Philadelphia-area residents see dollar signs in visit by Pope Francis

Opportunists hoping to cash in on Pope Francis' first U.S. visit take to Craigslist, Airbnb

Damien Bash owns a four-bedroom home, built in 1898, in Philadelphia's historic Germantown section. It features intricate stonework, hardwood floors and 19th century architectural details.

Bash is offering the place to visitors attending Pope Francis' first U.S. visit — for the weeklong World Meeting of Families gathering in downtown Philadelphia in September.

His asking price? $15,000 for the week, or $2,142 a night for seven nights.

How did he arrive at that figure?

"I saw what everybody else was asking," he said.

Opportunism seems to have gripped the Philadelphia area, where some residents are asking up to $30,000 a week to rent their homes and apartments to papal visitors. Through ads on Craigslist and Airbnb, they're betting that 1.5 million to 2 million people flooding a city of 1.5 million will produce a lucrative real-estate payday.

Bash said he hasn't had any takers yet. Neither has Jackie Smith, who is asking $15,000 a week for her four-bedroom home in Coatesville, an hour's drive west of Philadelphia.

"I'm not being greedy — I'll listen to anyone who offers me a price that's affordable for them," Smith said.

With hotels booked solid, the owner of a three-bedroom townhouse in Center City Philadelphia is asking $15,000 for the week in a Craigslist ad. In Glenside, 15 miles north of Philadelphia, the asking price is $30,000 for a four-bedroom home.

It's $10,000 for a one-bedroom Center City apartment, and $6,000 a week for a four-bedroom home in Wayne, 19 miles from Philadelphia.

Donna Farrell, executive director of World Meeting of Families, is chatting up campgrounds and monasteries as she desperately hunts down reasonably priced housing for attendees the week of Sept. 22-27.

"We're told there are 45 million people within an eight-hour drive of Philadelphia," she said. "And it seems like they're all coming."

The event has signed up 500 people willing to offer homes through its Host A Family program, but Farrell said she needs thousands more. There are no limits on rents, though the World Meeting of Families website suggests "a small daily fee" and asks that homes be within a 120-mile radius of Philadelphia.

Farrell, who suggests people set "an appropriate price," said most Host A Family participants are asking $40 to $100 a night, with some seeking $200 a night.

Asked if she's concerned about private ads for thousands of dollars a week, Farrell replied: "I can't control that or speculate on why they would ask so much."

"We live in a free-market economy and I can understand why some people would want to do that," she said.

Host A Family is offered through the travel website Homestay, which collects a 10% fee from renters. Alan Clarke, Homestay's chief executive, said people are free to ask any rent they think the market will bear.

"As in any marketplace, supply and demand determine the price," Clarke said.

Farrell, who said she recruited one homeowner while waiting in a supermarket line, said some people have asked whether they have to charge anything at all.

"The No. 1 question we get from people is: How can I help?" she said. "The No. 2 question is: Can I meet the pope?"

The World Meeting of Families is held every three years to "reaffirm the core values of family," according to the group's website. The most recent gathering was in 2012 in Milan, Italy, where Farrell said the region provided 50,000 beds for an event that included a papal Mass by Pope Benedict XVI that attracted a million people.

In Philadelphia, the first U.S. city to host the event, Francis is expected to attend a festival of families on Sept. 26 and a papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway downtown on Sept. 27.

There is a precedent in Philadelphia for seeking high rents for popular events. During the U.S. Open in suburban Philadelphia in 2013, residents asked from $3,000 to $20,000 a week for homes near the Merion Golf Club.

But the pope is bigger than golf, and Philadelphians are bracing for hundreds of thousands of visitors desperate for a place to stay.

In Germantown, Bash said he had one thought when he heard the pope was coming to Philadelphia: "There aren't nearly enough hotel rooms."

There are 65,000 hotel rooms within a 60-mile radius of the city, according to the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

When Bash saw the weekly rent offers posted on Craiglist, he thought they were "pretty astronomical," but figured he'd ask $15,000 and see what happened, he said.

"I'm not looking to demand as much as I can possibly get," he said. "I'm open to any fair offer."

Bash, 45, who works for a pharmaceutical company, said he would use the rent money to continue upgrading his home. He plans to stock the place with nonperishable food and offer use of his above-ground swimming pool.

"I can sleep 10 people easily, so per person, it's not all that expensive,'' he said.

In Coatesville, Smith said she'll offer to have a hot dinner ready to greet her potential guests the first night, and will stock the kitchen with fresh food. If people want to stay two weeks, that would be fine.

"I'm not trying to be greedy," she said. "I'm open to negotiation."

Smith, who works for a grocery store chain, calls herself "a hostess to the max." She said she considers her rental offer "one of those crazy things you'll be talking about for years later."

She considers herself a generous, giving person, "so I don't want to be in the position of being seen as a taker," she said.

Renee Bowen, who lives with her husband and 12-year-old twins in Wayne, is offering a room in the family's four-bedroom home free of charge through the Host A Family program. She said she posted a nominal fee of $50 a night, but only so she could pay the 10% to Homestay on behalf of a guest who will stay rent-free.

As a Catholic, she said, she wants to share the World Meeting event with a "faith-based" renter, preferably someone from another country to expose her twins to a new culture.

Asked about people seeking thousands of dollars in rent, Bowen replied: "If they can back it up with the amenities, well, good for them. But it better be fantastic."

david.zucchino@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidzucchino

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