At 216 Third Avenue, the FDNY found signs of illegal conversion from a two-family building to a four-family one. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Renting an apartment in New York can be a nightmare, but the Department of Buildings wants to help prospective tenants identify shady situations before making a commitment to a new home.
The Quality of Life unit in the Department of Buildings focuses primarily on the illegal conversion of apartments, which often happens when building owners make changes to an apartment and list the place on AirBnB, and the shoddy workmanship can end up being hazardous to tenants. The main concern with illegal conversions and the reason for the DOB’s crackdown is safety, spokesperson Abigail Kunitz said.
“We want to make sure that people have a safe place to live,” she said. “With illegal gas and electrical work, we want to prevent a situation that causes tragedies like the East Village gas explosion. Especially when housing is scarce, we want to make sure that it’s safe.”
Although the Quality of Life unit doesn’t deal with issues related to illegal gas and electrical work, owners may often overlook fire exits when renovating an apartment and failing to maintain two means of egress, which is considered a serious safety issue and one that the QOL unit would address.
Three buildings in Kips Bay, including 207-215 East 27th Street, were named in a lawsuit against a Manhattan brokerage firm, with the city alleging they were being marketed as short-term rentals. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
On Monday, the city sued a Manhattan brokerage firm, Metropolitan Property Group, as well as real estate agents and entities currently or formerly associated with Metropolitan, accusing them of running a $20 million illegal short-term rental scheme.
The rentals, arranged mostly through Airbnb, were spread across 130 apartments in 35 buildings, the city said. Five of the buildings were listed in the lawsuit, three of them located in Kips Bay at 207-215 East 27th Street, 230 East 30th Street and 218 Third Avenue. Another was in Midtown East at 123 East 54th Street and another building in Harlem, 200 East 116th Street, was completely transformed into an illegal hotel, according to the lawsuit filed by the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement (OSE).
OSE said it was also able to determine that 18 entities affiliated with MPG and its employees received at least $20.7 million for short-term rental transactions made through Airbnb alone from 2015 to 2018. Named in the suit were Metropolitan CEO Sami Katri, his wife Shely Katri, Maxim Beckman, Simon Itah and Alon Karasenty.
Tenants at this year’s preliminary vote for the Rent Guidelines Board (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
You know spring has sprung when the stories start coming out about jet-setting tenants who Airbnb their rent-stabilized apartments while only paying a few hundred dollars in rent or less.
Just one example is the recent tale in the New York Post about a woman paying $100 for her stabilized digs that she inherited after moving in on an older, dying man.
She convinced the elderly gent, the tenant of record, to adopt her as his daughter despite being close to retirement age herself.
It’s an intriguing tale that makes one feel sorry for the poor landlords of stabilized properties.
Meanwhile, these stories about unicorn-rare rents are, we suspect, planted by groups representing landlords as the Rent Guidelines Board gears up to decide how high of an increase the city’s tenants in roughly one million rent-stabilized units will be hit with. And it will be an increase rather than a freeze, based on last month’s preliminary vote.
In October, Governor Cuomo signed a law that will impose steep fines on Airbnb hosts who break local housing regulations. The short-term rental listings giant sued over the law though the company recently settled with the city of New York once it was made clear that hosts and not Airbnb were the target.
Short-term rentals in apartments were already illegal in many cases in New York City if the stay is under 30 days and the apartment’s tenant of record isn’t also staying there. Additionally, the practice also violates lease terms at some properties, including Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village, though this hasn’t stopped tenants from listing their homes on Airbnb and other sites.
In recent years, this has been a worry for tenants who are concerned about problems like the spread of bedbugs as well as safety in an environment where they don’t know who’s staying next door. Four years ago when there was an uptick of bedbug sightings in the complex, then Tenants Association President John Marsh suspected that might be the reason. At one point, representatives from the ST-PCV Tenants Association and management met with representatives from Airbnb. The meeting resulted in the company agreeing to issue a pop-up notice on its website stating that rentals are illegal if the site’s user tries to advertise a Stuy Town or Peter Cooper address.
Visana, a speakeasy style lounge that’s also a pizzeria (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Visana, the new speakeasy style cocktail lounge on First Avenue that’s also a pizzeria in front, will be seeking the blessing of Community Board 6 for a renewal of its liquor license on Thursday.
