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In Philly, there’s lots of room at the inn

Marketplace Contributor Sep 23, 2015

In Philly, there’s lots of room at the inn

Marketplace Contributor Sep 23, 2015

When Mark Zajak’s wife heard a friend of a friend got $20,000 to rent out her place the week Pope Francis comes to Philadelphia, the couple decided to list their house on Craigslist and Airbnb.

Their modern, three-bedroom row house in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood is just a 10-minute walk from where the pope will celebrate a huge outdoor mass in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (of “Rocky” fame) on Sunday.

Factoring in the couch and leather loveseat in the Zajak’s living room, the house could comfortably sleep eight travelers. There’s also a crib and a daybed, for those attending with kids in tow. But the pièce de résistance: a roof deck connected to the master bedroom.

“You can actually see the top of the art museum over there,” Zajak said.

The Zajak’s are asking $14,000 for the whole week in hopes of taking a vacation in the Bahamas. But … no takers.

“So far we have not gotten any feedback, no,” he said.

They’re not the only ones.

There are about 4,100 listings on Airbnb and just a quarter of them are booked. That’s according to Beyond Pricing, a startup that helps hosts price their listings.

So has Philly’s papal-visit housing bubble burst?

Yes, said Beyond Pricing’s Ian McHenry, who’s seen this happen a lot.

“Everything sells out,” he said. “It makes all the headlines and everyone starts seeing people listing their places for thousands of dollars and they think, ‘Wow, if my neighbor can list their place for that then I can, too.’”

The other problem: It’s hard to estimate just how many people will actually show up.

Let’s look back at another event that brought throngs of people to an American city:

Nearly 2 million people traveled to Washington, D.C., to see President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. But early estimates put that number at 4 million.

Hotels filled up early, and thousands of people put up entire homes and guest rooms for rent, many for more than $1,500 a night.

But by the time Inauguration Day rolled around, people like Tania Odabashian, whose company specializes in short-term rentals, couldn’t give their units away.

Six years later, it still bugs Odabashian she wasn’t able to rent out the 20 studio apartments she set aside in D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.

“Given that the media kept going on and on and on and on about how impossible it was going to be to get a hotel room, I think those that might have come and been happy to pay $300 a night for an apartment were thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to be able to get a room,’ and didn’t even try maybe? I don’t know.”

In the end, the supply was much larger than the demand.

In Philadelphia, even hotels have vacancies now.

McHenry said most people in the city are still charging three times what they should be.

“It’s not a gold rush,” he said. “You should do it for a little extra money and for the joy of helping people out that need a place.”

So if they’re not paying to stay in a row house with a roof deck just a short walk from where from Pope Francis will be, where exactly are papal pilgrims laying their heads?

Many have found more humble accommodations in churches, on museum floors, in fitness clubs — and even the Philadelphia Zoo.

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