The two kinds of Airbnbs I rent

No travel site has saved me as much money as Airbnb–the 10 rooms and the two apartments I’ve booked through the site represent thousands of extra dollars I didn’t have to spend on overpriced hotels at events like Mobile World Congress and Google I/O. But no other travel site has left me thinking so much about its effects on the places I visit.

The vision that Airbnb sells, and the reality I’ve seen in half of those 12 stays, is somebody renting out a room or (when they’re traveling) their entire residence to make extra money on the side. I always appreciate the effort these hosts put in–the labels on everything, the well-placed power strips that hotels often forget, the advice about places to eat and drink nearby–and I like the thought that I’m helping people stay in their homes or apartments.

(A friend in Brooklyn has rented out the extra room in his apartment for years; seeing him favorably review an Airbnb room in Denver put me at ease with staying there for last year’s Online News Association conference.)

But Airbnb also features many other hosts who list multiple properties and, in some cases, have purchased many or all of the apartments in a building to rent out to budget-minded travelers like me. In the latter case–like the room in San Francisco I rented this week that appeared to have once been a single-room-occupancy apartment–you can easily imagine that without an Airbnb, people who live near those places would have more housing options.

That concern, sometimes pushed by the hotel industry, has led many cities to try to restrict Airbnb. In Barcelona, that crackdown meant the apartment in the Gothic Quarter that I’d stayed at for three years in a row was off the market this February because the host couldn’t get the required tourist license (I found another apartment that did have it, or at least said it did). In San Francisco, it’s led the company to start collecting occupancy taxes (which is fine with me).

I don’t want to overstate Airbnb’s effect on a housing market–certainly not in the Bay Area, where development policies founded on delusional entitlement have done far more to jack up residential costs. But I do worry about this.

And then I continue to book on Airbnb when crashing with friends isn’t an option. When the alternative is eating $200 or $300 a night on a hotel room or staying in distant suburbs, what else do you expect me to do?

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The Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington may be Virginia’s least worthy Confederate memorial

Two years after racist violence in Charleston forced most of us to realize that the Confederate battle flag had long since decayed into a symbol of hate, racist violence in Charlottesville has hammered in the rest of that lesson: The same logic applies to statues, memorials and other public commemorations of the Confederacy that whitewash it as a noble but failed venture.

Arlington County exhibits less of this Lost Cause litter than most of Virginia, but one of our few examples may be the least worthy in the Commonwealth: our part of the Jefferson Davis Highway. The name affixed to U.S. 1 from Interstate 395 to Alexandria and to State Route 110 from Rosslyn to I-395 has long been an embarrassing exercise in denial.

• The residents of what was then Alexandria County voted to stay with the Union by a 2-to-1 margin.

• Union troops promptly liberated the county at the start of the Civil War and turned much of it into an armed camp that saw no Confederate attacks; in the bargain, we got Fort Myer.

• Non-Virginian Jefferson Davis displayed neither battlefield genius nor courage during the war and was a lousy political leader. In an essay arguing for moving Confederate statues to museums and cemeteries, National Review editor Rich Lowry idly flicked Davis into the trash as “the blessedly incompetent president of the Confederacy.”

• This highway only got its name in the 1920s after a lobbying effort by the United Daughters of the Confederacy–part of a larger effort to cement a narrative of white supremacy–that put forth Davis alongside Lincoln as “the two great leaders of the critical period of American history.”

• Lest we lose sight of the subtext here, the Confederacy started a war that cost the lives of 750,000-plus people and threatened to dismember the United States so its citizens could keep and abuse other human beings as property.

Arlington effectively backed away from this highway in 2004, when a reshuffling of Crystal City mailing addresses to match them with building entrances erased many Jefferson Davis Highway addresses–including the one of the apartment I shared with three friends after college. (For a while, Apple Maps was a dead-ender about this realignment.) Arlington also renamed a secondary road from “Old Jefferson Davis Highway” to “Long Bridge Drive”; FYI, the park later built next to the renovated street is great for plane- and train-spotting.

