How One Man Used Airbnb To Transform His Detroit Neighbourhood
… and how you can do the same, wherever you’re from.
I was first introduced to Nathan Andren very late at night, in a Hookah bar in Los Angeles. We were both in town for the Airbnb Open, and it didn’t take long before we were sharing stories of our experiences using Airbnb.
Nathan is a veteran Couchsurfer, philanthropist and founder of the Detroit Loves You Guest Home — a 13-bed, whole-house listing that welcomes everyone — the first Airbnb home in Detroit.
The property has 5 bedrooms, and sleeps up to 30 people at a time. There’s a foosball table, a large communal eating area and all of the usual amenities — but perhaps the most unusual feature of this listing is that 10% of all income is committed toward improving the local neighbourhood.
As Nathan revealed the projects that he had been able to help using money made from Airbnb, I felt compelled to spread news of this idea — in the hope that more hosts will consider following suit.
I caught up with Nathan over the phone, to bring you his story.
John: At the Airbnb Open you told me about your first place, and your plans to expand in to other properties. How is that going?
Nathan: “I’m running one now, the Detroit Loves You Guest Home, which was the first Airbnb in Detroit, opening in 2010. That was a single family home that we’ve renovated in to a five bedroom place with a maximum capacity of 25–30. We specialise in large groups now. We started off by offering individual rooms, but we’ve moved in to large groups. We’re just finishing off renovations there.
“My sister and I are purchasing our old family home where we grew up, just a few miles from here. She’ll be living there, and we’ll rent out a few rooms on Airbnb to make it cash-flow neutral. I’ve been renting a loft that I used to live in, bought before the Detroit Loves You Guest Home, that I’m currently renovating — when that’s done, it’ll be converted to an Airbnb.”
John: When we met in LA, the idea that had the biggest impact on me was the concept that you explained to me — taking some of the profits that you make, and spending them on projects and charities to improve your local area. Is that a reasonable way of explaining it?
Nathan: “Yes! What I do is take 10% of the gross, as reported by Airbnb (a nice easy number), and set that aside in to a fund that I spend on neighbourhood projects.
“The original idea was to support Detroit non-profits & schemes that were operating in the city. We supported Alternatives for Girls which is a non-profit that supports young women, The Greening of Detroit which works with trees in the city — a variety of great projects.
“Operating an Airbnb in a poor Detroit neighbourhood, you often see things within 100m of your place that are a great motivation to focus on giving back very locally. I soon switched to spending that 10% as hyper-locally as possible, by starting and funding our ‘block club’.
“We started by putting trash barrels up on the street, setting up a free library, erecting signs that say “slow, children playing” — we had an unfortunate accident where a young girl was hit by a car, which was driving through our neighbourhood a little too fast.”
John: How did this come about? Is it something you have done since the start, or is it something you introduced later on?
“We started giving back from the beginning, the very first year of operation. This was back in 2010, I think we had 1 booking in 4 months, it was a side project that I was trying — I didn’t really expect anyone to stay there. In the first year I think we set aside maybe $140.
“The idea came to me because I came to Airbnb from a couch-surfing background (couchsurfing.org), which was (and currently still is) completely money-free. There’s no cost for reservations. I came from that background, so I was well prepared for Airbnb. I had already surmounted the hosting curve, and was comfortable having strangers in my home. So, to honour that background, where my heart-space was, if I was going to charge money then I would set some money aside for charity.
“This comes from my personal life; I put 10% aside as savings for the future, 10% aside for charity, and live on 80%. It’s kind-of a common concept, I guess.”
John: It’s a great idea and something that sounds easy to try, at least for a few months. What sort of projects have you been able to contribute towards so far?
“Well, I mentioned briefly the Block Club. A lot of [the money] goes in to a general fund, and then the Block Club decides how to spend it. For instance; trash barrels, the little free library, ’Slow, children Playing’ signs — even tshirts for community events. Over the first 6 years we’ve set aside just over $10,000 — just this last year we raised an additional $5,000. It’s over 7 years, so it’s not a huge amount of money, but in this neighbourhood just a few hundred dollars goes a long way. It adds up!
“Part of the reason for coming to the Airbnb Open in Los Angeles was to get ideas how to spend this money, because we can’t spend it all on t-shirts, you know? We have to expand in to scholarships, or something more serious.”
John: Tell me more about the formation of the Block Club, where did you get that idea?
Nathan: “It was actually catalysed by a group called AmeriCorps. It’s a group, a little like the Peace Corps, that’s focused on the urban areas of America. They helped set up a bunch of block clubs, including ours, which draws members from 3 blocks. We have maybe 20 or 30 members total, so it’s pretty small.
“Decisions are made by consensus; it’s really informal. It’s a really good method of seeing what matters to people. At the moment, people are speaking about putting in private security cameras, which is a little controversial — but highlights what people are concerned about, and what they want to prioritise.”
John: I’m intrigued to know whether you’ve met any other Airbnb hosts that are doing this, or whether you’ve inspired anyone to join in and start putting money back in to their local communities.
“At this point I have only encountered other people who are already doing something similar to this idea, and not really people that are prone to starting it. I think there are a lot of ways that i could start to reach out to people to join in. There are other Airbnbs popping up in my area, though, there are two within a block from me that are both owned by the same guy, Chris. We were speaking the other day and he admitted that he was really looking at our place as a model, so he could copy what was going on. I’m really going to work on him — if he wants to copy the model, I’m going to make sure he copies it in all respects.
“You could start from as little as 1%. The hump to get over is to establish the account where you can start putting money aside, which you then get to spend on these fun projects.”
There’s your call to action.
It doesn’t have to be 10% — investing any amount of money will have a positive effect on your local area, and may even change the way your neighbours view your Airbnb business.
Nathan (and many other hosts that I met) fundamentally believes that Airbnb is a force for good. Stories like his are inspiring, and demonstrate just how easy it is to make a positive impact while still paying the bills.
100% of all funds received through it will be set aside (in addition to 10% gross Airbnb income) to benefit the Piety Hill neighbourhood.