At the end of February, Julia Veldez packed her sister's Subaru full of her most cherished belongings and drove from her home in Seattle to Denver in search of some sunlight. “I haven't seen the sun in eight years,” she jokes.
She didn't have a job yet, but she had some leads and believed her best bet was to get to Denver so she could attend interviews in person. She didn't have a permanent residence lined up, but she had a local Airbnb room booked through March while she looked for apartments and jobs. With April fast approaching, she found both: a job at the Denver Tech Center and an apartment in Capitol Hill. The lease didn't start until April 17, so she started looking for another room on Airbnb to tide her over until then.
She found what she thought to be an ideal room in City Park West for $39 per night. The host, Thomas, was willing to let her stay until the 17th, so Veldez booked it and stopped by on Thursday, March 31, to pick up her keys. She chatted briefly with Thomas in the dining room and quickly inspected her room in the basement before returning to her original Airbnb room for one last night. The next day, she arrived at her new home with a U-Haul full of her belongings. While unloading her things, she says, she noticed a smell in the house: “The room itself smelled exactly like a roach-spray bomb, and the rest of the basement smelled like if you ever had a roommate leave a Costco rotisserie chicken in the trash can for like a week." Besides the smells, she says the window in her room wouldn't open, and there were bunches of hornet's nests wedged in the window's frame.
Veldez packed her things back into the U-Haul and drove to the nearest gas station to reassess her situation. After a Gatorade and a long cry, she was able to get in touch with someone at Airbnb. Their offer: a refund for the remainder of her stay and a 10 percent credit toward her next booking. This didn't sit well with Veldez. She says she couldn't find a host who would let her stay for an extended period of time on such short notice, and the prices exceeded her budget. Veldez, who suffers from PTSD and anxiety, was left in a precarious situation, crying in a U-Haul at a gas station and washing Ativan down with Gatorade to ease her nerves. When she finally got an Airbnb manager on the phone, she says they blamed her for the unfortunate situation.
“She blames me for everything, saying, 'Well, it's the cheapest living in Denver,'” Veldez recalls. “This place shouldn't even be listed, for Christ's sake. No matter what it costs, it's still your name on the line.”
Thomas, who didn't want to disclose his full name, denies the claims that the room smelled of pesticide or was unfit to live in. “No pesticide smell that my wife or I could detect," he wrote Westword in an e-mail. "We actually took the room apart looking for that. First response from our next guest: 'Wow. It smells great in here.'”
According to online reviews, dozens of couch-surfers have stayed in the same room that was offered to Julia. All thirty of their reviews are positive. A couple of them mention that it's a budget option in an old house, and one guest mentions a “musty” smell. Thomas did notice the window in the room was painted shut and says he is in the process of fixing it.
Later that evening, Airbnb offered Veldez $100 for one night at a hotel. She drove back to the neighborhood where her first Airbnb was and stayed a night at the Renaissance Hotel in Stapleton. That night, sensing she wouldn't get much more help from Airbnb, she booked an extended stay at the cheapest hotel she could find, the WoodSpring Suites Aurora, close to the airport. After checking out of the Renaissance the following day, Veldez continued to contact Airbnb in hopes of reimbursement or a new booking that suited her needs. She had overextended her hotel credits.
Feeling betrayed, Veldez employed Twitter in her campaign for justice. “I began tweeting Airbnb's executive board, as well as cc'ing the mayor of Denver and the Denver City Council on all further e-mails,” she says. In her tweets, she provides detailed journal-like entries of her ordeal and accuses Airbnb of leaving her homeless. Whether it was the tweets or just a coincidence, Airbnb soon offered her a flat settlement of $1,264, which covered her original booking fee plus 10 percent, her first night at the Renaissance, and her U-Haul charges. She was responsible for the rest of the cost incurred by staying at WoodSpring.
Nick Shapiro, the global head of trust and risk management at Airbnb, says the company acted in accordance with its policies. “Whenever there's a guest who arrives at a listing and they don't think it's as advertised...or if there's something that makes them feels unsafe, we ask them to reach out to us. We respond by refunding their money or rebooking them.... We never want someone to have a bad experience.”
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Shapiro, looking at internal records of communications between Airbnb and Veldez, says that within an hour, Airbnb offered her a refund and rebooking options. When it was clear Veldez would rather stay in a hotel, the company offered her an additional $100 reimbursement. For Veldez, she wanted more than a refund and one night at a hotel. “I had an eighteen-day stay booked. They should have just fixed it. Two Airbnb employees saw pictures of the place and agreed it was so bad they wouldn't have stayed there themselves. Airbnb should have given a full refund as soon the problem was reported Friday afternoon and immediately provided a replacement Airbnb or hotel near the same area, City Park West. Instead I had to book an extended stay in Aurora out of pocket, the only thing I could afford on short notice.”
Whether Airbnb did enough to appease Veldez or not, it's clear that there's some inherent risk involved in using a service that relies on trusting strangers. There have been tragic incidents in the past, such as when a man was sexually assaulted by his Airbnb host in Madrid in 2015. The victim warned his mother of the potential danger via text before it happened. The mother contacted Airbnb and was told to call the police force in Madrid instead. At that point, it was too late. After the incident, Airbnb made a policy change to ensure that employees call law enforcement agencies immediately if there's an emergency.
Negative experiences are rare, Shapiro says. He points to the 160 million people who have used the service since it was founded in 2008 as proof that it works. The company is valued at $30 billion and operates in over 191 countries, with no signs of slowing down.
Veldez won't be using it again anytime soon. "I've been telling all of my friends, for the love of God, never use Airbnb again," she says. "If everything's right, it works, then if something goes wrong, you are so totally fucked."