“Making It Work” is a series is about small-business owners striving to endure hard times.
When Precious Price bought her first home four years ago in Atlanta while working as a marketing consultant, she took advantage of her frequent business trips by renting out her house on Airbnb during her absences. “I knew I wanted to use that as a rental or investment property,” she said. “I began doing that, and it was honestly very lucrative.”
For Ms. Price, 27, and other young entrepreneurs of color, online short-term rental platforms like Airbnb and Vrbo represented a path to building wealth on their own terms. With an excellent credit score and minimal start-up capital — a primary barrier for people in this demographic — a professional Airbnb host could amass a stable of apartments on long-term leases, then turn around and rent those properties on a nightly basis to vacationers.
Some of these entrepreneurs see it as a more equitable alternative to corporate America, with its legacy of institutionalized bias and inflexibility toward caregivers and working parents. Others are motivated by the desire to cater to Black travelers, who say they still face discrimination even after platforms like Airbnb promised to address issues like documented cases of bias.
Ms. Price became an evangelist of sorts, establishing social media channels to teach other would-be entrepreneurs how to follow in her footsteps, and churning out a digital library’s worth of videos, tutorials and advice using the handle @AirbnbMoney.
The irony was not lost on Ms. Price that her grand real estate ambitions were propelled by the 296-square-foot “tiny house” she spent nearly six months building for herself in her backyard. When the coronavirus pandemic slammed the brakes on travel, grounding her road-warrior lifestyle and evaporating her supplemental income stream virtually overnight, her tiny house allowed her to continue renting out her primary home and making a large profit.
She even added to her portfolio, buying a second house and renting several furnished apartments in Atlanta’s popular Midtown neighborhood, and she eventually left her consulting job to manage her rental business full time.
“It was a freeing experience at the time,” she said. “I’m making a ton of money that most of my family has never seen in their lifetime.”
Ms. Price was earning as much as $12,000 a month and deriving a sense of purpose from her work on social media helping her peers achieve financial security. Initially, she said she had no interest in renting to long-term tenants — the profit margin for tourist bookings was so much higher.
“I was adamant about only renting to vacationers,” Ms. Price said. “I was just so heavily into the rat race.”
Then, the distressing messages started to come. First one or two, then too many to ignore: a litany of increasingly distraught calls and emails from people who didn’t want her Airbnbs for a weekend away — they were in desperate need of a place to call home.
Ms. Price realized she was on the front lines of a housing crisis. By renting property to tourists rather than long-term renters, she and others like her were exacerbating the nation’s housing affordability problem, as she related in a 2022 TEDxAtlanta talk. “I started to realize that conversation began happening across the country,” she said.
The pleas and stories of financial precariousness hit home for Ms. Price, the oldest of five siblings and a first-generation college graduate. She went to business school at Indiana University. “When I started to get these calls from single mothers and students, I started to realize that’s the identity of some of my family members,” she said. “And I’m realizing the connection of how I’m not very far removed at all from that.”
She began to re-examine her values and to walk away from the lucrative vacation-rental business. She stopped listing properties on short-term rental sites, and over the next several months, she shed her rental portfolio. “Everyone has their own ethical compass and for me, mine felt just off with what I was doing,” Ms. Price said.
The few remaining tenants she has now are on long-term leases, and the rent she collects is enough to cover her costs, with maybe “a couple hundred dollars left over,” she said. She supplements that income with freelance consulting and public speaking gigs. Although she is earning a fraction of her former income, she is more fulfilled and no longer feeling burned out, she said.
The housing crisis Ms. Price witnessed in Atlanta is playing out across the nation. The United States is short about 6.5 million single-family homes, according to the National Association of Realtors. For more than a decade, homes were not built fast enough to keep pace with population growth, a trend that was exacerbated by the pandemic. During this time, demand for larger homes grew even as construction slowed, hamstrung first by public health restrictions, then by a labor shortage and supply-chain issues that made everything from copper pipe to carpet scarcer and more expensive.
The number of affordable houses has plunged: Only 10 percent of new homes cost less than $300,000 as of the fourth quarter of 2022, even as mortgage rates have roughly doubled over the past year.
These challenges have a cascading effect that has driven up rents, as well: Moody’s Analytics found that the average renter now spends more than 30 percent of their income on rent.
“If you look at rental vacancy rates, they’re extremely low,” said Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, a senior research associate at the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard University. “It’s really hard for people to find an affordable place to move to. It’s extremely tight, especially for low-income renters.”
As Ms. Price experienced up close, a growing number of municipalities — including Atlanta — have emerged from the pandemic only to find a full-blown housing crisis on their doorsteps. Lawmakers are seeking greater regulation of short-term rentals, with many trying to discourage “professional hosts,” as opposed to homeowners who are renting out part or all of their primary home.
Policies should be nuanced enough to distinguish between the two categories of renters, said Ingrid Gould Ellen, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University, and faculty director of the university’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy.
“Airbnb can be a really useful tool for a lot of people, for homeowners who are maybe struggling to make their mortgage payments, or even renters who want to occasionally make some income and rent their units while they’re away on vacation,” she said. “Those are all forms of usage that don’t actually restrict the long-term supply of housing.”
Ms. Price’s experience with the tiny house in her backyard inspired her to search for another way for people to add housing — and for homeowners to generate rental income. These units, known colloquially as “tiny homes” or “granny flats” and identified formally as accessory dwelling units, can take the form of tiny homes, guest cottages, or apartments that are either stand-alone or attached to the primary house. An increasing number of policymakers are hoping these units can help take some of the pressure off the tight housing market.
“She’s working on a pressing problem — the lack of housing supply across the U.S.,” said Praveen Ghanta, a technology entrepreneur who began the Emerging Founders program, a start-up incubator for Black, Latino and female founders in Atlanta. Ms. Price, a participant in the program, is working on a start-up she named Landrift, which is intended to be a resource hub so that homeowners — particularly homeowners of color — can increase the value of their properties and generate income by building their own tiny homes. “We can make a meaningful impact, particularly in markets like Atlanta,” Mr. Ghanta said.
“Sometimes I think people get fixated on the notion of affordable housing and that it has to be nonprofit,” he said. “The reality is there’s a lot of both money to be made and housing to be supplied, even within market rate constructs.”
Ms. Price has reoriented her social media platforms away from the management of short-term rental properties and toward the promotion of small-scale development of accessory dwelling units. “At this point I do want to begin acquiring other properties,” she said. She is looking for houses with enough land to accommodate a tiny house while building a second ancillary structure — a guest cottage — on her first property.
“My plan is to get a property I would be able to do some kind of housing on so I’m not just taking housing, but would be able to make more housing,” she said. “The American dream is real estate.”