Story by Ashley Johnson Photographs by Baxter Miller
Our culture is changing. People are emphasizing experiences and focusing less on material objects. Consider the tiny house movement: people are downsizing, putting extra money towards debt and enjoying a lifestyle that happens to fit into 200 square feet. A new kind of entrepreneur is emerging from this movement — one who doesn’t have ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder, but instead, has the desire to live a deliberately flexible lifestyle, even if that means stringing together multiple sources of income.
Start-ups formed on the values of this movement have popped up across the country and built a robust economic sector that relies on sharing resources. Here’s the gist of this burgeoning economy: individuals connect and share their resources (i.e., a spare room or a car), typically through online platforms or mobile apps. These businesses defy traditional service industry models and can’t quite be classified, but the gig/sharing/on-demand/peer-to-peer economy is founded in trust and transparency and encourages innovation and collaboration.
While 20 and 30-somethings have made the sharing economy popular, it’s not just Millennials jumping on the bandwagon. In a Washington Post Op-Ed, Virginia Senator Mark Warner noted the sector, “also includes middle-age professionals downsized at mid-career and baby boomers hit with a premature end to what they thought were solid careers. And it includes a lot of folks for whom working multiple jobs is nothing new: It’s just how they’ve always gotten by.”
Businesses on the leading edge of this shift have taken off. Airbnb — an online marketplace independent homeowners and travelers use to list and rent spaces — is at the forefront of this movement, and the company’s slogan, “Belong Anywhere,” suggests they know it.
In 2007, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia couldn’t make the rent in their San Francisco apartment. They considered their dilemma and what they had to work with — which happened to be a spare loft, a few air mattresses and the ability to cook a good breakfast — and created a solution that went far beyond the walls of their apartment. They, along with former roommate Nathan Blecharczyk, are, you guessed it, the founders of Airbnb. What started as a way for a few broke guys to make a buck has grown into a $25.5 billion company with over 2 million listings in 34,000 cities and 190 countries. Today, Airbnb is one of the biggest players in the sharing economy.
By connecting independent homeowners with travelers, companies like Airbnb foster creativity and customization on both ends. Do you want to stay in a castle in Ireland? An apartment in Times Square? A houseboat in Amsterdam? A home in L.A. built by Charlie Chaplin? Or the fresh uptown Charlotte pad that belongs to Carolina Panthers’ safety Roman Harper? Airbnb makes that possible. Your experience traveling the world is infinitely customizable.
Airbnb emerged in large cities, but today listings in rural areas around the globe abound. Besides offering “off-the-grid” locations, Airbnb encourages experiences and human connection. Folks can stay in the spare room of a family’s home or at least meet the host, many of whom assume the role of local tour guide. What’s more, hosts can provide special perks to guests like a farm-to-table breakfast, a private yoga class or even a boat ride down the Cape Fear River. Essentially, you can take a trip to a foreign country and stay with the foreign exchange student roommate from college that you never actually had. This seems to be one of the driving reasons behind travelers choose Airbnb over more traditional options.
The sharing economy has made it to North Carolina. Dive into several unique Airbnb properties peppered throughout the state, and explore why these hosts have chosen to open up their homes to strangers. Their backgrounds and experiences as hosts are as varied and unique as the properties they offer. Built over time with love, attentiveness and purpose, their homes are oozing with character and personality. Every house has a story and every guest becomes a part of it. The hosts have different motivations for joining Airbnb, but all share the desire to live with purpose and are encouraging people to experience North Carolina in a new way. Let’s explore some fabulous, off-the-wall spaces where you can spend the night in our neck of the woods.
The best way to describe Allen Walker is to liken him to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby — that is, if the luxury suit was replaced with muddy boots, callused hands, and a face speckled from hours under the sun. He’s a bit of a celebrity in the Wilmington area, and most people know him because they’ve been to a party at Walker World, his riverside artist retreat just outside the city limits of Castle Hayne.
Allen understands The Great Gatsby comparison. “I get that innuendo a lot and I really like playing the part,” he says. His famous parties are over-the-top. Allen says he can’t seem to have an “intimate” gathering of 90 people these days without 400 showing up — perplexing considering Walker World isn’t in the middle of town. The ten-acre property is nestled at the end of winding gravel road on the Cape Fear River. It’s as Allen describes, “enough property to keep neighbors off of you but close enough to town.”
