What started as an idea to turn a living room into a bed and breakfast has morphed into a global enterprise in more than 65,000 cities and 191 countries. Airbnb, an online service that connects travelers with hosts offering short-term rentals in their homes, has grown dramatically since it launched in 2008, and Madison is among its destinations.
About 400 Airbnb properties are located in Madison, according to Ben Breit, Airbnb’s Midwest representative. He says 19,000 Airbnb guests paid Madison hosts $2.5 million in 2016, and about half of local Airbnb hosts offer an extra room in a home. The other half rent out their entire home.
Airbnb’s popularity has prompted some cities to enact regulations and taxes on the service. Madison Mayor Paul Soglin says, “Our biggest challenge is locating the units and the dates of the rental so that we can collect the room tax.” According to the Madison city treasurer’s office, 15 to 20 properties are registered—twice as many from a year ago but far less than the actual number. Because Airbnb does not list home addresses, it is difficult to track down the hosts. The city plans to contract with Host Compliance this spring to assist in ensuring that all tourist rooming houses comply with city regulations. Soglin added that such rentals have potential to decrease the stock of affordable housing if property owners find Airbnbs more profitable.
Compliance is also important to the lodging industry. Trisha Pugal, president and CEO of the Wisconsin Hotel and Lodging Association, says, “It’s basically wanting to make sure there is a level playing field so that the traveler can make an educated choice as far as where they stay.” Airbnb host Joan Ziegler, who rents out a house in the town of Middleton through Airbnb, agrees, saying, “I do think that we should be held to similar standards and be contributing to the economic picture as a whole.”
Charlie Eggen, president of the Greater Madison Hotel and Lodging Association, says Airbnb isn’t going away. “They’ve been very smart because they’ve marketed themselves as a community of people” rather than a successful business model, he says. Greater Madison Convention and Visitors Bureau President Deb Archer says Airbnb is attractive to certain people who are “looking for unique experiences.”
Mary Kay Glazer is a freelance writer, spiritual director and retreat leader living in Madison.