Is the demand for housing suitable to fill the thousands of rental units that have sprung up in downtown's East Village since the mid-2000s, and enough to sustain even more units currently under construction or in the planning phases?
If so, some longtime business owners wonder where their customers have gone, and residents of new projects are confused as to why so many of the units in their buildings are offered on the short-term rental market to vacationers or other travelers.
"It did not take too long for them to reach close to capacity, maybe a few months," says Gina Rodriguez, one of the first tenants to move into the Form 15 mid-rise at the corner of Market and 15th Street in October of 2014. She and her husband, however, began having problems when Essex Apartments took over as the property manager.
"Once the new management team took over, [Airbnb-style listings] started popping up as soon as leases were up, it seemed," Rodriguez continued. She says that by the time she moved out last September (breaking her lease to do so), at least 20 units in the building were being used full-time as short-term rentals.
"They would treat the building like a hotel and use it to host loud parties, take over the amenities, and generally trash the place. It was always the same known Airbnb apartments that would receive complaints and nothing was ever done to address the issue.
"I think the most aggravating part was that management not only did nothing about it, but they were the ones orchestrating it!"
The complaint seems verified — the Form 15 building is one of at least a half-dozen offered on Stay Alfred, a business dedicated to renting out apartments and, with management's consent, subletting them exclusively as hotel-style rentals. Larger sites such as Airbnb and VRBO turned up hundreds more listings available for an upcoming weekend, though duplicates likely exist.
Essex, which operates a total of 16 developments in the county, did not respond to a media request seeking further information on short-term rentals being placed alongside full-time residents; nor did management at other nearby buildings accused of similar practices.
Part of the problem could be related to the high cost of housing — this spring, overall vacancy rates in the county were hovering around 2 percent. For units with a monthly rent between $2200 and $2299, however, vacancies accounted for close to 20 percent of available units.
Rents at Form 15 start at $1757 for a studio unit — a two-bedroom runs $2630, while three-bedroom units fetch at least $3895 a month.
Walking the neighborhood, even while residential upper floors show signs of life, a number of vacant street-level storefronts stand out. Across the street from the mostly unoccupied ground level of Form 15 lies the building that once housed Salazar's Fine Mexican Food, a business Marta Radcliffe and her family operated for 45 years until it was shuttered in late July.
"It was a sad, slow, kind of drawn-out death," Radcliffe says. "The business has just died over the last ten years or so. A lot of high-rises went in, and they're all empty. Historically we had a lot of small local businesses — our breakfast and lunch were our strong times.
"But as they built all the high-rises, we lost our breakfast and lunch business because all the local workers were gone. Dinner was always a slow time for us, and it didn't pick up any as an offset.
"It's like a ghost town down there now," Radcliffe continues. "There are a lot of homeless people nearby; they're about the only ones we'd see the last few years — an odd person walking their dog, but not the vitality there used to be."