What It's Like to Realize Your Airbnb Host Has Died in the Middle of Your Stay

A block in Brooklyn, New York. Jordan Ruttenberg says he was spending a summer in the borough when his Airbnb host died. REUTERS/Mike Segar MIKE SEGAR/REUTERS

Rent-sharing service Airbnb says it's the "easiest way for people to monetize their extra space and showcase it to an audience of millions." But what if some of those people die mid-monetization process?

Next month the company will put into effect its own Host Protection Insurance, covering hosts for up to $1 million worth of guest injuries. But as retirees start to latch onto the company as an easy means of extra income—and with Airbnb stays stretching into weeks and, occasionally, months—the reverse seems an altogether plausible concern. It has been a reality, too: When San Francisco drag star Arturo Galster died in August, he was found—unconscious, but still breathing—by his Airbnb guest, a Japanese tourist who spoke minimal English and wasn't familiar with dialing 911.

The guest "didn't know what to do, so he ran out into the street, and Arturo lives on a cul de sac and luckily there was a neighbor walking around," said Denise Laws, a San Francisco artist who was a close friend and neighbor of Galster's. The neighbor called an ambulance. "I think he [the guest] thought Arturo was going to be fine. But then he found out later that Arturo had passed away a few hours after that. He ended up leaving the keys [with a neighbor]. He called Airbnb and told them the situation." The guest himself has not responded to a request for comment.

That story involved a short-term stay of a few days, most of which had elapsed at the time of Galster's death. But what do you do when your long-term Airbnb host is dead and, perhaps, wasn't really supposed to be hosting you in the first place? That's the dilemma that faced Jordan Ruttenberg, a Wesleyan University senior who used Airbnb to relocate to Brooklyn—where nearly 75 percent of Airbnb listings are said to be illegal—this past summer. Ruttenberg's story, told below in his own words, is a strange one.

I heard you have a crazy Airbnb story. I don't know where to start. What city were you staying in?

I was staying in Bushwick, Brooklyn with my friend [and fellow guest] Connor. We moved in at the beginning of June. We were both there until the end of July.

How much were you paying for that stay?

We were paying $2,000 a month. It was a one-bedroom place. Connor had the couch, I took the bedroom, which was the deal we cut because I spearheaded everything in terms of getting the place. We paid $1,000 each, which was by no means cheap and I still ended up losing money that summer sharing a one-bedroom place, but that's New York for you.

How'd your stay go?

We were living there, working at the park—the Brooklyn Bridge Park—and everything was fine. We had found this place on Airbnb. It belonged to, I think, a 27- or 28-year-old woman who was going to be in San Francisco for the summer, taking care of her sick mother. We were staying at her place. We never actually met her. We Skyped with her briefly before she agreed to let us take the place. When we moved in, it was just [a matter of] getting the keys from her friend in the neighborhood. That was that.

When we talked to her about the details of living there, she made the point that she wasn't sure if in her rental agreement she was allowed to sublet. There was kind of some legal grey area about whether or not we could be there at all. Occasionally over the course of the summer we had problems with the air conditioner or the toilet that we needed the landlord to come take care of. It was crazy. In those situations, I'd call her, she'd call the landlord, and she would say, "Oh, my cousin might be there watching the place." I was going to play the role of her cousin and she didn't want the landlord to get a sense that there were two 20-year-old men who had moved in there, so we would pack up all our things and hide them in the shower, behind the shower curtain, and unpack all over again. It was unbelievable.

Oh God! Then what?

It was fine. It was worth it to get the things fixed, no big deal. Then, about midway through July, when we had about two weeks left on our stay, we were Facebook friends with our host and we started noticing, in the morning, these posts on her wall from friends and family saying things like: "You have to get through this." "We can't lose you." "Thinking of you." Stuff like that. So Connor and I were a little nervous, so we went to work and we were kind of monitoring it throughout the day. Later on these posts started showing up on her wall saying things like: "Thinking of you in heaven." "We know you're looking down on us." Things like that. At this point, we're getting the gist that something is amiss, so I got in contact with the friend of hers who had given us the keys. He said, "Amanda* has overdosed. They don't know whether it was intentional or an accident or whatever. But that's all we know right now." He also made the point that "I can't really talk about this because I'm emotionally distressed."

When you first saw those posts on her wall, did you try to contact her? Or did you realize she'd passed away?

We knew when we saw things like "Thinking of you in heaven" that she had almost certainly died. I think I texted her "Is everything OK?" and didn't get a response. I remember also seeing earlier in the day a post from her uncle or cousin or something, a comment that said something like, "Amanda is in a coma, we're not sure if she'll come out of it, prognosis isn't good." Later that evening, it was determined that she had passed away.

You determined all of this from reading posts on her wall.

Pretty much. We didn't know she had overdosed until I talked to her friend. He wasn't willing to talk about it anymore. We had the number of her friend. But we didn't have any number of any of her family or anything. We didn't have the landlord's number. And we were fairly certain that we weren't legally supposed to be there. One of the weirdest things about it was it was obviously a tragedy, but we also didn't know her and suddenly we were worried that we weren't going to have a place to live and it became very much a logistical concern for us, which is sad, but, like, the emotional truth of how it felt. It was like, "Oh no, Amanda died, that's terrible. What are we going to do?"

We're kind of in limbo, we haven't received any further information, and we're hoping we can ride this out until the end of the stay without getting kicked to the curb by the landlord. With about a week left, Amanda's brother called me.

Wait. You just continued living in her place as if everything was normal?

Yeah. That was weird in its own right. Connor left a week before the end of July, so I had one week alone. I came to really like the place, and before she passed away I was planning on maybe cutting a deal with her to stay another two weeks in August. It was weird! It was me, sleeping in her bed, with all of her things on the nightstand and the closet, the fridge was littered with pictures of her and her family. It was the weirdest way that we dropped into somebody else's tragedy living in their home. That was strange for a few weeks.

Nobody came to the apartment to collect her things or anything?

No. Her brother called and said, "Hey, I've heard that you're living in my sister's apartment." Their whole family is in San Francisco, so he was like, "We want to buy some time before we have to come out and clean out her place." But she hadn't paid rent for August. So he was like, "Look, if you're willing to, we'd love to cut a deal with you to take the place for August so we don't have to pay the full rent." I was into the idea, but the only reason I had afforded the place was because Connor and I were splitting it and the price that he wanted for it was more than I was able to pay. I felt bad putting them out in the cold, but I had enough friends in New York that I knew I could hop a couple couches for a few weeks. I was like, "I'm sorry, I can't do that."

I met up with her friend, gave him the keys and that was that! I've had zero contact with any of them since.

You never had any contact with the landlord?

No, absolutely not. His presence was only clear to us in weird ways where we'd go out to work, he'd come in to fix the air conditioning and we'd come back and there'd be a glove and a bottle of Aspirin and some rubbing alcohol on the table that he'd never come get. That happened maybe a few times. Every time he fixed something, he left something behind.

I assume that you paid the host at the beginning of your stay?

Yeah. Everything was paid in advance. Never met her in person. Just Skyped and texted when we were talking about things in the apartment. It was great, up until she passed away, and that's when it was a shock and we were worried we wouldn't have a place to live. But overall it was an OK experience. She was a complete sweetheart. Very easy to deal with. Just really, really sad.

UPDATE: Airbnb provided a statement after publication of this story. "This is incredibly heartbreaking and sad and our thoughts and prayers are with her family and friends," an Airbnb employee wrote in an email. "Our customer support team is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to assist hosts and guests who need to make special booking arrangements in the extremely unlikely event of something like this happening."

*Not the deceased host's real name.