An Anti-Airbnb Activist Rented Her House on Airbnb

Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Carole Osterink often gets tips from her neighbors in Hudson — that a couch has been abandoned on a broken-down bridge or that a Chinese restaurant on Warren Street has closed. These tips help comprise her blog, The Gossips of Rivertown, on which she covers everything from school-board elections to lost dogs in diligent detail. But in January, something particularly juicy came in. There was a new Hudson Airbnb listing: a Union Street three-bedroom going for $200 per night. The description was conventional: the place had a “country kitchen, a record player, and a comfy sectional sofa.” What was interesting, Osterink wrote in a post, was “that the apartment is located in a house owned by former First Ward alder Rebecca Wolff, the great critic of gentrification and tourism, an advocate for affordable housing, and the architect of the law restricting short-term rentals in Hudson.” “Appalling,” someone commented. Another: “Honestly, I don’t know how Rebecca Wolff will be able to hold her head up while walking down Warren Street after this.”

Wolff arrived in Hudson in 2005. A poet and editor, she grew up in Chelsea, then spent years bouncing around college towns across the country before eventually buying the house on Union Street. Soon after she moved in, she rented out half the space to a long-term tenant, below market rate. “I do understand that I am a gentrifying person,” Wolff tells me of her move to Hudson. “I’ve spoken about it in any anti-gentrification conversation I’ve ever had, which is like a billion. I’m pretty obsessed with it, honestly.”

A few years after she moved in, a couple bought the house attached to hers. She quickly realized that they had no plans to actually live in the place. “They bought it just to Airbnb it,” she says. A rotating cast of vacationers began cycling through next door, leaving the doors open and lights on: “It was miserable.”

By the time she decided to run for the city’s common council as a first-time politician in 2019, Wolff was already well known in town as an outspoken Airbnb critic. One person recounted hearing her read an anti-Airbnb poem at a housing forum. She posted on Facebook frequently about how cities in Europe were effectively regulating Airbnbs, and she hosted public forums on the topic. People described her as “adamant” and “vehement” when talking about short-term rentals. But while she might have been the most vocal, she was far from alone.

There are a lot of Airbnbs in Hudson; the city of just 6,000 residents had 143 registered short-term rentals by the end of 2019, according to local reporting. And while it’s certainly not the city’s most dire housing issue, it’s a sensitive one. The subject of wealthy out-of-towners buying up houses to rent to other wealthy out-of-towners hits a nerve in a city that has gentrified so rapidly that it has become known as a “sixth borough.” For years, Hudson’s median rental prices have increased — from $875 for a one-bedroom in March 2015 to $1,787 in 2022, according to Zumper. These shifts are acutely felt by the city’s long-term Black and immigrant residents. “You walk around up and down Warren Street, on State and Columbia, and you might see one Black person — that’s it. People of color are being pushed out completely,” says Tiffany Garriga, who served as majority leader on city council for seven years.

But those being pushed out by a changing Hudson aren’t the only ones irritated by the proliferation of Airbnbs. The earlier gentrifiers feel these even newer gentrifiers are making the city less “cool,” as Wolff expressed in a blog post. (“For me personally,” she wrote, “the City of Hudson runs the risk of being not only economically oppressive and dismally corrupted by monocultural colonialist visitations, but also simply in poor taste. Shopping shopping shopping hotel hotel hotel bougie bougie bougie bullshit. So uncool.”) Others say it’s mostly just annoying on a day-to-day level. One local told me she was recently leaving her house with a suitcase when she was accosted by an out-of-towner who ran across the street to ask her if she was checking out of an Airbnb: “I was like, ‘Well, actually, no. It’s my home.’”

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Hudson became the No. 1 metro area in the country in terms of the change in rate of people moving there. The perception of outsiders took on a new tenor. In one council meeting, Garriga brought up the issue of out-of-towners walking around unmasked, while Wolff accused people of “trying to enact a little vacation in our city when they are supposed to stay home.”  

