When Carrie Rogers and her husband built a treehouse for their nephew on the edge of their property in Westover Hills in 2014, they had no idea it would one day be a destination for families and travelers from all over the world.
The two-story, 144-square- foot treehouse — modeled on the midcentury forest fire lookout towers of the West — is now known as the Trailside Treehouse on Airbnb, where it’s listed for rent for $150 a night.
It has attracted national recognition as one of the coolest places to stay — treehouse or otherwise — in the country.
“It’s booked every day in summer and 50 to 80% of the time in the bookend seasons,” Rogers said. “It’s evolved from a place where I thought it was going to attract mountain bikers to a place where people can reimagine all the things we may have had in childhood. Now, it’s a mission to help people feel rejuvenated.”
But the Trailside Treehouse is illegal in the city of Richmond — as are all of the estimated 1,200 Airbnbs that are currently listed on the short-term and vacation rentals website, though operators are unlikely to face any penalties. Inspectors aren’t actively looking for rentals to write citations, but city code prohibits rentals in residential properties for fewer than 30 days, effectively outlawing Airbnb and other short-term rentals. The city of Richmond has been batting around short-term rental legislation for more than four years now while Richmond hosts wait in limbo, eager to come out of the shadows.
The Rogerses started listing the treehouse on Airbnb two years ago. To do so, they added electricity to the structure — designed by her architect stepfather — plus two queen-size beds and some bunk beds, a minifridge and coffee maker. They added a full bathroom to their basement, about 75 feet away from the treehouse, so guests could access a bathroom without coming into their home, and a locked door at the top of the stairs to ensure privacy and security. The Rogerses read up on all the Airbnb host policies and procedures and made sure to report the treehouse — and their Airbnb host status — to their homeowners insurance company.
“I saw it as an opportunity to provide a service for the city,” Rogers said of her treehouse, which overlooks the James River. “I couldn’t find any info online about how to register it. I finally reached out to my City Council person and she said, ‘The only thing we’re debating on council is how to tax them, so go ahead.’
“Now, it’s my full income. We’ve developed our financial plans around it and there are so many reasons it could end, and that’s what scares me the most.”
This summer, Airbnb hosts operating in Richmond raked in $3.8 million in collective income as they hosted an estimated 27,500 guests in their homes, spare bedrooms, rental properties or even in their treehouses, according to data released Thursday by Airbnb. Richmond ranked as the second-highest destination in Virginia for folks using the site from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day.
The 1,200 rentals currently listed in the city, according to Airbnb, are up from 434 in June 2015, according to a city report from that year, which is when Richmond first began studying short-term rentals in an attempt to legalize and regulate them ahead of the UCI Road World Championships. The international bike race took place in Richmond over nine days in September 2015, and city officials — including then-Mayor Dwight C. Jones and council members — supported enacting regulations to permit the rentals, even if temporarily, in time for the race.
That’s when Elisabeth Edelman, who runs a boutique public relations firm in town, decided to list her Fan District house on Airbnb.
“I started six months before the UCI bike race,” she said. “I knew I had a beautiful to stay in, two-bedroom, two-bathroom, centrally located Fan house.”
Edelman had also stayed in Airbnbs when traveling and was interested in seeing the business model from the other side. Edelman stays with her sister or parents when she has guests. She also prices the rental high enough — $295 a night with a three-night minimum — to make it financially worth it to vacate for a few days and give her time to add the special touches such as fresh flowers and local coffee that have earned her a near-perfect host rating — and Airbnb Plus status, reserved for the best of the best.
“I do it very occasionally. I’ve probably hosted only 25 times in all,” she said. “It’s a little helpful to have some extra money, too.”
The bike race came and went — as did Richmond’s window to pass regulations in time for it — but Edelman kept her house listed on the site. Every November, she hosts a family that uses her house to host their own family Thanksgiving, and she’s planning to welcome them again this year.
Richmond completed its report in October 2015, about a month after the bike race, but halted any movement on legislation when the General Assembly took up the issue the following year. Virginia lawmakers punted regulation to the year after that due to opposition from the hotel industry and local governments — even as Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting found that at least three lawmakers were staying in Richmond Airbnbs during the 2016 legislative session.
The General Assembly finally passed legislation in 2017 leaving short-term rental regulations and legalization up to the localities. The Richmond City Council discussed but never acted on legalizing Airbnbs and other short-term rentals the same year, with an 8% tax, which it estimated would bring in $650,000 in tax revenue. And from there, regulating Airbnbs seemed to fall off everyone’s radar — until earlier this year, when the city drafted short-term zoning regulations — a sort of rough draft — and held a series of public meetings to collect feedback on the draft.
In the meantime, Airbnb hosts in Richmond continue to operate in the shadows, hopeful that they don’t draw the ire of the one thing most likely to shut them down: neighbors.
“We are not going out looking for short-term rentals,” said Mark Olinger, the city’s planning director. “If we get a complaint, we have to investigate.”
Olinger said the city gets only a handful of complaints a year. In the past 13 months, there have been four, according to the RVA311 website where residents can lodge complaints. Past Times-Dispatch reporting shows years when there were five and six complaints; the numbers are usually in the single digits. Olinger said the complaints nearly always come from neighbors.
That’s why Susan Milne got cited this summer. She started listing her Westover Hills house on Airbnb a year and a half ago. It was her sister’s idea.
Milne said she had to do some work on her house — the one she and her ex-husband custom-built a decade ago. The work came with a hefty price tag — more than $50,000 — and she’d recently gotten divorced and was already cash-strapped.
“I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to have to sell my house,’ ” she said.
Milne’s house was built for entertaining. It has an open floor plan, is wired for sound and has a pool in back to top it off. Milne’s sister was confident that Airbnb renters would love to rent a house like this — and it would allow Milne to keep her home. Her sister even offered to host her anytime she had renters, so Milne took the plunge and listed the house.
“My experience has been great as a host. In this really silly way, it’s a way people can connect. It’s been very fun,” she said. “I told all my neighbors I was doing this.”
Milne said she would alert neighbors when she had renters coming in, something the other Richmond Airbnb hosts say they do, too, and Milne usually drove by the house a couple of times a day to ensure everything was all right. But it wasn’t the renters that caused the complaint.
“It was that damn party,” Milne said.
Milne said she hosted a party at the end of July — a kind of neighborhood block party — that of course included the pool. Milne said everyone in the neighborhood was invited, and she thought they were, but a few neighbors didn’t get an invitation. She’s sure the complaint was likely from one of them, but regardless, the complaint triggered an order to cease operation immediately.
Milne knows she was in the wrong for having an Airbnb in the first place.
“I’m not trying to appeal it because the city is supposed to be legalizing them anyway, so to go down that route seems really ridiculous,” she said. “But it’s the selective enforcement that’s really wrong. I have friends who would lose their homes if they couldn’t Airbnb them.
“I’m trying to see if I can finish out my bookings. I have one woman who booked a year ago because it’s her son’s wedding, and I would feel terrible if I had to cancel.”
But Milne’s listing — like all the others in Richmond — remains in limbo.
Carrie Rogers may well be the first in line to register her treehouse.
“I’ll be very happy when I can get a business license and be legal,” she said.