However, as Town & Village has previously reported, the new venue, across from Stuyvesant Town, has managed to draw the ire of neighbors due to nighttime noise.
In November, cops at the 13th Precinct told neighborhood residents who’d complained about noise they’d be following up with the owner David Jaffee on that issue.
“The educating part has come and gone so we’ll deal with it accordingly,” said Detective Ray Dorrian at the time.
He’d also since then been slapped with charges by the State Liquor Authority over the noise complaints.
Another potential obstacle for the business is that too many licenses have been issued in the area already. The SLA generally only allows three full liquor licenses within 500 foot radius of one another, but according to a spokesperson for the agency, there were already three when Visana applied, but didn’t disclose this.
Recently, a Stuyvesant Town resident, who often has a friend from out of town stay with him, learned that guest key-card status for the woman would be rejected — that is, unless she agreed to register with the owner as an occupant. However, the resident, who didn’t want his name published, told Town & Village she doesn’t live in the apartment, and therefore has so far refused to register as an occupant. Along with friendship, she also fills an occasional role of caretaker for some of his health issues, he said. Management, meanwhile, said the tenant, hasn’t budged and has refused to issue a guest card.
A spokesperson for CWCapital did not respond to a comment on this issue, but Council Member Dan Garodnick told Town & Village that he has heard from “a handful” of residents who said CW has become more selective about issuing guest cards lately. Garodnick said this practice seems to run contrary to the key-card policy.
“The rule is that there is no limit to the number of key-cards a tenant can get,” said Garodnick. “Guests should be provided with permanent key-cards and guests include friends who come to visit on a regular basis or as needed to care for a tenant or their apartment. That’s the rule.”
After a tenant acquires four guest cards, additional ones come with a fee of eight dollars, but, stressed Garodnick, “you can get an unlimited number.”
He believes management’s reason for the recent denials has to do with weeding out illegal, short-term rental activity.
Councilmember Rose Mendez (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Councilmembers Rosie Mendez and Rory Lancman announced legislation last Thursday to crack down on tenant harassment from illegal hotel conversions.
“(Short-term renters) are coming in at all hours, bringing people they meet into the apartment and it’s then impacting the quality of life, in that there are strangers in their building,” Mendez said. “It’s a breach of peace and quiet in your home because of the noise and people traffic.”
She noted that in a hotel, guests can call down to the concierge if there’s noise in the hallways late at night and the hotel can take care of the problem.
But in an apartment building without a live-in super that’s been turned into an illegal hotel, the solution isn’t quite so simple.
“When tenants call the landlord, they’re not going to reach them at 2 a.m.,” she said. “And if it’s the owner who’s renting it out, they may not follow up with the complaint.”
Whether the noise is due to someone renting from a building tenant or the landlord, if the landlord does not address the problem, this legislation would make the act of illegally renting out apartments a form of harassment and would allow tenants to sue the landlord.
The former Bowlmor building at the corner of East 12th Street and University Place is the location of a proposed 23-story residential tower, opposed by community residents. (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)
Community Board 2’s land use committee voted to support a contextual rezoning proposal from the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation that would impose height limits on new developments in the area directly south of Union Square at a meeting on January 14.
The attempt to rezone the area was spurred by a proposed development on the site of former bowling alley Bowlmor on University Place at East 12th Street and the rezoning would cover the area of the University Place and Broadway corridors between East 8th and 14th Streets.
The meeting in mid-January, held at Grace Church High School, was packed with about 50 area residents, primarily those living in the area for the proposed rezoning. Those in attendance were concerned about the impact a 23-story, 308-foot tall residential tower would have on the character of the neighborhood.
Developer William Macklowe filed plans for the tower last September and the GVSHP has been fighting the plans since, but considering the lengthy rezoning process, Greenwich Village Society of Historic Preservation executive director Andrew Berman noted at the meeting that it was unlikely that even if the rezoning is successful, it is unlikely to have an impact on this particular building.
“There are very rare cases that you get rezoning to happen, development stalls and then construction has to stop, but that’s unlikely,” Berman said.
“One thing we can do is make our rezoning move forward as quickly as possible. Maybe by some miracle it will capture this building. I don’t want people to count on that being the case but regardless, we should move ahead with this as quickly as humanly possible.”
