“Newly remodeled studio near Capitol.”
“Luxury Condo facing Capitol, River and State St.”
“Charming 1920s Bungalow near River & Italian Lake.”
Judging from the listings, the secret to Airbnb success is location, location, location. A search of Harrisburg, PA, on Airbnb.com brings up 177 rentals. Many are in the city itself, perhaps “steps from the Capitol” (or “Capital,” say the spelling-challenged), while others are in surrounding areas—“Hershey Park 15 minutes,” or in New Cumberland, “’Weston,’ the 1982 Vanagon.”
As Airbnb takes hold, its relationship with the city of Harrisburg is in flux. One Airbnb owner is questioning a letter seeking payment of the city’s Business Privilege and Mercantile Tax. The city, in the meantime, says it’s looking into its powers over Airbnbs.
“The city is obviously authorized to regulate business activity within its borders,” said a statement from Joyce Davis, spokesperson for Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse. “We are currently reviewing how best to regulate Airbnb operations popping up around the city, if at all.”
Do the math, and Harrisburg–area listings comprise .000059 percent of Airbnb’s 3 million listings worldwide. Indeed, tiny Harrisburg will never be a tourist mecca like New York, Paris or San Francisco. However, at least anecdotally, the city does seem to be attracting more visitors these days, and Airbnb hosts are responding, with rooms and apartments popping up to serve them.
Ready for Business
Former city Councilman Brad Koplinski is among the city’s hosts.
His “Commonwealth 67,” on North Street “Steps from the Capital” (yes, Brad, you’re the spelling–challenged one), was once saved from destruction by Historic Harrisburg Association’s pleas to preserve this example of working-family housing.
Today, the walls are a sort of museum for Koplinski’s extensive political memorabilia collection—a Ronald Reagan “Bedtime for Brezhnev” poster, a photo autographed by Jimmy Carter when Koplinski caught him coming out of the World Bank in Washington, D.C.
Originally, Koplinski envisioned the space as a fundraiser venue, so a bar spanning the long wall in the open first floor is topped with bumper stickers—“BABBITT, Democrat for President”—lacquered in place by Koplinski’s girlfriend, Melissa Vayda, who works with him on the venture. In the bright, open kitchen, the breakfast bar showcases buttons ranging from the FDR years and earlier to one of Koplinski’s own buttons when he took a shot at the lieutenant governor nomination.
Once he decided on an Airbnb, Koplinski found the process “surprisingly easy.”
“Make sure the place is squared away, take some pictures, load them up to the website, and you’re ready for business,” he said.
Since Koplinski opened the doors in January 2017, guests have included numerous people doing state business in Harrisburg, such as the regular guest who attends Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency training.
“The location is just fantastic,” Koplinski said. “You’ve got three of the best restaurants in the city on this block. We offer a parking space. You can walk to the Capitol, the State Museum, the river. All of those things combined have allowed us to be pretty much booked.”
Airbnb guests are “the type of people who want to stay in other people’s houses,” said Teena Brinkley, who “Airbnbs” two of the eight bedrooms in the 1920s-era 2nd Street bungalow she shares with her 19-year-old son (“Historic House in Up Town Harrisburg”).
“They’re good people,” she said. “They’re friendly people. They’re more open to conversation. They’re not coming to trash your house.”
Brinkley works from home as a software engineer and has traveled cross-country, Airbnb-hopping, with her son. When she moved out of Camp Hill in 2016 and scouted a city home, the idea of running an Airbnb breezed across the back of her mind. She “just fell in love” with her pristine bungalow and its many original touches—a stone fireplace, leaded-glass sidelights surrounding the front door, bathrooms tiled in black and white—but decorated in a cheery, contemporary fashion, including a purple consignment-store couch that might have come from a bridal salon.
Guests have included a couple traveling from Virginia to bike the Capital Area Greenbelt and a military family with a 3-year-old daughter who stayed three months while waiting to close on their new home. Another visitor is set to stay for 90 days.
All guests are sure to meet Foster, Brinkley’s 13-year-old Westie love bug. Her guests treat the home with respect and “kind of become extended family.” They can step out to the terracotta tile front porch or the back deck for coffee, chatting with her or the neighbors on the friendly block.
