in Raleigh. 

That, to me, means there are two great missed opportunities: 

• The first opportunity is for the City of Raleigh to promote these Heritage Sites together as a tourism destination that offers great educational opportunities and positive social impact;

• The second opportunity is to help at-risk residents and others in Heritage Site neighborhoods to use their homes as short-term rentals. 

Successfully combining these two efforts will help people stay in their homes, help preserve the historic culture of these neighborhoods, and offer those who stay in a short-term rental in these neighborhoods a unique “visit and live-it” experience. Meanwhile, beyond providing those who offer places in their homes to visitors on Airbnb with income that can dramatically reduce their cost of housing and ensure they can stay in their homes, it will also teach them valuable business skills.

In addition, this plan helps the City of Raleigh address one aspect of affordable housing and gentrification, while also bringing more tourist dollars to Raleigh. Success would also help the City of Raleigh continue to position itself as a city of creative thinking and creative solutions and innovation. 

Over the years, I’ve shared this idea with lots of people, including former Mayor McFarlane and Councilor Corey Branch, to business people like Larry Larson from Larry’s Coffee. Lots of people said, “Great idea!” but no one raised their hand to help amplify the message. I even tried talking with some of Airbnb’s biggest opponents in Raleigh, former Councilors Stef Mendell and Russ Stephenson, about this while they were still in office. 

But that was then. Short-term rentals were still technically illegal in Raleigh. At the same time, priorities in the City of Raleigh were very different. Today, short-term rentals in the City of Raleigh are legal. And when it comes to affordable housing, according to Mayor Baldwin, “Housing affordability was the central issue of my campaign for Mayor last year, as well many of our Council members.”

Could short-term rentals play a role in helping to address Raleigh’s gentrification and housing affordability issues?

 What do you think, Raleigh? Is it worth a try? 

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