Renaming the highway itself, however, requires permission from Virginia’s General Assembly. The County Board put that among its 2016 legislative priorities, but our representatives in Richmond set that goal aside and wound up getting ignored on other issues.

The city of Alexandria, however, faces no such restriction and has started taking suggestions on what to call its portion of the road. And now, after Charlottesville, Arlington’s elected leaders seem more resolute.

Thursday, the County Board issued a statement solidly backing the renaming of Jefferson Davis Highway, with a softer endorsement of rechristening the county’s portion of Lee Highway. (I once saw Robert E. Lee in an entirely different category from Davis; I had read less at the time about his conduct and the greater cruelty of his troops.) Arlington’s school board, in turn, pledged to reconsider the name of Washington-Lee High School.

That leaves the General Assembly with a choice when it’s back in session, either in 2018 or in a special session that Governor McAuliffe could call sooner: Accept that the Confederacy’s losing effort doesn’t warrant a participation trophy for one of its weakest leaders on this stretch of concrete, or disgrace itself with racially-coded control-freakery. This is not an issue with many sides; there is one right side of history here, and Virginia had best place itself on it.

Arcadia Power, or how I’m offsetting half our electricity’s carbon footprint for free

I can credit President Trump for our latest renewable-energy move. The day he announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris climate-change agreement–in almost four years, and for fraudulent reasons–I felt a little more motivated to find more ways to cut down on our home’s carbon footprint.

We’ve long since done the easy stuff, like having insulation blown into the walls, ditching incandescent light bulbs for compact fluorescent bulbs and then LEDS, and replacing a grossly inefficient air-conditioning unit. (Okay, the A/C forced that upon us by dying in the first hot week of last summer.) Putting solar panels on our roof would make a major difference but at a high upfront cost–and waiting until next year or the year after should yield a further decline in that expense.

Arcadia Power energy-use graphicIn our case, that leaves carbon-offset programs, in which you pay to have your energy use offset by buying a share of renewable energy produced elsewhere. Purchasing “Renewable Energy Certificates” won’t immediately leave more coal in the ground, so it’s no substitute for your electric utility selling a renewable-only option. But when your utility is Dominion Energy–which generates only 5.6 percent of its electricity from renewables (versus 33.8 percent from nuclear, 33.6 percent from gas and 26.5 percent from coal) and spends lavishly to stop Richmond from mandating anything greener–that’s all you have.

Dominion has its own REC program, but environmental advocates have criticized it for high overhead costs and its failure to support solar and wind projects in Virginia. What I didn’t realize until the president’s petulance about Paris got me to do some more research: Better options exist.

The one I picked is a D.C.-based firm called Arcadia Power that, thanks to a round of venture-capital funding last year, will offset half of your electricity for free. I was a little skeptical at first, but the energy experts at Grist took a skeptical look at the company and did not find it wanting. Arcadia also offers a 100-percent offset plan–at a higher per-kWh rate than Dominion’s REC surcharge–and a community-solar subscription option, but they aren’t things I need to figure out immediately.

Setting up an account there involved a day or two of waiting to have it take over my Dominion account–yes, I had to cough up my username and password first–and then getting confirmation that Arcadia was now managing my account. Since then, it’s been a drama-free experience. My payment was processed as usual from my bank (Arcadia apparently has to pass along Dominion’s credit-card-payment surcharge), and I didn’t get dinged for the bill a second time by Dominion.

The one part that hasn’t worked out so far: While Arcadia has a referral program, neither of the environmentally-minded friends I’ve spammed about it have signed up. So while I’m not spending more to support renewable energy, I may not actually save money on the deal.

Self-employment is easier if you’re not at the mercy of health-insurance companies

I am thankful every day that my wife has a good job that includes affordable health insurance for our family. But seeing the Republican Party attempt to demolish the Affordable Care Act over the past few months has made me even more appreciative of being a kept man.

