Heathside Cottage in Fineview. Photo by Brian Cohen.

Hidden behind a fence in Highland Park is an unlikely urban resort where hosts Steve and Jody Choder have welcomed the world to Pittsburgh.

Two vintage houseboats, a tree house meditation hut, swimming pool and a two-level koi fish pond dot the one-acre wooded property on the Allegheny River, which they purchased in 2001.

The treehouse meditation hut at Choderwood. Photo by Quelcy Kogel.
The treehouse meditation hut at Choderwood. Photo by Quelcy Kogel.

There they have hosted a Las Vegas chef on a food tour, a family from England en route to a wedding and a father and son from Mexico City in town for a Steelers game. And while Choderwood, as it’s known, is open for events, it’s also one of the more unusual Airbnb offerings in the region, featuring two rooms and both houseboats. The appeal for the Choders as hosts goes beyond revenue.

“You get to meet so many interesting people and you get to introduce them to Pittsburgh,” Jody Choder says.

When Greg Manley hosts a traveler at his North Side home, he makes it a point to show them around town, whether it’s an evening porch crawl through his neighborhood, or a stop at the “lookout” for a glimpse of the skyline.

“I try to encourage some interaction,” Manley says. “It’s not just a generic beach side hotel. It’s about sharing.”

Both properties are listed on Airbnb, the phenom of a website that offers short-term stays at properties owned by locals. Apps such as Airbnb and HomeAway have emerged as major forces in the marketplace and increasingly, in Pittsburgh.

With just a few clicks on a smartphone, travelers can book a bedroom, a house, a fairytale cabin, a castle and even an igloo in 190-plus countries around the world. Rentals range from a spare room in an urban apartment for $30 per night, to an empty house in Bora Bora for $9,300 per night.

The San Francisco-based company was founded in 2008, and in June was valued at an estimated $25.5 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“It’s not hard to understand why (the services) have taken off,” Duquesne University economist Matt Ryan said. “There’s the convenience of the app, and on top of that, users are paying less.”

Not to mention the lure of staying in a unique place and neighborhood often outside the hotel districtwith the chance to get to know the city in a different way. It’s all part of the adventure.

One of two vintage houseboats offered by the Choders through Airbnb. Quelcy  Kogel photo.
One of two vintage houseboats offered by the Choders through Airbnb. Quelcy Kogel photo.

More than 300 Airbnb and 40 HomeAway locations are now listed in Pittsburgh and the selection continues to grow. Guests who used the Airbnb app have traveled here for conventions, college tours, sporting events and business trips, according to local hosts. And they have stayed in a wide range of places, from a historic row home in the Mexican War Streets ($83 a night with private porch and bath) to a National Historic Landmark in Fineview (pictured here at $56 nightly) to a private room in a three-story house in Oakland. All have four to five star ratings from hundreds of reviews.

Nertila Koni, 28, of New York City, says she used Airbnb for the first time when she traveled to Pittsburgh for a job interview. She found a room on the North Side for $39 per night, in a three-story house with a view of the BNY Mellon Building from her bathroom window.

The owner wasn’t home during her stay, but there were two other guests — writers from France researching a book.

“The thought of going in to someone else’s house and sleeping in their bed was a little scary at first,” Koni notes. “But the room was nice and it was definitely way cheaper than a hotel.”

While the number of rooms and guests at some of the Airbnb and HomeAway locations would rival that of a Bed and Breakfast—which are taxed and regulated by the government—the amenities typically aren’t the same. Koni says meals were not included with her stay and she washed her own dishes.

There is no tax or business permit in Pittsburgh associated with Airbnb. In fact, a clerk at the Pittsburgh business permit office – where hotel and Bed and Breakfast owners pay for a license – never heard of the service.

Hosts are only responsible for paying federal and state taxes as a 10-99, independent contractor, per their agreement with Airbnb. Only a few U.S. cities so far have enacted laws to regulate and tax Airbnb. Philadelphia was the most recent.

In preparation for the momentous visit from the Pope this month, Philadelphia council enacted an eight percent hotel tax and a ban on rentals in most residential areas. Hosts only can rent a space for 180 days of the year.

Regulations will allow for “more guests, more local spending and more taxes to flow into Philadelphia,” a spokesman for Airbnb says.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto hasn’t voiced a public opinion on possible regulations in Pittsburgh, spokesman Tim McNulty says.

“Obviously we’re not there yet,” says McNulty. “Just like with the ridesharing stuff, we’d want to work with the companies involved and the users to make sure we’re supporting the industry, but also keeping it safe for users.”

Regulations in Pittsburgh likely would originate with policy makers at the state and county level, says Eric Montarti, senior policy analyst at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy. Lawmakers have to walk a fine line with the emerging share economy, which also includes ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft, he notes.

“You don’t want to smother innovation, but you also don’t want to destroy the way of life for people who live in the area,” Montarti says.

A free service similar to Airbnb, but unaffected by regulation, is Couchsurfing. Hosts say they do it for the human interaction and the adventure.

Manley hosted a “couch surfer” from São Paulo, Brazil, who in turn offered to return the favor if he ever was in the area. “That’s a certain kind of wealth,” Manley says.

Though money is the sole motivation for some hosts.

Andrew Wells, a student in Oakland, says the revenue helps. Photo by Brian Cohen.
Andrew Wells, a student in Oakland, says the revenue helps. Photo by Brian Cohen.

University of Pittsburgh student Andrew Wells, 23, says the additional income from Airbnb helps pay the rent. Like many hosts, Wells is out of town when a guest stays at his apartment and he hasn’t had an issue with damaged or stolen property.

Jody and Steve Choder rely on the app’s rating system and phone conversations with potential guests as safeguards. The couple booked 300 stays in 2014 and 54 stays in August without intentional property damage or theft.

Manley, 30, says he’s stayed in more than 30 houses and apartments around the world as an Airbnb guest and never had a bad experience. In Fort Lauderdale, he and his girlfriend stayed with Mango Rob, who hosted parties in his backyard next to a garden under a massive mango tree.

“Part of his welcome included a lesson on how to cut mangos properly and the right amount of rum to use for smoothies,” says Manley, who plans to host a Victorian Garden Party in October at his historic house in Fineview, the first built in the neighborhood.

His thinking? The new technology hearkens back to older times. “It’s making people friendlier, and fearless,” he says.

Kyle Lawson

As an award-winning journalist and part-time musician in Pittsburgh for more than a decade, Kyle’s passion for the local music scene runs deep. He's spent the last five years as a staff writer with Trib Total Media newspapers while performing in the city’s hottest venues at night. As a freelance writer, he hopes to share stories of the performers and music venues that help make this city special.