“Hotels are just boring,” explained Jack Thomas ’80, an Airbnb host in New Haven who is tired of the traditional traveling experience. While there are only a few hotels in the New Haven area, a quick search on Airbnb will uncover over fifty available rooms to rent. Ranging from a small bedroom for twenty dollars per night to a nine-hundred dollar per night cottage, the New Haven Airbnb market is flooded with different places to stay. And as I explored some of these locations, I found that Airbnb has no shortage of pleasant surprises.
Airbnb is a modern spin on the hospitality industry. To use the service, which has been termed “the Uber for hotels,” travelers log on to Airbnb.com and browse the city they are looking to visit. Interested guests can view the area’s available Airbnb rooms and their prices. The “House Rules” that the owner has set in place are also listed. Unlike a hotel, however, after a guest books an Airbnb, the host can approve or reject the guest based on their profile and reviews. While Airbnb hosts have been accused of racial profiling and unfair treatment of potential guests in the past, Airbnb does not punish hosts for refusing potential customers. When guests finally arrive at the Airbnb, experiences vary widely.
In order to capture some of these experiences in New Haven, I visited a few Airbnb hosts. My first stop was an apartment owned by Thomas and his partner Bruce Payne ’65. To enter their building, I had to weave my way through a family of homeless New Haven residents. I waited outside to be buzzed in and then took the elevator up a few floors. While the pictures online had looked nice, I could not say I was convinced of their legitimacy. The elevator doors opened, and Thomas met me at the door.
On stepping foot inside, I left New Haven and was transported to another reality. Art lined the domain, covering every square inch of wall space. Statues welcomed me in the kitchen and the cool texture of the hardwood floors was interrupted by the occasional ornate rug. Sunlight beamed into the makeshift art gallery and hand-crafted lamps lit the dark corners.
“There aren’t many places like this,” Thomas told me when I arrived at his apartment. Thomas and Payne have owned their residence for nine years. With a view of the New Haven Green, their studio apartment is about a five minute walk from campus. Both graduated from the university and Thomas was on the Alumni Board for a few years, so they are quite familiar with the area. “As soon as we found this place, we knew we fit in perfectly,” said Thomas.
“It’s our regular escape. Something to look forward to,” said Thomas. He and his partner have collected every piece of art and furniture in their residence over the past 50 years. Their Airbnb was like a library: every object had a story.
Thomas and Payne led me around like tour guides in a museum and were incredibly friendly and welcoming. They’ve been on Airbnb for five years, yet they’re available less than half of the time.
He likes to meet as many guests as possible, especially Yale families, and he’s met some “interesting people.”
“We’ve never had any bad experiences. One time, a woman broke our lasagna pan while she was cooking. It was no big deal; the pan was very cheap. We only found out because she went out and bought us a new one in its place,” Thomas told me.
For them, Airbnb is nice to make extra cash on the side. Because they have a second residence in New York City, where they spend much of their time, it “only makes sense” to rent out the place.
“We waited to see if it was a trustworthy and reliable site. Once we heard more about it, I signed us up and Airbnb sent us a few videos to watch,” Thomas said.
After that, Thomas was left on his own to do personal research. While he can contact Airbnb any time he wishes, he says that it’s not necessary.
“We never really needed to talk to the company. We mostly just follow the guidelines they leave,” said Thomas.
And that’s the most regulation Airbnb has, at least on the side of the host. On the guests’ side, Thomas described the process as “self-selecting,” as most of the guests at his Airbnb can afford the high price.
But why should someone choose to stay here instead of the Omni or the Study at Yale, which could be a little cheaper?
“This place is sophisticated,” Thomas explained.
Thomas doesn’t have the only Airbnb on the market. About a ten-minute walk east, I found an incredibly different environment. Closed storefronts outnumbered the open ones. Trash rolled like tumbleweeds and graffiti crept up the buildings like ivy. Again, with my expectations at a minimum, I met Scott Kramer on the corner. We walked to his building’s entryway—tucked behind a storefront and adjacent to a dumpster—and we rode the elevator upwards. When Kramer opened the door to his place, I was met not by his spouse, but instead by his two cats.
“They’re really a feature of our Airbnb,” Kramer said, “Some people embrace the cats and others are like ‘okay.’”
His place was friendly and modern. Neat stacks of magazines sat on the coffee table and books lined the shelves.
Kramer told me that a lot of visiting Yale parents stay at his place too, even though it’s not as close to campus. Last commencement weekend, they “forgot to change their rate,” and someone snagged the place for pretty cheap. Otherwise, Airbnb provides him and his partner Andy some extra cash on the side.
“It works as it is. Airbnb isn’t perfect or consistent, but it works pretty well,” Kramer told me, “It’s great in a city like New Haven.”
Hotels aren’t very numerous in his part of the city, and Kramer explained that some people don’t like to stay in the “hustle and bustle” of Yale’s campus. While Kramer doesn’t usually meet the people who stay at his residence, he does try to introduce himself if he’s around.
