June 15, 2024

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Welcome to Hochatown, the Town Created by Airbnb

9 min read

The tiny town of Hochatown, on the shores of Broken Bow Lake in the southeast corner of Oklahoma, was created exactly one year ago. And it’s almost entirely thanks to Airbnb.

“Airbnb built this town 100 percent,” said Dian Jordan, the mayor of Hochatown. Last November, Ms. Jordan and 128 fellow residents successfully fought to incorporate a narrow 11-square-mile strip of bumpy dirt roads, modest log cabins and enormous modern mansions that sits within the territory of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

During the week, Hochatown has a population of just 219 people, but on weekends, as many as 50,000 visitors, mostly from Dallas, a three-hour drive away, flock there to kayak, fly-fish and hike among the waterfalls, rapids and thick forests of pine and pawpaw trees.

Before the pandemic, Hochatown had roughly 400 cabins for rent. There are now more than 2,400 — a staggering 413 percent increase in five years, according to AirDNA, a short-term rental business site that tracks Airbnb data. In September, the town collected its first month’s sales tax, totaling $456,000, and hopes to eventually reap as much as $1 million in tax revenue a month.

“For a town of a few hundred people, this number is astronomical,” said David Francis, the business registration manager at the Oklahoma Tax Commission. “The town is basically one giant Airbnb.”

At the height of the pandemic, the number of Airbnb listings in small towns and rural areas exploded, as city dwellers fled to the country. At the same time, urban areas have cracked down on short term rentals, among them New York City, which rolled out strict new rules in September about who can — and cannot — rent out their homes to short-term guests. Since its implementation, the company’s short-term listings in New York have fallen by 77 percent, according to AirDNA.

Some predicted that these regulatory changes would spell Airbnb’s death knell, and there were reports that its revenue was dropping precipitously as the waning pandemic changed travel patterns. But last week, the company posted better-than-expected third quarter results. According to the company, it added nearly 1 million active listings this year, and in the first half of 2023, Airbnb guests stayed in over 94,000 cities and towns — a record, the company said.

“The dispersal of tourism, often to places where there are no hotels, has major economic benefits,” said Jay Carney, the global head of policy and communications at Airbnb. “Areas that might be seeing population declines or industries moving out, can now generate tourism dollars for the first time.”

But the company’s report also contained a data point that is reverberating through Airbnb boom towns like Hochatown: For the first time since the pandemic recovery, Airbnb’s supply of rental homes is outpacing demand, with supply increasing 19 percent year over year, compared to just 14 percent for demand. That gap can spell disaster for hosts, particularly those who bought houses at the peak of the market with the idea of renting them out. In extreme cases, they are being forced to sell at a loss.

“Five percentage points between supply and demand is very significant,” said Bjorn Hanson, an adjunct professor at New York University’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality, and can cause hosts to drop their prices, in what can quickly become a race to the bottom.

What might be called the Airbnb effect has transformed the landscapes — and the economies — of countless small towns across the United States. In Northport, Ala., Airbnb listings jumped 47 percent in the last 12 months. In Eagle Pass, in East Texas, Airbnb listings grew more than 168 percent year over year.

Perhaps no place has been transformed more than Hochatown. U.S. Highway 259, a two-lane road, is the only way into and out of town. On weekends it is a traffic jam of long-haul trucks, tribal buses and tourist vehicles, including streams of R.Vs. Hochatown does not have a single police officer or professional firefighter. There is no sewerage system, no garbage collection, not even sufficient water to handle the proliferation of people and new homes.

As its popularity grew, Hochatown’s push to become an official town accelerated. Because it was unincorporated area, decisions about its resources for services and utilities were made by the McCurtain County. For instance, as Airbnbs spread, and one-room cabins transformed into $1 million rental homes, Hochatown’s roads remained unpaved and riddled with potholes, many impassable without four-wheel drive; homeowners often paid to pave their own roads.

Water was another pressing problem. Most Airbnbs in the area boast hot tubs, which use an inordinate amount of water. “If you don’t have a hot tub, you can’t rent,” said Leo Winegar, a cabin owner in Hochatown. “But if a pipe breaks, because of the lack of redundancy and infrastructure, half the town has no water for days.”

Some assistance has come from the Choctaw Nation, the country’s third-largest Native American tribe. It is constructing Choctaw Landing, a $238 million resort and casino in Hochatown, which is expected to bring 443,000 visitors annually when it opens this spring. To facilitate this, the tribe is widening portions of U.S. Highway 259 and upgrading some of the area’s rural water infrastructure.

Hochatown’s history is long, even if it’s identity as a town is short. Flint spear and dart points indicate that it was inhabited as early as 6,000 B.C. The Caddo people used it as their winter hunting grounds, and the first Choctaws arrived in the 1830s, driven by the forced resettlement of America’s Indigenous people known as the Trail of Tears. White settlers came at the turn of the 20th century, logging the area’s virgin forests and manufacturing moonshine — big business during Prohibition. They called their settlement Hochatown, thought it was never formally incorporated.

