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Posted January 10, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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House for hopeful:Local couple offers home for inauguration visitors, free of charge
By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer
For one bedroom in Stephens City, no pets and no smoking, $1,000 won't get you a month's rent. In fact, the most a grand will buy is one night's stay -- at least during the days surrounding President-elect Obama's inauguration later this month.
The much-hyped event has actually created a veritable housing boom, even if it will all be over after Jan. 20. With no hotel rooms available even as far from Washington as the Northern Shenandoah Valley, those hoping to descend on the nation's capital for the swearing-in have had to hunt for more unconventional places to stay -- including in other people's homes.
Popular Internet classifieds site Craigslist at one point advertised a $1,600-a-night three-bedroom home in Stephens City. In Browntown, $375 a night would get a guest a renovated Civil War-era cabin for the week.
When Susan Henry, of Front Royal, heard radio DJs talking about the phenomenon not long after the election, she quickly called her husband, John, and the pair immediately agreed to try to cash in, she said.
"It really was kind of an epiphany on the way to work one morning," she said.
They posted an ad that evening offering up their own master bedroom, rides to and from the city in their Chevy Astro van, and breakfasts, for $500 a night.
By the time Christmas had come and gone and it was either let the ad expire or repost it, however, the Henrys had a major change of heart -- "Mostly because now it's just gone crazy," Mrs. Henry said.
As Mrs. Henry, who works at Clarke County Social Services, watched people struggle through the holidays, her husband saw fellow workers lose their jobs due to the recession.
Looking back through the other ads for inaugural week housing, the couple realized attending the event was getting way too expensive for the middle class, Henry said.
"It dawned on me that people can't afford this," he said. "Prices had got so out of line."
"We really could use the money, but then we realized, we're not as bad off as we thought," Mrs. Henry added.
So, the Henrys decided to give a chance to someone without thousands of dollars in extra cash lying around: They posted another ad, but this one offered free accommodations at the home where they have lived since 1987 and raised a family.
Meanwhile, 24-year-old Lindsey Carlin, of Santa Monica, Calif., had written to her congressman for inauguration tickets and found out she was selected to receive them just a couple of days before Christmas, she explained in an e-mail. By the time she ran across the Henrys' ad, she was about to give up on attending for lack of an affordable place to stay.
"Hotels were not in my price range and I had heard that they were all booked up," she wrote. "Most of the postings on Craigslist were way out of my price range. I spoke with two people ... but they were both unwilling to do it for anything less than $1,000 for three nights.
"Right when I was about to call it quits, I came across the Henrys' posting and immediately sent them an e-mail ... I thought it was too good to be true at first. It was exactly what I needed and the fact that this one family was courageous and gracious enough to entrust someone ... free of charge, when nobody else was doing so, was truly remarkable to me. And they even uploaded pictures of themselves and their house, which immediately put me at ease and made me trust in the validity of their offer."
Carlin explained that she has stayed in other people's homes twice before to study in Spain, and she found a "great person and flat mate" for a roommate once before on Craigslist.
"Life is short and we only live once, so you might has well take some chances while you can -- right?" she wrote.
When they spoke on the phone about the arrangement, Carlin put the Henrys at ease, too, they said. The young woman explained that she wanted to bring her mother along. "That sold me," Mrs. Henry said.
Did they consider it a risky thing to do, inviting strangers into their home? A little bit. But they, too, were willing to take their chances.
"We didn't think we were sticking our necks out that far," Henry said.
"Since I work for social services it's hard for me. I know there's a lot of nuts out there. I also know there are a lot of people in need out there, too," Mrs. Henry said.
She said she also knows what it's like having people in the house, coming from a large family and later raising one of her own. Mrs. Henry said she is used to having house guests, but they usually aren't strangers.
The Henrys plan to pick up Carlin and her mother at the airport and get them to the inauguration and back. They also plan to show them around the area and make breakfasts. The only thing they are asking for in return is some gas money for the driving.
"I'm anxious to meet them," Mrs. Henry said. "We want it to be memorable for them, too."
"I'm just grateful to have this opportunity. I just want to be as respectful and polite as possible is all," Carlin wrote.
The Henrys are actually hoping it might set a good example for their now-grown children, even if it seems like a bit of an odd thing to do.
"They already think their mom and dad are crazy. We do things like this," Mrs. Henry joked.
Henry listed as examples the maroon Mustang sitting in their driveway, and a pontoon boat he bought but later sold on eBay when it didn't get as much use out of the family as he expected.
"He's a real Craigslist buff," Mrs. Henry said.
Another reason the Henrys, both 59, are willing to have a guest in their own home is the historic significance of it all, even though they didn't vote for Obama. They said they've printed out copies of the Craigslist ads to keep for their grandchildren.
"You really should know that neither of us voted for Barack Obama because we are staunchly pro-life, but we are also proud Americans who will support our new president beginning with this offer," part of the ad reads.
"We know how historic this thing is," Henry said.
Henry grew up in South Carolina, and was in his last year of school when the first black students began attending, he said.
As a Catholic school student in the suburbs of Washington, Mrs. Henry was in fifth grade during the time of President Kennedy's inauguration. She was part of a group selected to sing at the event, she said.
"This is as historic as that," she said. "This is full circle from the Kennedy era as far as I'm concerned."
In California, Carlin, who is more of an Obama fan, would agree about the significance of his election and inauguration, because it has engaged her own generation and because of Obama's appeal as a speaker and leader and as someone with whom Americans can identify.
"This inauguration is truly groundbreaking in that it is our first black president, which is something that I want to witness firsthand especially now that I have been given the opportunity," she said in the e-mail.
"I can say with full certainty that [the Henrys] are the very reason I am able to make it to the inauguration. Without them I would be watching it from my living room," she wrote.
Though they consider themselves adventurous, the Henrys won't be joining their boarders -- and millions of others -- in Washington on inauguration day.
"We're staying home to watch it on television," Mrs. Henry said.
"You could lose your life down there," Henry said.
They aren't quite ready to be the guests in a stranger's home either.
"I would be a little reluctant to do it -- I like my privacy," Henry said.
His wife added, "And he knows I wouldn't do it."
*Contact Jessica Wiant at email@example.com
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