illustration of a man in a suite pondering on a colorful grid of houses, one of which is replaced by a gravestone
(Illustration: Liam Eisenberg)
Sundog’s Almanac of Ethical Answers

Help, I Booked a Professional Investor’s AirBnb!

Should a reader feel guilty about booking a short-term rental in a town beset by the housing crisis? Outside’s ethics columnist weighs in.

illustration of a man in a suite pondering on a colorful grid of houses, one of which is replaced by a gravestone
Liam Eisenberg

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Dear Sundog: I recently traveled to a popular mountain town for a family funeral. Because it was during peak season, hotel options were limited. I found an affordable Airbnb, which offered me the use of a kitchen (I have food allergies, so eating on the road can be tricky) and a real living space to unwind and decompress with grieving relatives, rather than perched awkwardly at a bar or on a hotel air vent.

The trip went smoothly, but when I got back I checked out the Airbnb hosts’ information, I was dismayed to discover that they own roughly a dozen properties in an area where affordable housing is scarce and homelessness is rampant—mostly due to investors buying up properties to rent out to visitors like me.

I feel guilty. If I’d had time to research beforehand, I never would have booked with them. I hate knowing that I contributed to the housing crisis. I feel extra guilty that the trade-off felt justifiable when I assumed they only owned one property. Can you think of an appropriate penance to balance this out? —Imperfect Traveler

Dear Imperfect: You’re right that short-term rentals in mountain towns are gutting neighborhoods by displacing the locals and replacing them with tourists. As I write this, I gaze across my street at one such vacant bungalow—lights out, curtains drawn—in a town where the cost of a house has doubled in three years.

You’re also right that it feels far more insidious to learn that the Airbnb isn’t just Mom and Pop renting their mother-in-law apartment, but rather a professional investor running a small hotel chain while perhaps avoiding the taxes and zoning to which actual hotels are subjected.

But here’s where we part, Imperfect: I don’t see you as the guilty party here. So instead of prescribing a hair shirt or self-flagellation as penance, allow me to attempt to assuage your feelings of guilt.

First, people traveling to mountain towns for funerals are not the problem. Indeed nobody but undertakers and gravediggers models their business on the expectation of a steady parade toward the cemetery. Towns like Sun Valley, Idaho, and Bozeman, Montana, are in the business of outdoor recreation—and the occasional visitor like yourself who arrives for unexpected family business at short notice barely amounts to a single flake of snow.

Next, be kind to yourself. You made this trip because someone you loved died. Sure, it’s generally better to investigate your VRBO or AirBnb host before booking, just as it’s better to read the ingredients on a soup can before purchasing, but in the throes of grief, we have to let that go out the window. We have to allow friends to drop off a casserole and not worry whether the vegetables came from a local organic farmer.

Between your food allergies and needing a space for grieving, it appears that you made the best choice. Let me say that again so you don’t skim past it: you made the best choice. And let’s not forget that the corporations that own most hotels are generally not founded on social or environmental justice principles.

Still, you feel guilty. If only you had had more time to prepare, you tell yourself, you might have made a more ethical decision. Let me speculate, Imperfect, that your guilt and dismay are less about affordable housing in a place that you don’t live and more about grief. Someone you cared for is gone forever. It happened so suddenly that you didn’t have time to click and scroll until you found a way to travel “perfectly.”

This is how death operates. Most of the time, we mortals don’t get to decide who lives and who dies. We don’t get to decide who is struck down in youth and who limps into a second century. People die at the most inconvenient moments. Yet rather than accepting our powerlessness in matters of mortality, we tell ourselves that in fact we did have the power to keep someone alive, it’s just that we somehow misplayed our cards. If I’d answered the phone when she called, she wouldn’t have been on that street when the truck skidded on the ice. If only I’d tried harder to curb his drinking. If only. If only.

I hear a variation of this in your letter. If only they hadn’t died so suddenly, during peak season, in such an expensive town, then I could have done better research and made an ethical decision. Instead I did bad, and feel guilty, and must perform penance.

Sundog doesn’t think you need penance. You need to grieve. It would be perfectly normal for a grieving person to spend their hours tracking down the owner of the Airbnb, investigating local codes and zoning ordinances, and reporting them to the city officials. It might even qualify as ethical action. But I doubt it will make you feel better. Anger and control are just two ways in which we bottle up the grief, to prevent sorrow and love from pouring out. It seems impossible that you will be able to solve—or meaningfully affect—the real estate crisis in far-off ski towns. And yet such an endeavor may be attractive because it’s more possible than bringing the dead back to life.

Sundog used to think he was the river, carving his path toward the ocean. In grief, he learned he was just a rock in the river, getting tumbled along—or sitting perfectly still—at the mercy of powers far greater than himself.

Let this one go, Imperfect. Perhaps your penance—if that’s what we want to call it—is to look inward, to consider that everyone we care about will one day be dead, and in spite of that, or maybe because of it, find more courage to love them while we’re here.

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