New Chancery lawsuit spotlights struggles for Airbnb companies in Nashville

As you’d expect, COVID-19 and the related travel restrictions have had a catastrophic impact on the travel and hospitality industry. In Nashville, rental income for once wildly-lucrative Airbnb properties evaporated in an instant.

Consider Stay Alfred, a hospitality start-up based in Spokane, Washington that had 2,500 units in 33 cities, which closed its doors in April and is now subject to a receivership action.

In Nashville (and in Memphis), Stay Alfred had a number of buildings where it controlled nearly all the units, such as the shiny 505 Tower in downtown Nashville, as well as other prime locations in both cities. By April, Stay Alfred had left those buildings entirely.

Now, it appears that Sonder USA, Inc. may be headed toward a similar fate. Sonder manages over 12,000 rental units in 28 cities, generally for short and medium term rentals. In its most recent efforts to obtain private equity, Sonder provided a valuation of $1.3 billion.

Yesterday, in Davidson County Chancery Court, a Georgia developer filed a breach of contract lawsuit against Sonder over its failure to take possession of 101 units in a residential building in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village, located at 1620 21st Avenue South.

In this deal, the Plaintiff-developer agreed to purchase the 101 units in December 2019, many of which were already rented out to long term tenants. As those existing tenants either left or were forced out, the developer would then lease those units to Sonder, which Sonder would then manage as short term rentals. Under the Lease, Sonder would pay the developer annual rent of “$2,641,387.32.”

What could go wrong in Nashville real estate in 2020, right?

Per the Complaint, in April 2020, when Sonder was scheduled to take possession of the first batch of units, Sonder immediately went into default. Sonder claimed defenses of force majeure and impossibility of performance and frustration of purpose.

When Sonder failed to take possession or pay, Plaintiff filed this action, seeking $2 million in current and future rents. This is going to be an interesting case, since the parties seemed to go into this venture, jointly, in December. If so, then why does all of the risk shift to the lessor-defendant? Does the nature of the business relationship mean that Plaintiff and Defendant both should bear the risks?

I live in Hillsboro Village, so this one is a bit personal for me. This is my neighborhood, which is a bustling area of families, Vanderbilt workers (school and hospital), and college kids. It’s a residential community, not a vacation or party destination.

Housing is scarce. And getting more and more expensive.

As somebody who has lived in this neighborhood for over ten years, it’s irritating that these out-of-town companies created a business model to convert limited, scarce housing assets into STR properties by forcing residents out of their leases and out of the building.

Think about if you’re a grad student or doctor at Vandy, and you love your apartment. It’s right there next to your school/work, next to Luke Bryan’s steakhouse (which really is delightful), and next to Dragon Park. Sounds great, right? But, when you get to month 10-11 of your lease, you get a notice from the new owner that they want you out; the entire building is converting to vacation rentals.

I’m sure the developer would say that the “market dictates the highest and best use of property.” Let’s hope our new economy sends its own message to these opportunistic developers who want to convert our residential space into a hotel / vacation rentals. One that our local government is clearly afraid to send.

Maybe an empty building where all the long term tenants were forced out will send that message.

For what it’s worth, that message may have been received. As of the time of this posting, a great number of the units in Village 21 are now available for long term leases.