For as long as I’ve been self-employed, I’ve been able to tell myself that if my wife’s job ever went away, the ACA would give us a fair shot at keeping health insurance for the three of us–even today, the rates I see quoted at HealthCare.gov remain reasonable. Meanwhile, not having to worry about exceeding lifetime coverage caps (my friend Kate Washington’s testimony about the costs of her husband Brad’s treatments for cancer are essential reading) or being judged to have a pre-existing condition takes a lot of anxiety off my mind.

Most of the GOP’s proposed replacements for the ACA would have taken a hammer to some if not all of those protections. It’s possible that my wife’s premiums would have dropped as a result. But we don’t want to trim that bill at the cost of screwing over other people.

Like, for example, self-employed friends who get their coverages on ACA exchanges. Tom Bridge and his wife Tiffany each run tech consultancies in D.C., and without the law’s protection they’d be looking at vastly higher coverage for themselves and their son. He’s tweeted often and well about how this product of the Democratic Party has allowed him to build a business.

Friday morning’s Senate defeat (thanks, Senators Collins, McCain and Murkowski and all 48 of their Democratic colleagues) against the latest in a long line of ACA-gutting bills drafted in secret and in haste should ease the existential dread they and many others have been feeling.

(President Trump being President Trump, he won’t shut up on Twitter about how the GOP should keep trying to kill “Obamacare” despite its unbroken record of failure so far. He’s the Black Knight of American politics on this subject.)

It does not, however, end the need to fix what’s wrong with the ACA in some markets. Another freelancer friend, Seattle-based tech writer Glenn Fleishman, has seen his costs climb to “ridiculous” levels–as in $20,000 this year. He’s now seeking full-time employment to escape that.

Now would be a great time for the Republican Party to accept that Americans have decided health insurance shouldn’t be left as a privilege, then bring some business smarts towards crafting the most efficient, choice-driven way to meet that goal. Since most other industrialized countries achieved universal coverage long ago, there’s a huge variety of ideas for them to steal, and which Republicans could have learned from over the past seven years instead of repeatedly staging stunt votes against the ACA.

The party that constantly says it speaks for entrepreneurs should be able to sell this as making it easier for people to start a business and create jobs. Or the GOP can continue to try to tear down this part of President Obama’s legacy, all so the self-employed can once again be “free” to run into the embrace of a large corporation if they don’t want to have to worry about getting sick.

See a naturalization ceremony if you can

The day before President Trump signed his cruel travel ban, I re-read my old Post colleague Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s recount of the American fates of Iraqis who had helped Post reporters at enormous risk to their own lives, which (spoiler alert) ends with one of his translators becoming an American citizen.

A day later, I realized how badly I wanted to see a naturalization ceremony myself and then learned that there’s no Web calendar you can consult for your next opportunity to cheer new Americans. So I had to wait.

Two months later, Arlington County’s Twitter account announced one would happen at the Central Library. Of course I’d clear my schedule for that.

The event started with some introductory remarks, a presentation of the flag by a police color guard, and Washington-Lee High School student Mayari Loza belting out and signing the national anthem. FYI, Nationals Park.

Joyce Adams, supervisory immigration services officer with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, led a roll call of the countries represented by the day’s citizenship candidates–from Afghanistan to Vietnam. People clapped and cheered, the candidates waved their miniature American flags, and I wondered inwardly what was left of the homes of the immigrants from Iraq and Syria.

“Each has demonstrated his or her knowledge and understanding of the histories and the principles and the form of government of the United States,” Adams noted. How many native-born citizens could claim as much?

After we all said the Pledge of Allegiance, the candidates raised their right hands and took the oath of allegiance to the United States. It starts with “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” and ends with “so help me God.”

It also commits new citizens to perform a few tasks I have never been asked to put on my to-do list, like “perform work of national importance under civilian direction.” I’m good for it, America… but can it not be this weekend?