Allen has been listing Walker World on Airbnb since 2013. Guests stay in the main house, a hodgepodge, masterpiece of “junk” that Allen built himself entirely from found materials. A suspended 60-foot rowing scull runs through the center of the main house, while street signs, poetry, bookcases filled with with philosophical musings, and his children’s artwork decorate the walls. He used remnants of a floating dock from the old Southport and Bald Head Island Marinas to build the expansive deck out back. The property also includes a 500-square-foot guesthouse, an amphitheater that hosts local bands, an organic garden and a deep water boat slip made of recycled material.
Allen rents his property as a means to an end — a way to live how he wants. He doesn't only mean extra income. Airbnb offers Allen an opportunity to interact with all sorts of people and do what seems to be his forte: show folks a good time. A stay at Walker World most always begins with a tour of the property and an offer to take you on a boat tour 25 miles down the Cape Fear River, to downtown Wilmington, from Allen himself. Take or leave it, but it’d be hard to refuse a ride on the masterpiece of a vessel that is six pontoon boats morphed together with a piano situated on deck. Each time the weather claims the piano on board — which has happened five times — Allen restores another one. He’s infatuated by the instrument, calling the piano “the stronghold of every instrument on the planet.”
Folks come from all corners of the world to stay in Walker’s World. A family from Paris once stayed an entire month and the wife, an author, eventually created a book character based on Allen.
Allen believes in Airbnb as an environmentally conscious approach to life. “It’s the most natural save-the-world attitude. People are sharing spaces instead of building new ones,” he says.
The advantages for guests are obvious: you get to see Wilmington and the surrounding area in a truly unique way, meet an endlessly interesting man whose tendency to live in the moment is totally contagious, and you’re not staying in a house. As Allen says, you’re staying in a home — an art castle.
A scene from the pages of a storybook unfolds over 235 acres of farmland, on Fickle Creek Farm in rural Efland, North Carolina.
A classic red barn sits nestled in a meadow; gardens cluster in plots of edible colors; cattle, chickens, pigs, turkeys and sheep stipple the surrounding fields; large thick-furred dogs patrol the perimeter of the property. Fickle Creek Farm’s owners, Noah Ranells and Ben Bergmann, are portraits of the modern farmer. They believe in putting their efforts where they can see them, supporting their local community and having a palpable connection to their food. Noah and Ben embrace a back-to-the basics philosophy and encourage folks who book an Airbnb farm-stay to embrace that lifestyle as well.
Noah Ranells, who hails from the Northeast, made his way south to NC State University where he received an MS in Crop Science and PhD in Soil Science and Ecology. He works for NC Agricultural and Technical State University as an agribusiness management and marketing extension specialist. In 1999, he and Ben began building a sustainable permaculture farm where animals are raised hormone-free and range as they please on pesticide-free pastures.
Today, Fickle Creek Farm sells products to a handful of farmers’ markets and neighborhood restaurants, participates in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Farm Tour, and hosts WWOOF volunteers in exchange for organic farming education.
While growing their farm, Noah and Ben decided to use the small efficiency above the farmhouse garage to accommodate guests. They considered opening their doors as a bed and breakfast but for such a small space, they didn’t want to be involved with county inspections. Airbnb was the perfect solution.
A stay at Fickle Trip Farm includes a farm fresh breakfast and the opportunity to tag along for a typical day’s chores. Guests come in all forms. Some are in between travel destinations; some are visiting the Triangle but prefer to stay on the outskirts of town; others are in between homes and come for a long-term stay; some come for the farm’s seclusion and bucolic landscape; others want perspective on how to responsibly spend their money on food.
Noah is passionate about finding ways for rural people to make a living in their own community. He believes that making opportunity for small businesses to thrive is essential. “I want to support neighbors rather than large multi-national companies. The world I want to live [in] includes that,” he says.
Julie Amani first encountered Airbnb as a guest when she and her daughter traveled through Europe. Hosts provided genuine cultural experiences and insider tips for touring local areas. “If it hadn’t been for staying with these people and eating breakfast with them,” says Julie, “I don’t know what we would’ve done.”
Connecting with local culture is important to Julie back at home in Pittsboro, too. She works for Shakori Hills Grassroots Music Festival and the Hoppin John Old-Time and Bluegrass Fiddlers’ Convention located outside Pittsboro, in the farm community of Silk Hope. For the last 12 years, people have come to Shakori Hills to celebrate folk music with performances from notable artists like Yonder Mountain String Band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Marshall Tucker Band and the Avett Brothers. Part of the draw for the festival is its location: tucked away in the woodlands of Chatham County, it offers a get-a-way that’s accessible from the Triangle. The festival encourages communal living, camping and ridesharing for the weekend — priorities that resonate with Julie. When festival-goers depart, Julie returns to her house in the woods, the headquarters for adventurous Airbnb “glampers.”
