Room-sharing: the new alternative for college students living off-campus

Is Airbnb a viable residential option for college students?

The short answer: yes.

A slew of variables come into play when answering this question, but for those looking to stay in Washington D.C. for a period of several months, room-sharing is a legal, competitively priced alternative to leasing an apartment.

Airbnb has become a major force in the hospitality industry within the past several years and is currently one of the most valuable private companies in the world. A modern company knows it has reached the zenith of its industry when its name becomes a hip new verb. While there are several room-sharing companies, none have become the Lyft to Airbnb’s Uber.

In D.C. alone, there are thousands of Airbnb listings, many of which have a monthly rate or rather a monthly discount that automatically applies when renting for over a month. Thinking that Airbnb-ing would be far too expensive for long term stays is an understandable first impression, staying for an equally lengthy period in a hotel would certainly rack up a pricy bill.

There’s certainly some truth to the idea that living in an Airbnb in the District is expensive; everything in the District is expensive. A recent study found that American University has the 20th highest off-campus living expenses of any major US college. The crux of the issue lies in whether or not Airbnb stacks up against other off-campus options in terms of price. While the fact that Airbnb involves a flat, up-front fee may certainly make it impossible for some students to use the service, the overall price depends largely on how many months someone plans on staying.

At first glance it’s clear there is not one residential option that is absolutely cheaper than the rest. Of the five apartments (that were chosen because of their popularity among AU students), only one allows renters to lease an apartment for less than six months.

For a college student interning in D.C. over the summer a three-month lease at an apartment is seemingly out of the question. Airbnb fills this void and presents a cheaper alternative for students needing a place to live for a single semester or summer.

Breakdown of the housing options for three, eight and twelve month stays. Apartments are shown in green; Airbnb’s are shown in red.

Add in the fact that the vast majority of Airbnb’s are already furnished and room-sharing may become an attractive option for young professionals coming to D.C.

As the length of lease increases, traditional options at apartment buildings become cheaper and more available. That being said, Airbnb can still be realistically considered as an alternative for anywhere from 3–12 months. After twelve months, apartment prices have dropped enough and there are enough buildings nearby willing to lease units that Airbnb becomes less legitimate for longer term rentals.

It’s important to note that these findings can only be applied to Washington D.C. and more specifically the area around AU. A recent study titled RoomScore, looked into how Airbnb is regulated around the country, comparing Washington alongside 58 other major cities. One of the researches behind the study, Andrew Moylan of the think tank “R-Street,” explained why Washington has a very average RoomScore.

“DC has kind of a slew of restrictions that conspire to bring the score down,” Moylan said. “A lot of nuisance restrictions which make it more difficult, expensive, annoying and overall limited to rent out a unit.”

The regulations may be annoying, but Moylan explained that unlike some cities, it’s completely legal to rent out your apartment or home in the District.

“It moves away from the traditional binary of either living here for a year, or getting a hotel room, but I don’t think it’s likely to be a widespread phenomenon,” he said.

AU students who are familiar with the area and have peers with long-term leases on apartments can look into subleases. Morgan Givens, a rising junior in the School of International Service is studying abroad next Spring and in search of a place for just the Fall semester.

“Sub-leasing seems like definitely my best option but I guess I would be open to Airbnb if it is cheap enough,” he said.

For students from other universities who are in D.C. for a relatively short period of time, sub-letting becomes just as anonymous as Airbnb. Erica Warfield, a student at Tufts University is coming down from Massachusetts for an internship in D.C. Warfield said it’s been difficult connecting with people in the District who are sub-letting their apartments and that she hasn’t yet considered Airbnb as an option.

“I guess I’m hesitant to [use Airbnb] because you likely have no prior knowledge of the renter,” she said. “What I’m mainly focused on is the location, safety, and whether it’s furnished or not.”

The Avalon at Foxhall, a popular apartment building less than a quarter-mile away from AU’s campus.

It’s legal and it’s comparable price-wise, but that doesn’t mean Airbnb-ing for months at a time is always an option.

Since Airbnb is set up to allow the owner to ultimately decide whether or not to rent his or her property to someone, not everyone is guaranteed to secure an Airbnb listing even when it’s available. This has led researchers to study how race effects someone’s likelihood of getting a place with Airbnb.

As Warfield mentioned, there are also some safety concerns associated with Airbnb, many of them similar to the risks of living in an apartment in Washington.

Airbnb representatives say that safety is the company’s priority. The advice they give to potential Airbnb-ers is to “look at the profiles and reviews of potential hosts before you book, and check for verified phone numbers, connected social networks, and references.”

Therefore, it seems the long answer is also yes; at this exact moment in time, Airbnb is a viable alternative to an off-campus apartment. Going forward however, the answer could likely change. According to Moylan, policy involving the room-sharing economy is still budding and new regulations are on the horizon and unpredictable.

“I think it’s going to be hand to hand combat from city to city and state to state over the next few years as these things play themselves out,” he said. “And unfortunately, hand to hand combat tends to leave people pretty bruised.”

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