When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bars and concert halls in the US in March, a new phenomenon was born: the vacation-rental nightclub.
Professional party promoters started scanning Airbnb, Vrbo and other short-term rental sites for mansions and luxury condos for hire. Tickets were going for US$90 on Eventbrite and TikTok for soirees with bottle service and DJs.
“People were looking to escape from their own homes and came into our tiny neighborhood to party all day, every day,” said Kristen Robinson Doe, a resident of a quiet suburban Dallas neighborhood, where a party pad was being rented out for more than US$1,000 a night.
The five-bedroom home, with a resort-style pool, hot tub, outdoor kitchen and mini-golf putting green, was booked back-to-back through the summer.
Doe watched in disbelief as strangers streamed through the gates every weekend and danced until dawn, unmasked, inebriated — and in clear violation of social distancing protocols.
Host Compliance LLC, which gathers data on short-term rental properties in more than 100 cities in the US, found a 250 percent spike in complaints from June to last month, compared with the same period last year.
Party promoters quickly figured out “they can rent short-term rentals, create one-night nightclubs and make a lot of money from it,” said Ulrik Binzer, chief executive officer of Host Compliance, which helps municipalities navigate home-sharing rules.
Selling tickets for house parties on Eventbrite and Instagram is “something we’ve never seen before,” said Binzer, who has worked in the industry for five years.
Airbnb Inc and Expedia Group Inc’s Vrbo have tried to crack down. Despite strict enforcement measures, the companies are struggling to curtail the events. If a listing is banned from Airbnb, it can often still be available on Vrbo and other sites, and vice versa. If a host — or guest — is blacklisted, they may rent another property under another person’s name.
Some professional party organizers even tell attendees to meet at a public location and ferry them to private homes so the address is never published online. Within half an hour, an empty house on a residential street can turn into a full-blown discotheque.
Party houses were around before COVID-19. They drew national attention last year after a fatal shooting on Halloween at an Airbnb in Orinda, California, left five people dead. That prompted Airbnb to ban party houses and boost efforts to combat abusive host and guest behavior.
Airbnb rolled out new safety policies and risk-detection technology to hunt down nuisance listings. It removed rule violators from the site and launched a “dedicated party house” rapid response team and a complaint hotline for neighbors.
Vrbo also has a “no tolerance” policy and a group tasked with ferreting out the guests who throw unauthorized parties, and the homeowners who knowingly allow them.
However, a summer of COVID-19 restrictions in cities has proven a challenge for enforcement.
Police across the US began fielding calls early in the season about suburban partygoers terrorizing neighborhoods. Complaints included drunk revelers urinating off balconies, setting hillsides alight with fireworks and even spitting at neighbors, claiming they had COVID-19.
The Los Angeles Police Department, Hollywood Division, had a 60 percent increase in radio calls related to party houses this summer compared with last, Captain Steven Lurie said.
Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, the division allocates four officers to police party houses.
“It’s not just an issue of public disturbance; we can’t allow them to become superspreader events,” he said.
In response to a spike in complaints, Airbnb in August bolstered its party-house policy, capping occupancy at 16. It also expanded prohibitions on people under 25 from making one-night reservations in the area in which they live.
Airbnb uses an automated system to flag potentially problematic reservations for manual review, and as a result has been able to identify and cancel almost 9,000 “high-risk reservations” in the US and Canada.
Separately, a team of 60 Airbnb agents trained specifically on party house take-downs have suspended more than 380 listings since August, Airbnb spokesman Ben Breit said.
The Dallas party house was one of them. It had already been blacklisted from Airbnb in January, after racking up complaints on the neighbor hotline, Breit said.
Before the suspension was over, the house became available again on the site under the name of a new property manager: Kristin Gerst.
“What I saw when COVID hit — and all of us short-term rental owners saw — was a plethora of low-class guests who disregard house rules,” said Gerst, who has managed short-term rentals in Dallas for three years and took over the property in February.
Prior to the pandemic, guests would leave Gerst “lovely thank you notes,” she said.
Now they leave food on the floor, cigarette butts on tabletops and piles of trash. One guest even burned her house rules book — which specifically stated no parties.
When people lie about their intentions before a booking, hosts have few options for recourse, Gerst said.
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