“It’s a busy house, with people coming over, and I love it,” she said. “I’m originally from the South, and having people pop over is normal.”
Brinkley’s next-door neighbor, Shane Gallagher, went Airbnb in late 2016, a few months before Brinkley. He offers an air mattress (“but it’s a very nice air mattress,” Brinkley said) that’s popular with mid-20 and 30-somethings seeking a low-cost place to crash while traversing nearby I-81. One weekly guest of Gallagher’s, a nurse studying for her master’s degree, frequently skates with Brinkley, a former roller derby player.
With Airbnb’s reasonable rates, visitors have more money to spend on nice meals at local restaurants, usually recommended by the Airbnb host, said Brinkley.
“Note needs to pay us a commission,” she joked about the 2nd Street bistro a short walk or Uber up the block.
Airbnb hosts say they’re not raking in buckets of money, but “it’s a smart thing to do if you have a room or an apartment,” said Koplinski. “It’s a reflection of the self-motivated economy. We’re taking it out of the hands of the big corporations and putting it in the hands of everyday people. It’s not like there’s no rules anymore, but it’s almost like you can make your own rules, and this is a neat way to do that.”
Many guests heading for Koplinski’s place take the train into Harrisburg “and Uber over.”
“It’s an updated crowd,” he said. “You learn things as you go along. People really like coffee, so you better have the pods ready to go. No one really cares about television. They all care about where they can plug in their chargers and that the wi-fi looks good.”
Excited to Share
Neither Koplinski nor Brinkley has received a city notice levying the Business Privilege and Mercantile Tax, but Ted Hanson has.
Hanson put the rental home that adjoins his Victorian rowhome in Old Fox Ridge on Airbnb in October 2014 (“Private townhouse near PA Capitol”). Guests vary from administration appointees to Hersheypark visitors.
This past May, Hanson got a letter from the city’s Tax & Enforcement Office requiring that he obtain a license and pay the tax, “pursuant to the Local Tax Enabling Act.”
Not so fast, Hanson responded by letter. He has rented out the building for 20 years, “and the only thing that has changed is the manner in which I receive bookings.” Aside from the “beyond confusing” forms he was asked to fill out, he wrote, there is the matter of City Ordinance 5-715.3 C (5), stating that “no such (Mercantile License) tax shall be assessed and collected on the gross receipts received as rent by a landlord or his agent.”
In his response to Harrisburg, Hanson recognized “the city’s desire to find additional revenue streams and regulate Airbnb operations within its borders. However, this approach seems cobbled together and might not withstand judicial scrutiny especially in terms of levying additional taxes on Airbnb hosts beyond the property and school taxes we already pay.”
Chatting over deliciously messy burgers from nearby Jackson House while seated on his covered patio, Hanson said he just wants to see a thoughtful approach in any effort to regulate city-based Airbnbs.
“It would benefit everybody if there were some sort of regulation, but do you want to regulate, or do you want to tax?” Hanson said. “What are you concerned about? Are you concerned about public safety or taxation?”
The public nature of Airbnb listings makes them easily visible to city tax officials, Hanson noted.
“If I was renting it off a bulletin board, or off Craigslist, how would they know?” he said. “In fact, why would they know? I’m not taxable, anyway.”
Brinkley can’t foresee any move to shutter Airbnbs.
“It’s one of those things that’s taken off,” she said. “There’s no going back. If they shut down Airbnb, that service is going to exist somehow, because people like it. It’s too perfect not to find another way out.”
Airbnb collects payments from renters and distributes the proceeds to hosts. Without that money-managing service, Brinkley isn’t sure she would have gone Airbnb. She would “feel weird collecting from people, because I’m so happy they’re here.”
“For me, it’s about meeting people and offering up this beautiful home to travelers,” she said. “I’m very proud of this house. It’s a beautiful house. I feel very excited to share it.”
Do you run an Airbnb? Are you thinking about it? Harrisburg will hold a public meeting on Aug. 9 at 6 p.m. in City Council chambers to hear input about how the city should address issues pertaining to Airbnb in Harrisburg.
Author: M. Diane McCormick