Pope visit prompts new wave of Airbnb users in Philadelphia

Pope Francis
Giuseppe Ciccia | Pacific Press / LightRocket | Getty Images
Pope Francis

Pope Francis is scheduled to make his first visit to the United States next week, where he will visit Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. The excitement is drawing an interest in the sharing economy as more people are renting out their homes, and sites like Airbnb are seeing a surge of first-time users.

In Philadelphia, some estimates predict as many as 1.5 million visitors will flood the city for the pope. In a city with only 11,500 hotel rooms, it's creating a new demand—though not as much as some might have hoped.

Kathleen Townsend and her three roommates in downtown Philadelphia recently joined AirBnb, based on the hype of the pope's trip. "We heard about all these people doing it and getting thousands of dollars, but we weren't getting as much interest as we thought," she said.

Originally her four bedroom home was listed for $2,000 for a stay between Thursday through Monday. But upon learning the pope would only be in town Saturday and Sunday, they modified their booking requirement, offering the home for around $500 per night instead.

When it was posted specifically for the pope's visit, however, they were contacted by someone looking to stay during the "Made in America" music festival taking place in early September. Townsend and her roommates were going to be out of town that weekend and figured they'd give it a try.

"We were nervous at first because it was young people who were here for a concert and probably drinking…much different than people coming for the pope," Townsend said. "But it worked out great and we'd do it again."

The hype in Philadelphia, prompted the city to become the latest city to legalize rentals through online marketplaces like Airbnb, and require short-term rentals be subject to an 8.5 percent hotel tax.

No, you can't rent your apartment out

The pope's Philadelphia visit, however, has caused a surge of extra work for Chuck Holmer, one of the managers of the City View II condominiums. Holmer regularly began patrolling sites like Airbnb and Craigslist, catching residents who are trying to rent out their place against the building's policy.

Based on photos and user posts, Holmer can often recognize which unit is being advertised, and then contacts the resident directly to straighten them out.

"I know what units look like and I know what views look like," he said. "I email people saying you need to take it off."

It's prompted the management company to take extreme measures to prevent any outsiders from staying in the building during the pope's visit. "We're requiring any visitors coming is registered ahead of time and we have pictures of them," Holmer said on the upcoming pope's visit and adding that unit owners must be present to greet their guests.

Naturally, some residents have become annoyed that despite them owning their own unit, such policy is so strictly enforced. However, Holmer reiterates it's the policy residents agreed to when moving in.

"I want to protect the resident's quality of life. I don't want the keys to someone who could be a threat to that," he said. "We have a million people coming into town and we don't want a thief among us."

Townsend, who's a rental tenant and lives next door to her landlord, said her experience was much different. "He actually contacted us asking if we we're doing anything and he was looking into it for his own place, so we said we're thinking of it, too."

Despite the green light, Townsend still hadn't found anyone to rent out the residence as of Friday. She is thinking of lowering the price again.

"I think it was over-hyped. We thought it was the whole week when it first came out and we didn't have all the facts and got excited," she said. "I guess we were a little too greedy in the beginning."