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Airbnb Worries Some In Old San Juan About 'Break Up Of Community'

Aug 27, 2018

Affordable housing in Puerto Rico has been in short supply after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last year. Now, some residents in historic Old San Juan say Airbnb is making things worse.

There’s concern about the practice of buying entire buildings and renting them out through the short-term lodging service, and how that could impact neighborhoods’ character and sense of community.

“We were our own best friends after the hurricane,” Janice Petrovich, spokesperson for the Association of Neighbors in the Old San Juan, tells Here & Now‘s Robin Young. “We watched out for each other. We made sure that everybody had what they needed. And this only happens when you’ve got people who live in a place, who know each other, who have developed relationships.”

The San Juan City Council is considering a one-year moratorium on short-term rentals.

Interview Highlights

On if there are absentee building owners in the city renting out buildings they don’t live in

“There may be an owner or two. What we’re having in Puerto Rico is slightly different, although there are some absentee owners. What’s happening now is that because of incentives that the government created, certain laws to attract people of great wealth to live here on the island — I presume for a kind of a theory of trickle-down economics — we have some very wealthy people who are buying up buildings and creating whole buildings of Airbnbs. By doing so, they not only change the character of the neighborhood, they also bypass all of the laws that require formal bed and breakfasts, hotels, guesthouses, to have all sorts of permits from fire … they have white-glove inspections. They bypass all of this kind of requirement.

“And as I said, they’re taking whole buildings that used to be owned by people who lived there, or rented by long-term renters, and converting them — chopping them up often. Actually, we live in an historic zone here in Old San Juan, and they are doing away with all of the requirements of how you rebuild in a historic zone. They’re chopping buildings up, they’re tearing down walls. And we as neighbors are continuously calling the municipal government, the Institute [of] Puerto Rican Culture, trying to get them to come and fine these folks, minimally, stop what they’re doing. So it’s a disregard not only for the neighborhood, but also for the historic and colonial character of the Old City.”

On those renting out a room in their own home, who say they should have a chance to earn additional income

“Yes, we have some residents who do that. And I think that if someone owns a house and lives [in] it for most of the year, and rents it out for a week or two, or rents out a bedroom, they’re still a neighbor. They’re still a resident.

“This is different. When you have someone buying a whole building, creating a ton of Airbnbs in a whole building, taking that building out of the long-term rental market or the long-term residential market … that truly changes the character of a neighborhood.

“It’s all a question of balance, and we think that it’s going overboard here in San Juan.”

On what people traveling to Puerto Rico and renting through Airbnb ought to ask

“I think it would be useful to know if the owner of the establishment is in residence. It would be useful to know if where they are coming to stay is a place that is all Airbnb. If they would rent a bedroom in someone’s house, they will get a true sense of the place. When you stay with someone who resides there, then you do in a place that is all short-term rental.”

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