USCIS district director Sarah Taylor announced, “Congratulations, you are America’s newest citizens!”, and another round of cheers and flag-waving broke out. It got a little dusty in the room at that point.

Then all 57 new citizens walked across the stage to get their certificates of naturalization–a college-diploma sized document including a picture of the new citizen. This part could have been a college graduation, except that while some of my new fellow citizens were dressed in suits, others were attired as if they had ducked out of work. And they had waited longer. And, yes, the pronunciations of many people’s names got clobbered in the readout.

The first person to get a certificate, a man wearing his military uniform, paused a moment to give that document a kiss. Everybody posed with theirs for a quick picture. The last one put her hands in the air and said “I’m so excited!” We all were. I still am.

 

Seven inaugurations in Washington

Presidential inaugurations are better experienced on TV than in person. It’s usually bitter cold on January 20, the crowds get unbearably large, and the Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue turn into more of an armed camp every time.

So while I’ve now been around Washington for seven inaugurations, I’ve only seen two in person, and I have had less acquaintance with inaugural festivities than you might expect.

Photo from Clinton's inauguration in 19931993: Georgetown University was abuzz over the inauguration of our fellow Hoya–Bill and Hillary Clinton made an appearance on campus with Al and Tipper Gore a few days beforehand, at which I got to shake hands with all of them on the rope line–so of course I got up insanely early on a frigid day to catch a bus downtown. That allowed me to watch it all happen from about two blocks away. It may have taken a week for me to regain the feeling in my toes.

1997: I’m not sure of my schedule then–my digital calendar only goes back to 1998 and I have no idea if I still have my paper calendar from then. But according to an e-mail I sent to a friend, I worked on the 20th, which means I must have watched President Clinton’s second inaugural address on a TV in the newsroom.

2001: I went to one inaugural ball with my then-girlfriend, now wife and then watched President Bush’s inauguration on TV. Although I had some hopes for Bush, the weather was too dreary to get me to leave my house. It did not, however, stop one of my better freelance contributors from joining the protests.

2005: With the George W. Bush administration’s genial incompetence and cronyism now obvious to me–but not to enough voters the preceding November–I had no hopes for his second term. I stayed in.

So is President Obama2009: I joined some 1.8 million people to watch President Obama sworn in–and unlike 16 years earlier, I did not get up in the middle of the night and so could get no closer than the Washington Monument. But staying home for the occasion was never an option. My wife and I also went to the “We Are One” concert at the Lincoln Memorial the day before, and the night of Inauguration Day saw us at Google’s party. (My only celebrity sighting there: Ben Affleck.) That was the closest I’ve come to the inauguration experience as pop culture often portrays it. That January 20 was also a great day in general to be an American.

2013: With our daughter only two and a half years old, attending in person was out of the question. But I did make it out to a couple of parties, one of which allowed me to break out the tuxedo that spent the next three years gathering dust in my closet. The other was the tech-oriented event at which Lupe Fiasco got hauled off the stage by security after going on an extended anti-Obama rant. Being my usual oblivious self, I was in the middle of a conversation and looking the other way when that happened.

2017: I watched President Trump’s blood-and-iron “American carnage” speech on TV at home. My only shot at seeing anything in person came when Obama’s helicopter flew over our neighborhood on its way to Andrews–but we have helicopters overhead so often, I didn’t think to step out when I heard the noise. The last two days did have me at a couple of receptions, but my calendar tonight is empty. That is fine, because I don’t feel like celebrating.

Seeing my country upended from afar, trying to process it at home

Being on the other side of the Atlantic for a presidential election so I could attend and speak at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon seemed like a swell idea. With my absentee ballot long ago cast, at best I could sing the Star-Spangled Banner with other Americans in some bar as Hillary Clinton claimed an early victory over Donald Trump (though if you’ve heard me sing, you might struggle to find the upside of that scenario); worst case, I could tweet “appreciate the congrats” sometime Wednesday.

us-passport-on-lisbon-streetThat didn’t work out. Reality punched me in the gut at 8 a.m. local time Wednesday, when I opened my laptop after four hours of nightmare-grade sleep and saw the Washington Post’s “Trump Triumphs” headline above a map of red and blue states I struggled to recognize.

