Beverly Jones and Paul Seaman stand on the front porch of one of their Airbnb properties in Tarkio, Missouri.

Far from vacation homes, small town Airbnbs house traveling workforces

Addie Costello Sep 12, 2023
Beverly Jones and Paul Seaman stand on the front porch of one of their Airbnb properties in Tarkio, Missouri.

New York City began enforcing its restrictions on vacation rentals last week. Hosts must be registered with the city and stay on site during guests’ stays. These restrictions might shrink the number of vacation rentals in the country’s biggest city, but the picture is different in small towns across the U.S.

Including in Tarkio, Missouri  – a town of around 1,500 people – where Beverly Jones and her husband, Paul Seaman, own four Airbnb properties. 

Corn fields and wind turbines outline the edges of the small town. Besides occasional passing cars, bird chirps are the most constant sound outside the couple’s home. 

While Tarkio may not have New York City’s skyline, Jones and Seaman’s short-term rental properties stay busy. 

But not with vacationers. 

The couple estimated around 70% of their guests are in town for temporary jobs. Temporary workers in rural areas renting Airbnbs has become a huge trend, said Jamie Lane, chief economist with AirDNA, a company that tracks the performance of global short-term rentals. 

And there are a growing number of Airbnbs available to small town workers. Since 2020, over 2,100 towns without a hotel have had their first Airbnb booking, according to Airbnb. Growth in the supply of short-term rentals continues to be the fastest in small city and rural areas, Lane said. 

“They’re broadly some of the best-performing listings we see out there today,” Lane said. 

Jones and Seaman’s Airbnb properties are booked 78% of the year, Jones said. Most of those guests worked on the wind turbines in town built within the last decade or at the nearby power plant that has been operational for close to 50 years

“There was such a demand when we first did it,” Seaman said. “As soon as word got out like wildfire, they got filled up.”

Before the couple opened their Airbnbs in 2019, the only other lodging options were one 17-room motel, a traditional bed and breakfast with a handful of rooms, and one bunk house which rents out individual bunk beds, Jones said. 

But Tarkio has had hundreds of workers in town at once, Jones said

When all the housing options in Tarkio fill up, workers stay in slightly larger, nearby towns. That can add 45 minutes to an hour to their daily commute, Jones said.

Increased commute times mean less sleep ahead of long shifts, said Ashley Flores, a traveling nurse staying at an Airbnb while working at a hospital in Bonham, Texas, a town of around 10,700 with 15 Airbnb listings. 

Flores takes out-of-town assignments for up to 13 weeks at a time, and Airbnbs are typically cheaper than hotels for her sometimes months-long stays, Flores said.

But the price of Airbnbs isn’t doable for all temporary workers.

Small towns with natural amenities — areas with scenic landscapes like mountains, lakes, beaches and deserts — often have a strong tourism economy that requires seasonal workers. But jobs in hospitality usually don’t pay enough to cover Airbnb expenses, said David Peters, a professor of rural policy and rural sociology at Iowa State University. 

Tourist towns also experience higher numbers of out-of-town buyers purchasing properties with no intention of moving to the area. Instead, they turn the homes into investment properties and rent them out to vacationers — one reason low to moderate income rentals are slim in these areas, Peters said.

“No one’s buying a vacation home or retirement home in Iowa, Nebraska or Kansas,” Peters said.

Tarkio is bordered by a highway instead of a mountain range and the landlocked town has a different work force than traditional tourist towns.

The temporary work in non-amenity rural areas like Tarkio is typically in construction, energy extraction, meat packing or agriculture, Peters said. Outside of agriculture, those industries typically pay temporary workers better than hospitality, meaning workers in these regions are more likely to afford an Airbnb, he said.

Instead of lacking affordable housing for temporary workers like tourism hot spots, small towns without obvious tourism draws in areas like the Midwest often lack quality housing, Peters said.

A large number of rural homes in areas without tourist economies were built before the 1940s. Like all old homes they come with their issues, but homeowners in rural towns don’t have a phone book full of qualified people to make needed repairs, Peters said. 

One of Jones and Seaman’s listings was built in the 1800s. The couple made a number of serious renovations themselves in all four of the properties before they were Airbnb ready.

 “This was a total disaster,” Jones said when describing the entryway to one Airbnb. “We had to replace the windows, ceiling fans, and electrical.” 

Contractors are incentivized to build and repair in bigger cities where they can work on a substantial number of homes instead of remodeling two homes in a town the size of Tarkio, Peters said.

But for Jones and Seaman, renovating the homes has paid off. The Airbnbs provide an extra source of income which helps them weather bumps in the local economy, something extra important in rural areas, Jones said.

“You’re always doing two or three things,” Seaman said. “We’re all hustling.”

But the current success of Airbnbs in small towns without tourism economies might run out.

Short-term renters in towns without high levels of tourism might not be as consistent as short-term renters in the small towns with tourist economies, said Steven Deller, a professor of agriculture and applied economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Popular tourist areas can rely on a regular number of temporary staff coming in to fill jobs during busy tourism seasons. But the industries bringing temporary workers for jobs outside of health care and tourism are more boom and bust, Deller said. 

Meaning the supplemental income hosts like Jones and Seaman receive from their renters could vanish without much warning.

“Both of us are reasonable business people,” Jones said. “At the point that it becomes a loss later, you reassess.”

But as long as there are jobs in Tarkio there will be workers needing a place to stay, and for now, Jones and Seaman’s listings are staying booked.

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