All of which strengthened Wolff’s resolve to use her newly won seat on the council to regulate non-owner-occupied Airbnbs and push for housing solutions. She poured herself into her job, lobbying for affordable-housing projects and sitting on multiple committees. Her tone, says John Paul Kane, a local who lived in Hudson at the time, was very “If you’re not with me, you’re absolutely against me.” In the summer of 2020, the council debated legislation, spearheaded by Wolff and fellow alderperson John Rosenthal, a local carpenter and screenwriter, to regulate short-term rentals. Virtual meetings put a damper on things, but the conversation managed to incite strong reactions. “Sentiments got hot, and people said lots of things,” says Rosenthal. “It took a while to pass a very simple bill.” Opponents complained that the regulations would “strangle the economy,” while proponents replied, “Y’all wealthy bastards are strangling our community.”

In the fall, the short-term-rental law passed the council unanimously, and it was signed by the mayor later that year. It limits rentals to “three units a tax parcel” (as long as residents live there as well) and renting out personal homes to 60 days per year (as long as owners live in Hudson for at least 50 days a year). The law itself was moderate, affecting only nine existing Airbnb operators, all of whom successfully petitioned for a variance to continue running their short-term rentals. But it also restricted any future outsiders from coming in and buying up multiple Airbnb properties as investments since any new Airbnbs would have to abide by the restrictions. Things seemed to quiet down. Then, a year later, Wolff’s Airbnb listing popped up.

“I did have a minute where I was like, Gee, isn’t it funny that I of all people am listing my apartment on Airbnb?” Wolff says. “But it didn’t strike me as a huge hypocrisy.” When the Times Union — a newspaper that covers Albany, Troy, Schenectady, and Saratoga — reported on the controversy earlier this month, Wolff told the publication that her decision to list on Airbnb was incidental. She had decided to go stay at her parents’ second home on Cape Cod to focus on writing and needed to find a subletter. (Wolff wanted to point out that she didn’t have a trust fund, as many people have since accused her of, and that the Cape home she is staying at is “not some fabulous beach house. It’s a little house in the woods; it’s totally modest.”) When she couldn’t find a tenant quickly, she took the path of least resistance and put it on Airbnb for a little while. All of which was fair in her mind. As an owner-occupied Airbnb, she was following the principles of the new law — which she herself had worked so hard to pass.

None of this logic sat well with Hudson residents, who had spent at least five years listening to her rail against Airbnbs. “When she listed her own place on Airbnb, everyone saw right through it. She lost her credibility,” says Rich Volo, a former alder and Airbnb operator. “Now you’re doing something here for self-gain when you say that you’re the champion of the working class.” (Many pointed out to me that Wolff had once posted a screenshot of a local real-estate agent’s Instagram bio that said he owned Airbnbs and investment properties with the comment, “Look at this douche. I’m going to rip his head off and feed it to a #lion.” She later deleted it.) There was a strong sense of Schadenfreude — it seemed that many in town who felt they’d long been judged by Wolff were excited to see her slip up. Others were more evenhanded about the situation: “Rebecca’s worked hard, but sometimes she gets in the way of her good work,” Rosenthal says.

As the housing situation worsens everywhere, the subject of short-term rentals and how to regulate them will continue to be hotly debated — often in small understaffed localities, inevitably by political newcomers with strong opinions. “I think so much of the conversation is so loaded because there’s a really apparent housing crisis everywhere in America — it’s hard to live on an income and rent, and if you want to buy something as a first-time home buyer, there’s nothing to buy,” Rosenthal says. “And that makes it really hard in local government to deal with an issue that is just way beyond your resources and capacity.”

As for Wolff, she does have a few regrets. “If I had realized what kind of attention and time and energy it would have sucked for me to have listed my apartment on Airbnb, I probably would have not done it,” she says. “I do feel like it’s a huge distraction from the actual situation.” But mostly she just feels misunderstood. “I made the personal calculation that to have the time to write, a luxury indeed, is a luxury that I have to some extent earned through what are inarguably my good works,” she wrote in a blog post following the incident. “Most importantly I will for the hundredth time explain that owner-occupied short term rentals do not pose a threat to the availability of housing nor to the character of the city, as do non-owner-occupied short term rentals, and that is why the law I helped to pass does not outlaw them.”

An Anti-Airbnb Activist Rented Her House on Airbnb