Before the first talk Wednesday morning, organizer Paddy Cosgrave asked those of us in the audience to introduce ourselves to strangers nearby and say where we’d come from. On another day, I might have said “I’m from the U.S., peace be with you,” as if I were in church, but I had to go with “I’m from the United States, so I’m having a really shitty morning.” The Europeans near me could only offer versions of “I’m sorry,” as if my country had suffered a death in the family.

That day did not get much less bleak for all the people I knew in our globalist-elite bubble. In retrospect, I could have picked a better day to moderate three different panels.

“President Donald Trump” might have been a harmless comedy line in my childhood. Trump seemed a good guy when he put his own cash into an overdue renovation of the Wollman Rink in New York’s Central Park, but that sort of public-spiritedness became increasingly scarce in the decades since. And now Trump is set to become the nation’s CEO after a campaign marked by an embrace of fear, a flight from facts and a refusal of basic transparency. Humor has fled the situation.

On one level, this is like 2004, when American voters picked the wrong guy, and we paid a steep price. But George W. Bush looks like a seasoned statesman compared to Trump. And 12 years ago, we didn’t have a deluge of data points suggesting the Dems had the GOP on the run.

Seeing that running an effective campaign organization when the other side shows little sign of having any doesn’t matter, that a candidate can speak more and worse falsehoods than the other without consequence, that getting caught on tape joking about sexual assault need not hold a guy back, and that so many state poll numbers mean nothing (although Clinton’s popular-vote victory looks to be not far from nationwide polling data)… it’s taken a hammer to my belief in a rational universe. And it forces me to wonder what stories about voters’ concerns I should have read but did not.

I can’t ignore the media’s role in wasting our mental bandwidth with horse-race coverage and breathless and context-starved “reporting” about Hillary Clinton’s unwise but not illegal use of a private e-mail server as Secretary of State. I myself contributed two posts to that genre, one in March of 2015 and another in July; I wrote far more about tech-policy issues in this campaign, but I suspect those other posts drew far less attention.

faded-american-flag-close-upI would now like to think that Trump will grow in office and that he’ll quietly dump the worst of his campaign promises. I certainly wouldn’t mind him delivering on his plans to renew America’s crumbling infrastructure, the subject that led off his gracious victory speech. (The United flight attendant I chatted with during my flight home Friday was also upset about the election, but we agreed that a building binge that replaced the C/D concourse at Dulles would get our support.) I will allow for the possibility of pleasant surprises.

But I’m also 45, and I’ve seen too many elected officials disappoint me to expect that this one’s conduct in office will depart radically from his behavior as candidate. Why do we put up with two years of a presidential campaign if not to take the measure of the people in it?

In the meantime, we have the additional problem that the worst among Trump’s fans now feel more entitled to vomit their bigotry on people who don’t look or sound like me. Not having an ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or primary language on the enemies lists of “white nationalists” does not make me feel any less offended by the hatreds those cretins preach, or the president-elect’s silence about them.

What am I going to do? Work. The chance to call out abuse of power and control-freakery gets me up in the morning. If Trump’s administration puts forth policies that fall into those categories, you’ll read about them from me. If Democrats endorse them or respond with their own tech-policy control-freakery, the same applies. And if President Trump proposes laws or regulations that thwart abuse of power by the government or corporations, I won’t turn them down.

One aspect of my coverage that may very well change: I somehow doubt I’ll get invited to many White House celebrations of science and technology. Trump spent little time during the campaign talking about science and in some cases, like climate change, outright denied it. Also, this post and most of my political tweets this year may leave me in poor standing with his press people. So be it.