Berman said that the boundaries for the proposed rezoning area were chosen for various reasons, primarily due to the surrounding areas already being protected by landmark status and other adjacent areas that already have contextual rezoning. He also noted that on adjacent blocks that weren’t included in the proposal area, there are a substantial number of buildings owned by NYU and while there are architecturally significant buildings that need protecting as well, the process would be different.
Kudos to “Whatever happened to the carpet rule?”! (letter, T&V, Feb. 5)
I would like to add that when apartments are sub-divided and the dining area and another three feet becomes the new living room area and when there are several people in that area (as is often the case), the noise volume is exponentially increased because of the small enclosed space and the echo created when there is no carpeting.
It is sad and unfair that we (I am a lifelong tenant) are unable to enjoy peaceful days or nights in our apartments anymore. I am surrounded both next door and above, with new tenants who either stomp all of the time, drag furniture across the bedroom floor (between midnight and 3 a.m.) and/or who frequently have noisy company, in the “mini living area” during the day and late at night. And I won’t even mention the constant loud slamming of the apartment doors!
In fairness, I have called security several times and they did speak to the offending tenants and remind them that they are supposed to have carpeting as well as that the noise level was unacceptable. One time, when the stomping and noise level did not abate, security retuned again and spoke with them. They also assured me that they would file the requisite reports.
Although I am a lifelong tenant, I have had several apartment inspections, which I was told were normal protocol – to verify that we did not put up an illegal wall, which we had not.
How are these other apartments not having the same inspection, including for carpeting?
Perhaps the solution is for management to inspect new tenant apartments for compliance and install commercial carpet remnants (cheap enough) when a violation of the carpeting rule is discovered. Since many tenants are transient, they are not motivated to comply with the rules, if there is no penalty imposed.
Stuyvesant Town tenants Arlene Dabreo and Marina Metalios were among hundreds protesting Airbnb outside City Hall before a legnthy hearing attended by Airbnb execs, hosts who use the service, tenants and politicians. (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Airbnb, the controversial home sharing listings site, was the subject of a lengthy and contentious hearing on Tuesday that consisted mainly of accusations being traded between politicians and the company’s director of global policy.
At the heart of the conversation was whether Airbnb was making efforts to comply with state law that forbids short-term rentals in most residential buildings, which the hearing’s chair, City Council Member Jumaane Williams, said he doubted. Meanwhile, Airbnb’s representative, David Hantman, threw in — at every chance he could get — a chance to defend Airbnb users who rent their homes out infrequently, who he said make up the bulk of the service’s users — and asked repeatedly why the law couldn’t be changed to exempt them. Instead, he argued, the law should just focus on “bad actors,” tenants or landlords who regularly rent apartments to tourists for short-term stays, making life hell for neighbors.
Most of the people in attendance were tenants opposed to Airbnb, due to illegal hotel activity in their own buildings, but there were also a few dozen supporters of the company, including hosts, with both groups demonstrating outside before the hearing. Those against the company carried signs with slogans like “I don’t want strangers for neighbors” and “sharing = selfish.”
A couple of demonstrators in that camp were Stuyvesant Town residents Arlene Dabreo and Marina Metalios.
Both said they’d seen suspected illegal activity in the community.
“We’ve seen it for sure, definitely in the past year,” said Metalios. “A lot of people coming in with suitcases and garbage being kept in the wrong place.”
Also at the event was ST-PCV Tenants Association Chair Susan Steinberg, who’d hoped to speak about illegal hotel operations in Stuy Town, but finally gave up at around 5 p.m. since she had a meeting to go to. At this time the hearing, which began at around 11 a.m., was still going on. Since the City Council chambers were filled with around 200 people, some of them standing, the rest of the attendees, like Steinberg, had gotten herded into an overflow room.
Had she been able to give testimony, Steinberg said she would have focused on how, when residents’ use of Airbnb started to take off in 2011, it coincided with an uptick in bedbug infestations in Stuy Town buildings where short-term rentals were taking place. Following meetings with company reps alongside reps from CWCapital, illegal hotel activity in the complex has decreased, though it hasn’t ended completely.
