Gloria James, the mother of basketball star Lebron James, was photographed by Zara Israel, owner of Sonne Studios in downtown Baltimore. Israel rents out her studio spaces on Peerspace. Photo by Zara Israel.

Necessity is the mother of invention, but so is $4 in the bank.

As an electronic media and film student at Towson University, Zara Israel knew what it was like to work hard. She worked three jobs to help support herself through college until she landed a position in tech support that could help pay her tuition and her portion of rent on a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in downtown Baltimore.

And then she was fired. Two weeks before the rent was due.

“Not only was my rent due, but for some reason, the owners hadn’t charged us utilities and decided to charge us all at once for them and I only had $4 in the bank,” Israel said. With no other options or job prospects, Israel pivoted to turn a side-hustle in photography into a full-time business.

Israel’s road to entrepreneurship was bumpy, she said, and fueled by necessity rather than passion. In 2017, Israel created Zara Studios, a photography business that included leasing out her living room by the hour to other creatives – primarily young African Americans like her – who couldn’t swing the monthly costs for their own spaces. Israel stumbled onto a winning and profitable combination of businesses, but as Zara Studios grew, so did the undesirable challenges.

“I was cleaning up a lot of pee in the same bathroom I had to use,” Israel quipped, referring to the awkward combination of her work and living spaces. Having strangers in her house also forced her to think about security, putting away any valuables that might tempt lessees she didn’t know.

Buoyed by a large Instagram and Twitter following, Israel’s business ultimately outgrew its digs. In 2021, she separated her home from her business, changed its name to Sonne Studios, and moved the business to 16 E. Lombard St. in downtown Baltimore, the former offices of a Syracuse-based hot dog and sausage-maker, Hofmann Brands.

After signing the lease in March 2021, Israel said her first order of business was to rip down all the sausage signs and knock down walls to create five distinct, budget-friendly studios to house her own photography studio and offer it up to others to create.

One of Sonne Studios’ photography studio spaces in downtown Baltimore. Photo courtesy of Sonne Studios.

Then the internet came to help. Israel listed her space with Peerspace, an online marketplace for hourly rentals of unique spaces – from storefronts to mansions – for films, photoshoots, events, meetings and media productions. Since then, customers have been flocking.

Founded in 2014, Peerspace is headquartered in San Francisco, with Google Ventures among its investors. Its closest competitor is the online platform and marketplace Giggster, which also lists spaces in Baltimore.

“Hosts can list spaces of all shapes, styles, and sizes on Peerspace,” said Molly Burke, the platform’s director of communications. “It’s free to list on Peerspace, and hosts can manage their calendar to share availability that works for them.”

Peerspace hosts determine the hourly rate for their space and can set a minimum number of hours for a booking. It’s free to list, but Peerspace collects a 15% fee per booking.

Israel’s Sonne Studios is one of many Peerspace locations in the Baltimore metropolitan area that range from converted warehouses to a pink neon retro loft to a converted bank.

“Baltimore has some truly incredible spaces, with glowing reviews and very talented hosts,” Burke said. Burke points to Israel’s space for its affordability and the owner’s own artistic flair as factors that attract people to it.

On one Sunday, three of the five spaces in Israel’s Sonne Studio were in use. A photo shoot for a one-year-old occupied the studio’s most affordable space at $35 an hour. Next to it was a shoot for a new company launching a sea moss product. Then in one of the higher-priced studios, a photographer was snapping images of a model and singer. The most expensive space, a window-filled room that overlooks the corners of Light and Lombard streets, goes for $85 per hour with a two-hour minimum.

A “Wall of Fame” with Polaroid pictures of clients take up a whole wall in Israel’s studio, about 500 in all, she estimates. Her clientele includes dancers, rappers, models, makeup artists and regular people who want photos taken in a different space. One of Israel’s notable pictures on the wall is of Gloria James, the mother of basketball star Lebron James, who flew from her Chicago home to Baltimore to be photographed by Israel. Israel said a representative for Gloria James found her through Twitter, where she was impressed by one of Israel’s posts and wanted James to give Israel her business.

Israel said she is making a profit, after expenses which include rent, insurance and salaries for staff members, which run between $5,000 to $10,000 a month. Potential income for Israel and others in similar rental spaces is dependent on the hosts’ listing prices and frequency of availability. Israel’s Sonne Studios offers relatively low rates by design. “One way we support the local community of artists is by providing the space and tools needed to create better art for an affordable hourly rate. I wanted the space to be by the people for the people.” Getting rich, Israel said, is not her motivation.

Baltimore resident and psychiatrist Alexis Hammond rents out her Patterson Park home on Peerspace. She also manages listings for family members. Photo courtesy of Alexis Hammond/Peerspace.

Identifying multiple income streams motivated Baltimore psychiatrist Alexis Hammond to sign up with Peerspace. While scrolling through Instagram last year, Hammond said she saw a post about Peerspace. That post came on the heels of a financial literacy event she attended sponsored by the group Baltimore Young Professionals that encouraged participants to diversify their holdings and interests. Hammond said Peerspace seemed to be the perfect place to start investing.

Hammond is considered a power host by Peerspace, a designation given to elite hosts who provide what the company considers a great user experience based on responsiveness, favorable reviews and numerous bookings.

Hammond hosts five spaces for hourly bookings, including her own Patterson Park home and a house she purchased next door and decked out in 70s décor. She is an agent, managing the listings for family members for three other spaces in Reisterstown, including a house and a neighboring lawn and pool. Hammond’s properties average $100 an hour with two- to four-hour minimums.

Hammond said her work with Peerspace is a welcome departure from her psychiatric work, which can be heavy. A former Johns Hopkins psychiatrist and assistant professor, Hammond recently joined the mental health platform, Headspace Health.

“I am having fun and using my creative side. With this business, I am meeting people I would have never met.”