Julie hosts guests in a refurbished 1953 GMC Greyhound bus that sits behind her home. At first glance, the Greyhound might appear to be simply a worn, out-of-commision passenger bus. But its rows of seats and cheap carpet have been replaced with bushel basket ceilings, curtains, a twin bed, a sink, a double bed, a wood stove, a dining table and bookshelves filled with books. Guests can imagine the hundreds of travelers who rode the bus in its glory days, while they make their own adventures a part of the bus’ story. As long as you can do without a curling iron and have no qualms with using an outhouse or washing in an outdoor shower, the bus — which runs on off-grid solar electricity — offers what Julie calls upscale camping.
She knows exactly what she’s offering guests, too — she and her daughter lived on in the bus for seven years before their house was built. Airbnb gave Julie a reason to renovate the deteriorating Greyhound. Many of her visitors are people passing through who want an interesting and affordable place to stay, but she’s also hosted young people looking for a quiet weekend retreat.
Though he was born in upstate New York, John Carey spent most of his life on the Albemarle Sound in Holiday Island. A post-college job as a door-to-door salesman sparked his interest in home design and led to his purchase of the William H. Bahr house in 2011. The one-of-a-kind, dome-shaped home, which resembles a huge blue golf ball, is nestled off-the-beaten-path in Hillsborough. John has spent the last five years renovating and redesigning the once-condemned building. John, who often travels for work as a college recruiter, decided to rent the Dome Home on Airbnb when he was away. Though his first inclination was to be wary about giving strangers access to his home, John remembered how seeing others' creative spaces motivated him, and wants to give that back to his guests. “[Staying here] gives them the chance to see possibilities,” he says.
The decades old home is futuristic. Its “smart” technology allows guests to turn on the heat from anywhere. The interior is reminiscent of a 3D computer house model that rotates 360 degrees as walls disappear so you can get a closer look inside, only in the dome home, there are literally no interior walls. John likes how the open floor plan encourages people to interact and forcibly brings people together.
John calls it an experiment of a house, but I’m more apt to call it a jungle gym oasis. The home’s three stories are connected by stairs and a climbing rope that dangles from roof to floor. The property includes a basketball court, olympic hanging rings, pull-up bars and an aerial yoga swing. On the Airbnb listing there’s a clear warning: “the layout of the dome can be dangerous if inhabitants aren't being observant.”
John likes to meet guests. He does demonstrations on the climbing rope to make sure they get the most out of the house. Listed under Interaction with Guests: “If we are in town you can look forward to great conversation, breakfast if requested and YOGA!” People seem to dig the opportunity to meet John, too. He’s built new friendships with guests who continue to return to the dome home.
John’s sister Jess Carey, operates an Airbnb from her historic home in Richmond, VA. In August of 2015, Jess met with Senator Mark Warner who called together Virginia entrepreneurs to discuss motivations for participating in a sharing economy. Jess said that most of them had the same thing in mind: more free time, the desire to escape a traditional 40-hour workweek and corporate America. Sen. Mark Warner’s biggest concern is whether these new entrepreneurs — part independent contractor, part freelancer — have health and retirement benefits and a sufficient financial safety net.
The growth of the sharing economy is significant. According to TIME, more than 90 million adults report participation in the sharing economy, an amount that “is greater than the number of Americans who identify, respectively, as Republicans or Democrats.” Its swift rise has created a host of regulatory issues. Many states, including North Carolina, are challenging the legality of space sharing. Cities are concerned that rental properties listed on Airbnb create a shortage of long-term affordable housing, and that existing city regulations (i.e., one that mandates no more than four unrelated people can live in one space) are difficult to enforce.
While cities want to incentivize tourism, Airbnb is technically illegal in Asheville and Raleigh, but that hasn’t deterred entrepreneurs from listing their spaces in these two popular travel destinations. Competitors, like traditional hotels and bed and breakfasts, feel that Airbnb threatens their business if the hosts don’t have to pay equivalent taxes and fees. To address this concern, Airbnb now collects and remits hotel taxes in states like North Carolina, but last spring, The Oakwood Inn Bed and Breakfast, Raleigh’s last official bed and breakfast, closed. The owners said they couldn’t compete with the increase in Airbnb rentals.
While entrepreneurs and policymakers are actively sorting through the benefits and consequences of the sharing economy, the experiences it offers consumers are clear. In the case of these North Carolina spaces, the folks sharing their homes on Airbnb take pride in their work and see it as a way to live a life aligned with their values. These customized properties and experiences give them a chance to share their spin on North Carolina hospitality and to make an extra buck.