Steinberg also had included in her testimony how the TA had heard concerns from neighbors about their safety when they challenged short-term renters who wanted to gain entry into buildings. In one case, an irate guest “just pushed their way into the building.”
One tenant who did get to testify at the hearing was West Side resident Audrey Smaltz, who said she’d lived in a penthouse apartment in her building since 1977, always feeling safe with the same neighbors for many years. But in recent years, this changed, with the owner renting vacant units as hotel rooms. “The entire fourth floor is for short-term rentals and (there are) many units on other floors,” she said.
As for Airbnb supporters, not too many had signed up to testify at the hearing, which Hantman had explained as being because they’re working people who can’t afford to wait around five hours.
“They have jobs; they have no voice right now,” he said.
However, politicians seemed less than sympathetic about the plight of New Yorkers resorting to home-sharing to help pay their own rent.
Council Member Corey Johnson, who represents Greenwich Village, said he lives in a tiny studio apartment for which “the rent is too damn high,” but added with what New Yorkers pay in rent, they should have the right to not be surrounded by transients.
Another Council Member, Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn, asked Airbnb for their revenue in 2014 and projected revenue for this year, which Hantman said he wouldn’t be allowed to provide. “I’ve got to FOIL that?” Cornegy asked him. “You’ve got to go to our finance people,” Hantman responded.
When questioned about how the attorney general had found that 72 percent of Airbnb rentals to be illegal, Hantman said this was “inaccurate,” especially since Airbnb has since removed thousands of listings by users who don’t provide a “quality” experience.
In response, Williams blasted Hantman for mentioning the word “quality” more than once when discussing hosts’ renting practices.
“You keep mentioning quality — you never once mention following the law,” said Williams. “I’m sure you have lobbyists that can try to change the law, but I don’t know how you can be a business person and never mention state or federal law. You only mention quality of experience. That’s not an effective business model in the City of New York.”
Hantman had argued that very few Airbnb rentals turned out negatively out of two million people using the service to stay in New York over the past few years. He also said 1400 of those people had found places to stay when they were impacted by Hurricane Sandy.
Council Member Helen Rosenthal, who represents the Upper West Side, asked about quality of life issues related to short-term rentals, when Hantman mentioned Airbnb has a neighbor hotline that can be called if a resident wants to report problems with an Airbnb guest or host. Rosenthal challenged this, asking “How would they know?” if a neighbor is in fact an Airbnb user as opposed to a client of some other home-sharing service or that the number even exists for the reporting of such issues.
When accused of putting tenants at risk for eviction for hosting, Hantman said the company does have a pop-up on its site for New York City users warning them hosting may not be legal in their buildings or allowed in their leases.
“We know how much they earn, but we don’t know what their lease is,” he said. “We ask our hosts to obey the law.”
One host there to support the company, Lee Thomas, told the panel about how after he became ill with cancer, his high-paying career on Wall Street came to an end and the only means he had of supporting himself was by renting out his getaway cottage. In response, Williams told him the illegal hotels law didn’t even apply to him because it applies to multi-family buildings while his property was just a two-family one.
Along with Airbnb, also getting quite a bit of criticism was the city office tasked with investigating illegal hotel activity, with Council members accusing its director of not doing enough or having the resources needed to adequately deal with the ongoing problem.
Elizabeth Glazer, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, kept saying she believed her office was doing a good job at keeping up with complaints, but politicians countered that the system shouldn’t just be complaint-driven. Rather, Rosenthal said, it should be proactive enough to keep up with any suspicious short-term rental listing. This was after Glazer had said her office last year had received 1,050 illegal rental complaints, up from 712 in 2013. In response, Rosenthal told her there were over 2,000 listings in Council Member Antonio Reynoso’s district in Brooklyn alone.
“I publicly take issue with what you’re saying,” said Rosenthal.
When asked how the office investigates tips of illegal activity, Glazer said there is “an array of techniques that we use,” but she declined multiple times to say what they were.
This answer didn’t impress Council Member Peter Koo, who threw back, “I don’t see you using them though.”
He told Glazer about how he’d seen an inspector show up at an address where there was suspected illegal activity and knock once. When no one answered, the inspector knocked again. Then, after a few minutes more, when the door remained unanswered, he was gone.
