One evening this spring, as I was taking the trash out in front of my Central Lawrenceville home, our street was quiet. There was no one walking around, no cars barreling down the road, and it was early enough that there were no echoes of visitors to the bars on Butler Street.
Suddenly, two black SUVs pulled up, and what seemed like 12 to 14 women piled out. “C’mon Jessica … Hurry up, Samantha. Let’s go now,” I heard amid a flurry of loud exchanges. As suitcases were dragged up a set of stairs, I spotted the leader wearing her signature bridal veil, telling of another bachelorette party. They filed into the house, and I was reminded of an all-too-familiar sight in my neighborhood: Another weekend swarm of short-term rental bookings.
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Despite being a 37-year old, I know I sound like an old, crotchety man screaming “get off my lawn.” But the rise of short-term rentals is — in my humble opinion — dissolving my neighborhood, and my sense of community. Sometimes I feel like I’m screaming into a void when telling others about it. Friends have suggested simply moving out of Lawrenceville. Even worse, family members suggested moving to the suburbs. But at this point it seems as though my partner and I have settled into our Central Lawrenceville house. And maybe I’ve just been spoiled my whole life when it comes to having a strong community of neighbors.
Growing up in Buffalo in the late 80s and early 90s on the West Side, I have such fond memories of events that brought the community together: elaborate block parties, friends coming and going into neighboring houses unplanned. There were always large crowds of trick-or-treaters, and people flowing into the street to discuss news-worthy events.
I know, a different time.
But even when I lived in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill through my twenties, I found comfort in the same neighborly things. I felt such a strong sense of community on tucked-away Fernwald Road, where I could name practically every one of my neighbors. I’ll never forget the day we moved in, when a family of four from a few doors down appeared at our door with a full chocolate cake and a promise to help with anything we’d need. All we had to do was ask. Fernwald Road provided a strong sense of community.
We moved to 42nd Street in Central Lawrenceville in 2018, mainly because the house we found is quirky as hell, and has a unique history combined with ample space. I’m also obsessed with the walkability to the shops on Butler Street.
The vibe, though, was different. No neighbors congregating in the streets to chat, no block parties, no doorbell rings with chocolate cakes. We settled in, and met a few neighbors here and there who would at least give us a wave when walking the dog, or check in on how we were doing.
I was in the backyard one evening when I struck up a conversation with our set of neighbors who have a yard catty-cornered with ours. They offhandedly mentioned that they sometimes rent their house as an Airbnb when they head out of town on weekends. Totally fine, I thought — and it was. No crazy parties, and we rarely noticed most renters minus an occasional weeknight screaming match. That, though, was 2018, when short-term rentals hadn’t yet invaded.
Today, as I walk down the street, it’s a different story. The norm has become random rider-share drivers dropping off gaggles of people with suitcases, cars parked on sidewalks instead of parking spots because visitors want to be close to their rentals and mysterious cones saving spaces for people who don’t live here. Out of the 24 houses on my block in Central Lawrenceville, I’ve observed six being used as short-term rentals. There’s speculation that another one is about to turn based on its September sale to an anonymous LLC.
When I’m walking the dogs, it’s hard not to notice the lockboxes hanging, or the electronic keypads installed. There’s trash that builds up because no one is there to place it out each week, resulting in the occasional rat infestation. Our neighbor a few doors down consistently finds guests of nearby short-term rental houses parked in front of his driveway.
And of course we’ve seen parties on a random Tuesday night spill into the street, 25 to 30 kids deep. Two of the Airbnbs actually have adjoining doors. It’s a too-perfect arrangement for a double house party.
The biggest difference is the lack of neighbors that could be filling those six houses, and I inevitably think back to my days in Squirrel Hill and Buffalo.
Lawrenceville isn’t the only neighborhood in the city seeing this issue. You may remember the 2022 double-fatal shooting in an Airbnb in East Allegheny. That prompted councilman Bobby Wilson to attempt to pass legislation to create a short-term rental registry, though implementation has been complicated by court decisions.
There’s also the affordable housing issue.
I look at the Airbnb directly across from us that in 2021 transferred from a private residence to a company based in New York City for only $200,000. While not dirt cheap, that’s certainly more affordable than most properties in Lawrenceville. It’s the perfect example of out-of-town companies scooping up cheaper properties and renting them out. With property values only continuing to trend upwards, these modestly priced homes are becoming fewer and fewer, only to be snagged by absentee landlords.
Last month, city council unanimously approved an ordinance to mandate inspections on all rentals (not just short-term), and put in place a requirement that owners provide personal contact information. As someone who has looked at what other cities are doing, I don’t think this plan will deter more short-term rentals from popping up.
New Orleans is contemplating allowing only one short-term rental per city block. In Austin, putting a short-term rental in a residential area requires licensing. Florence, Italy, is pursuing an outright ban, and in Denver, you have to prove the rental is also your primary residence and apply for a license. Such a system could prevent out-of-town companies from scooping up low-income properties, and still allow you to occasionally rent out your house.
I see the purpose of short-term rentals, especially for homeowners wanting to make extra cash. If I was visiting Pittsburgh I’d have a blast staying in Lawrenceville! Hitting up Geppetto Cafe for breakfast, shopping at Wildcard, a late afternoon at Arsenal Bowl, then dinner at The Vandal and drinks at Bar Botanico.
But Lawrenceville’s attractiveness as a destination has dulled its sense of community.
Over the course of the last two years in Lawrenceville, we’ve successfully gotten to know some of the neighbors that have moved in with the intention to stay. Back in Squirrel Hill, though, families are everywhere and people are out and about much more than they are here on 42nd Street.
Perhaps I need to do more: Don’t talk about it, be about it, as my partner and I like to say. Maybe I should be knocking on more doors, organizing block parties and initiating those random conversations you have as you walk your dog. It’s hard to be the change when short-term rentals keep changing the landscape around me. Still, if you move to 42nd Street, maybe I’ll be the one holding the chocolate cake on your doorstep some day.
Andy Kelemen is commercial director, and Pittsburgh small business owner, in the form of his production company Dessert Before Dinner, and can be reached through his website.
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