About four years ago, Natalie Porter’s husband got too sick to work. Porter, a paraprofessional at the elementary school in Antimony, a town of roughly 100 people in Garfield County, worried they wouldn’t be able to make ends meet with just her salary.
Porter called her son and asked if she could put the equity of her home into his and live in his basement apartment with her husband “until I die,” she said. He said yes — but suggested that she first try running an Airbnb out of her home.
Before her son could make it down to visit and provide the first review three weeks later, the room she and her husband Michael had fixed up already had three other bookings, Natalie Porter said. The income from guests, she said, allowed them to keep their home as her husband recovered.
Garfield County Airbnb hosts like Porter together made a total of $5.5 million in 2021, according to data recently released by Airbnb to highlight how the platform benefits rural counties.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox this spring blamed Airbnb, Vrbo and other short-term rental systems for worsening the state’s housing shortage. In Garfield County, for example, short-term rentals through platforms such as Airbnb, Booking.com and Vrbo made up 6.2% of the county’s total housing, according to data in a recent report by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah.
The vast majority of short-term rentals across the state have been full-home rentals, which research has shown correlates with higher housing prices.
Natalie Porter can see the impact, she said, and she has qualms about full-house short-term rentals. “We’re looking for a new teacher in our elementary school and there’s no place for them to live,” she said, so the new teacher will likely have to live in another town and commute daily.
On the other hand, though she now earns about half of what her Airbnb room rental brought in before the pandemic, it is still a “really good second income,” Porter said.
Airbnb shows us the money
Airbnb released income numbers for most of Utah’s counties, excluding eight of the smaller and larger markets (such as Morgan, with 14 rentals on various platforms, and Salt Lake County, with 3,420).
Summit County’s Airbnb hosts were at the top in 2021, making $57.1 million, the company said. That far outstripped the rest of the 21 counties where Airbnb released income data.
Summit County also has the state’s highest proportion of its housing occupied by all types of short-term rentals — with its 6,042 sites making up 23.3% of its housing in 2021, according to the Gardner report.
By contrast, Salt Lake County’s 3,420 listings made up 0.8% of total housing.
Among the 21 counties where Airbnb income totals were released, seven others also hit or topped the $1 million mark: Sanpete, $1 million; Wayne, $1.8 million; San Juan, $4.1 million; Rich, $5 million; Wasatch, $6.4 million; Iron, $9.7 million; and Kane, $16 million.
Of those counties, short-term rentals on multiple platforms took up the largest percentage of housing in Rich County, at 16.5%, with 524 rentals.
Utah law prevents local governments from prohibiting residents from hosting short-term housing, but they can regulate how those rentals operate. In May, the Park Record reported that Summit County Council was considering regulating its growing short-term rentals. Previously, the only requirements were that hosts acquire a license.
The county decided not to put in place a moratorium on new rental licenses, as some resort towns like Aspen, Colorado have tried.
But they’re still trying to solve what Roger Armstrong, a Summit County council member and vice chair, called “a complex Rubik’s cube of a problem” balancing the zoning, property rights and wildfire risks that come into play with the massive number of rentals in the county.
The median price of a house in Summit County is well over $1 million, “housing prices are rising,” and there’s a shortage of housing for the county’s workforce, Armstrong said. Hiring medical professionals is becoming more challenging; at a recent meeting in Park City, the local police, sheriff and fire marshal said less than 40% of their workers live in the county, he said.
With the more than 6,000 short-term rentals in the county, Armstrong said he expected a shortage of 1,000 to 2,000 affordable housing units in the next five to six years. He said it would be helpful to “recapture” even a part of those rentals for housing.
‘Find that happy medium’
The new Gardner report focused on tracking the rise of short-term rentals, mapping out their numbers and the total share of all housing they make up across Utah counties.
In 2019, there were 14,782 short-term rentals listed in the state. The total increased to 18,743 in 2021, or an increase of 26.8% in two years, the report said.
That growth was concentrated in five counties: Summit, Salt Lake, Washington, Rich and Grand.
After Summit and Salt Lake counties, the only other counties with at least 1,000 short-term rentals were Washington, with 2,803, and Grand, with 1,026.
But those rentals had significantly different impacts on housing availability. The rentals made up 3.5% of the housing stock in Washington County — and a whopping 19.3% in Grand County, behind only Summit County.
In Grand County, home to Arches National Park and redrock tourism, hosts earned $22.8 million in 2021 through Airbnb alone.
Despite Cox’s concerns about short-term rentals, the Utah Office of Tourism has an official partnership with Airbnb that began in 2018.
That year, Emery County’s economic and tourism director, Jordan Leonard, told The Salt Lake Tribune he wanted to grow the short-term rental market to support tourism — the county had just 11 Airbnb listings at the time, and zero two years prior.
“We have rock climbing, we have the San Rafael Swell, but we don’t have lodging,” Leonard said.
By 2021, the county had 49 short-term rentals, and the Airbnb hosts alone made $667,517.
Leonard, now a Castle Dale city councilman, said he’s still glad to see the positive impact that short-term rentals have had for some people in the community.
Dilapidated homes that had sat vacant for years have been “cleaned up” to be made into rentals and better maintained with the extra income, he said.
And though he acknowledged that housing scarcity is a potential concern, he thinks it’s possible to benefit from the rentals without saturating the market. “Hopefully, we find that happy medium,” he said.
Short-term rentals were only 1.2% of the county’s housing stock in 2021, the Gardner report said.
Compared with long-term renting, running Airbnbs is “a lot more work and more time consuming, but also a little more profitable, generally,” said McKoy Allred, an Airbnb host and realtor in the Emery County town of Orangeville.
He began renting property with his parents about two years ago, and has since acquired a handful of properties in Emery County that he manages with help from his wife and mother-in-law, who clean between guests. Allred doesn’t think it would be economical to own property and use a third-party leasing company to manage it.
For the last seven years as a real estate agent, Allred has done door-to-door sales, but he’s only recently become able to support himself from the Airbnbs alone. For him, that’s a big perk because he’s able to stay in the area “where I have family and friends,” he said.
He also appreciates the tourism money that comes to town through short-term rentals.
“In the last three years, the Emery County Travel Bureau has been working towards a more holistic approach to tourism,” said Adriana Chimaras, director of tourism and museums for Emery County. “Instead of just focusing on marketing or the increase of short-term rentals, we are looking to manage the destination as a whole.”
Leto Sapunar is a Report for America corps member covering business accountability and sustainability for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.