By 1960, Hochatown’s population had dwindled to less than 100, and the Army Corps of Engineers flooded the land to construct a dam. Old Hochatown, as it is now known, lies beneath Broken Bow Lake. The remaining residents were relocated to higher ground, and over the ensuing years, Hochatown lost its post office, its ZIP code and its place on the map.

In 2015, Ms. Jordan, a volunteer mayor who is as rugged and can-do as her town, helped lead the effort to incorporate. Like almost everyone in Hochatown, the 61-year-old, who retires next month as a senior lecturer at the University of Texas Permian Basin, is also a cabin owner, with three rental properties.

With Hochatown’s hefty tax revenues on the line, opponents of its incorporation quickly emerged. The city of Broken Bow, which lies nine miles to the south, annexed part of the town for itself. Hochatown sued and won back control over the area, but the relationship between neighbors remains frosty.

“We were just trying to help them be successful,” said Vickie Patterson, the city manager of Broken Bow, who added it was part of an effort to bring services like traffic lights to the area. Hochatown residents also sued the county over lodging taxes. They lost the case and are appealing the decision.

The past few years were a frenzy of buying and building. “The Covid thing was both a blessing and a curse,” Todd McDaniel, a builder who also manages 60 rental properties, said as he drove to the store for sardines to lure a raccoon that had lodged itself in the roof of a cabin. “When it first hit, we were refunding tens of thousands of dollars to guests. Then somebody flipped the switch, and we were running at 95 percent occupancy.”

Land prices doubled, and cabins, many built speedily, without adhering to building codes, were repeatedly flipped. One home, called “California Dreaming,” was sold in 2020 for $590,000, then again in 2021, for $1.1 million.

With the influx of people and profits, chaos ensued. “It’s the Wild West,” said Jason Ward, a cabin owner in Hochatown. “When there is that much money on the line, things get crazy.”

One story, of a part-time transplant from Dallas, shows just how crazy. In 2018, Kelli Haus was a single mother with two young sons. She emptied her bank account and used her life savings to purchase a rental cabin in Hochatown. She quickly sold it for double what she’d paid and reinvested her profits, snatching up more properties. Eventually, Ms. Haus became a real estate agent.

At the market’s height, Ms. Haus’s signs were plastered all over town, and for some, she came to personify the changes afoot. Her signs were defaced with mustaches and devil horns; bullet holes were drawn on her forehead.

But Ms. Haus wasn’t cowed. Instead, she enlarged one of the defaced signs and stuck it on a billboard heading into town. “When people saw it, my phone blew up with supporters,” she said. “The whole thing backfired.”

Harassment like that faced by Ms. Haus, as well as noise complaints, damaged property and theft have become relatively common in Hochatown. Yet with no police force, residents rely on the highway patrol, park rangers and the McCurtain County Sheriff’s Department, which was in the news earlier this year when its sheriff was caught on audio tape discussing killing journalists and Black people.

The town does have a former deputy who founded his own security company. Jason Ricketts, whose body builder physique belies a soft heart, quells noisy parties and other disturbances and is “our own Barney Fife,” said Ms. Jordan, referring to the fictional deputy on “The Andy Griffith Show.”

In the spring, the gold rush began to slow. Occupancy rates plummeted to 55 percent in March and dipped to a low of 40 percent in August. “For Sale” signs were posted, and listings that once sold in hours took months. The “California Dreaming” cabin, which had doubled in value in a single year, was re-listed in 2022 for $1.299 million. After repeated price cuts, it is now asking just $899,000.

Mr. Winegar was caught up in the slowdown. He bought land at the end of 2021, when the bubble was peaking, but by the time he finished construction and was ready to rent his cabin, the bubble had burst. What he expected to be a sure moneymaker was an instant loser.

“We scrimped and saved to buy a plot of land and get a construction loan,” said Mr. Winegar, who lives in Dallas with his wife and three children. He built the home with a dream of recreating for his family the memories he had of going to his uncle’s cabin in Idaho as a boy. “At the time, the numbers were so amazing, it seemed like there was no way I could lose.”

This summer, Mr. Winegar was laid off from a job in tech. He’s now working nights at a Dallas Costco and starting a handyman business in Hochatown, despite a lack of experience.

One recent morning, Mr. Winegar was exhausted after driving from his night shift to Hochatown. His only food for the next two days was carrots and cans of tuna fish, and he was busy watching YouTube to figure out how to flush a tankless water heater.

Ms. Jordan is friends with Mr. Winegar and is sympathetic to his misfortune. But as mayor, she welcomes the real estate dip. “It is a blessing,” she said, “a chance to catch our breath and catch up.”

In its most recent earnings announcement, Airbnb said that it was expecting much of its growth in the next year to come from international rentals, especially in Latin America and the Asia-Pacific market. And it has also rolled out several initiatives that it says will make it easier for hosts to stay competitive in their markets.

A spokesman for the company said it is always trying to balance the needs of hosts and guests, and that a growing supply helps ensure that guests have choices and keeps prices down.

“I hope I don’t have to sell the cabin,” sighed Mr. Winegar. “We still have a bit of savings. If Airbnb could just promote our listing a bit more, maybe even lower their fees, I think I can make it.”



Julie Satow

2023-11-10 10:03:00

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