“We have to list that we have two cats on [Airbnb’s website] so that people aren’t surprised and usually people don’t mind. We had a woman who was apparently very excited about our pets and brought wine and cat toys because she liked them so much,” said Kramer.
He explained that his year on Airbnb has been an incredibly positive experience. Airbnb rewards good reviews, and Kramer and his partner want to hear what people have to say about them in order to improve. While there are very few regulations and he’s not exactly sure about the liability issues, Kramer has enjoyed the experience.
“It gives you some perspective. I feel like we get a small look into the hospitality industry, and we get better each time,” Kramer said.
While there are plenty of Airbnb’s in the New Haven area, there are only a few traditional bed and breakfasts left in the city. These places offer the business model of a “home away from home” and mostly appeal to guests looking for something more than just a place to rest. Thea Buxbaum owns Austin Street Inn, a renovated house about a fifteen minute bike ride north of campus. As I pulled up to the residence, I instantly noticed the appeal of the place. The house gave off an aura of historical charm. The interior of the Austin Street Inn was meticulously crafted and there was special attention paid to maintaining the historical aspects of the property. Much of the molding was original, and the floorboards creaked like any old house should. Buxbaum told me that authenticity was an important trait of the Austin Street Inn.
“It was slated to be demolished and replaced by condos,” Buxbaum said, “I’m a loyal preservationist and I was horrified at the prospect of the lovely, dilapidated house being torn down.”
The Austin Street Inn was originally constructed in 1820 as a house for one of the founding residents of New Haven. However, when Buxbaum bought the house, there was “only one legal bed and breakfast left in New Haven,” and she decided to start the business.
Austin Street Inn prides itself on its connection to the area. Buxbaum exclusively buys local and refuses to “opt out of the local and regional economy.” The contractors who helped remodel the house are a local company, and the manager Candice works with a nonprofit in New Haven. With a firm history here in Connecticut, Buxbaum fills the walls with local art and the rooms with furniture made in the state. The floors are still original and much of the wood is sturdy chestnut from the old house. She can name a restaurant for every palate, and she often offers advice for local attractions and performances.
“We have the equivalent of concierge services. Because we’re so connected in the area, we have great suggestions. We make it very personal because we love New Haven so much,” explained Buxbaum.
Additionally, unlike Airbnb, The Austin Street Inn meets all of the industry standards. Everyone who is employed is completely certified and there is an industrial sprinkler system and a fire alarm that “could wake up the entire neighborhood,” according the Buxbaum.
“People can feel safer at our Bed and Breakfast. Our place has been scrutinized and meets basic standards and regulations of the hotel industry,” explained Buxbaum.
She also loves to speak to the guests at the Austin Street Inn. She says that a lot of the guests at her place are foreigners from South America who want somewhere to stay outside of New York City. The Austin Street Inn feels like a home, according to Buxbaum, and it’s a good place to stop and rest in between stops around New England.
“We found this niche that we never marketed towards, but we’ve definitely focused on and embraced it,” Buxbaum told me about her foreign guests.
Taxi drivers regularly complain about the presence of Uber in the transportation industry. Surprisingly, Buxbaum says the startup Airbnb hasn’t cut into her business, but she did make a few modifications: She updated her website and made online booking more accessible. Otherwise, The Austin Street Inn still has just as many guests, and Buxbaum says it’s because of the amount of time the staff puts into the place.
“Our inn is very beautiful. Nothing to compare it to in the area. There just isn’t,” said Buxbaum, “there’s a conversation between this house and history; between the inn and the neighborhood which you won’t find anywhere else in New Haven.”
And while Airbnb has seemingly overwhelmed the city, it doesn’t seem to have cut into the existing market. Even the Omni Yale Hotel commented to The Politic that it “has not been affected by the recent growth of Airbnb” and that while consumers do check out every available option, the Omni has “been ready to capture [its] share of the market.” This harmony within the hospitality market seems too good to be true, but every choice offers its own benefits. Hotels are rather traditional and are always a safe bet with constant pricing.
However, Airbnb and the traditional bed and breakfast bring something that a hotel never could: personality. Each owner has crafted their unique look and feel to their residence, and it’s apparent why many travelers choose to skip the hotels in the New Haven area.
“The lack of hotels in the area makes New Haven great for Airbnb,” said Kramer, “and I feel like hosts can add their own personal touch, which just makes a stay more enjoyable.”
Whether it’s fuzzy cats, hundreds of pieces of art, or a historical feel mixed with modern amenities, these magnificent hotel substitutes are tucked away within New Haven neighborhoods —and residents may not even know they exist. These hidden microcultures within an already-thriving city show that individuality can go a long way to improving the experience of a visitor.
“Hotels are fine, but the entire industry needed an upgrade. Airbnb lets people actually live and breathe the culture of the city they’re visiting, and it gives hosts an opportunity to exchange stories and experiences with their guests. It’s almost magical,” explained Thomas.