Philly Landlords Are Cashing In on the Pope's Visit
Pope Francis is visiting Philadelphia at the end of September, giving worshippers the potentially transcendent experience of watching the leader of the Catholic Church celebrate mass. And giving local residents a more worldly opportunity: the chance to make bank by renting out their homes.
On Craigslist, a keyword search for "Pope" turned up 1,800 short-term rental listings for out-of-towners coming to Philadelphia during the papal trip. Some are insultingly expensive, such as an "elegant" four-bedroom townhouse listed for $150,000, or an 875-square-foot apartment listed for $20,000. (Those appear to be weekly prices; neither landlord responded to e-mail queries.) Other listings are downright odd. The owner of a 1993 Honda Accord is offering to park the car near a transit hub for some intrepid traveler willing to pay $30 a night to sleep inside. And for $75 a night, visitors with a more aquatic inclination can rent a bunk on the Battleship New Jersey, a decommissioned naval vessel that operates as a museum.
"What's the right price? That's kind of the Holy Grail question," says Brent Rovner, 30, a Web design consultant who created the website Popedelphia to serve as a clearinghouse for listings on Craigslist, Airbnb, and other home-sharing sites. Rovner himself is asking $10,000 for a week in his home, a remodeled two-bedroom that's a short walk from where Pope Francis will speak. Better still, he has two parking spaces—likely to be crucial for visitors in an overcrowded city. “ I had one inquiry for $2,000, but I decided it wasn’t enough to give up the keys."
Rovner's rate is on-par with other listings on HomeAway, a website for vacation rentals, where the average nightly rate for the week of Francis’s visit is $1,690. That's eight times more than the average rate in Philadelphia for the rest of the year, says Jon Gray, the company's chief revenue officer. The markup is about twice what Gray usually sees during big events, but it's not unprecedented. It's bigger than that for the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans, for example, but similar to the rmarkup for the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas. HomeAway’s inventory of about 350 homes available during the Pope's trip is already 92 percent booked, Gray says.
Francis will also visit New York and Washington during his U.S. trip, but public events in Philadelphia on Saturday and Sunday offer the best chances to hear him speak. Even in an age of Instagram and Snapchat, the chance to lay eyes on the leader of the Catholic Church is a powerful draw—which is why Church officials are holding a lottery for tickets to watch the Pope’s motorcade pass through New York's Central Park.
Philadelphia is hosting a conference called World Meeting of Families that's expected to attract Catholics from around the world during the week before Pope Francis visits. Many fear that the city lacks the hotel capacity to handle the estimated 1 million people who'll descend on the city. “I’m asking Catholics and other generous people across the archdiocese to please consider opening your homes to offer lodging to visitors,” Archbishop Charles Chaput, of the local diocese, wrote in a February blog post. Some Philadelphians are honoring that plea: More than 1,700 homes are listed on Homestay.com for less than $100 a night, says Suzanne Cox, a marketing executive for the site.
Profiteering on a Papal Mass might strike some as unseemly. Others might point to Pope Francis’s criticisms of capitalist excess and suggest that Philadelphia's short-term landlords are merely engaging in a little wealth redistribution. “We live in a free-market economy, and we can understand why some might want to offer their homes for personal gain,” said World Meetings of Families spokesperson Rachael Harleman in a statement. “As for what private individuals are planning in terms of property rental fees—we cannot speculate on that nor can we control it.”