“How come it’s so hard to open a door?” asked Koo. “Pretend you’re a tourist. Send a decoy. Tell them they’re here to give a massage.”
Despite getting some chuckles from the audience, Koo was then cut off by Williams. Koo said he represents an area in Flushing that’s become a “gateway of Asian tourism.”
Also sitting in at the hearing were the authors of the 2010 illegal hotels law, State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Member Richard Gottfried. Krueger said what she hoped would come out of the event would be more and not less enforcement of the law at the city level.
“Without enforcement at the local level, it’s as if we didn’t pass it,” she said.
According to Glazer, out of the 1,050 complaints received in 2014, 883 resulted in inspections and 495 violations being issued.
Council Member Dan Garodnick, who was not at the hearing since he is not a member of the housing committee, later said he does support “more aggressive enforcement” of the law.
Re: “Airbnb won’t cooperate with A.G. investigation,” T&V, Oct. 10
To the Editor:
I am intrigued that Eric Schneiderman decided to prioritize investigating Airbnb. Wasn’t he supposed to be prosecuting the banksters responsible for our continuing economic disaster? Come to think of it, where are those indictments?
Rich people don’t sublet their homes for short periods. Middle-class homeowners and renters do. There may be some nefarious businesspeople subletting to even lurkier subtenants on Airbnb, but I’m pretty sure most of the people using Airbnb to make money or have a place to stay are ordinary middle class people. Some people rent out their apartments because they have lost jobs and are traveling, looking for work. Others are having difficulty paying their monthly costs due to stagnating wages combined with continually rising co-op maintenance fees and endless assessments.
Again, the rich don’t have these troubles. Should middle-class homeowners be forced to sell their apartments or incur credit problems because of temporary financial setbacks?
I can’t sublet my apartment on Airbnb due to the fact I store confidential materials here, but if that wasn’t an issue I probably would occasionally sublet it.
I have fond memories of the “illegal” sublet I rented as a young graduate student in 1990. If that apartment hadn’t been available, I never would have been able to live in Manhattan, close to my school and internship. Again, this type of issue is not a problem for the rich — only for the middle class.
Schneiderman and Liz Krueger might want to think about the fact that most of the middle-class people who sublet on Airbnb in New York are registered Democrats…
Sukkah in park not unconstitutional
Re: Letter, “Sukkah doesn’t belong in public park,” T&V, Oct. 10
To the Editor:
The writer who objects to sukkahs in public parks has gone beyond the facts in stating, “the Constitution espouses the separation of church and state.”
The First Amendment forbids legislating, “an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and Article VI forbids a religious test for holding federal office. An establishment of religion, the thing forbidden, is a requirement that all citizens worship God in the manner of only one religion and must contribute to its financial support. Allowing the free exercise of religion means that every citizen may choose to worship God, or not, in the manner he or she deems right, and in doing so may exercise all the other First Amendment freedoms — of speech, the press and peaceable assembly.
The Constitution mandates freedom for religion, not freedom from religion.
Yet Mendy Weitbaum may have exceeded these rights, in the same way one would by erecting a personal sign in a public park suggesting, “Drink Coca-Cola,” or “Fly American Airlines.” Yet, if he did exceed his rights, it’s because of erecting a symbol of his personal preferences, not because the symbol is a religious one.
Don Murray, ST
Re: Letter, “Sukkah doesn’t belong in public park,” T&V, Oct. 10
The phrase, “separation of church and state” is nowhere to be found in the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson used it in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 to assure them that the state of CT would not interfere with their religious practices.
James Madison said the purpose of the First Amendment was to prohibit Congress from establishing a national religion. Just because someone doesn’t want to see a sukkah, a cross, or anything else in a public park doesn’t make it unconstitutional, so the rabbi can put up a sukkah anywhere he wants.
Thank you for your consideration.
Joan Carmody, PCV
They have three transients in every eight apartments; they send you reminder notices on the day they’ve cashed your check; they inspect your apartment to insure that you’re using your 22-year-old refrigerator; two of five washing machines in a laundry room meant for over 100 apartments are unplugged. They hang padding 24/7 in elevators that rent stabilized tenants have paid for so transients can readily move in and out. They are the most interesting landlords in the world.
State Senator Liz Krueger authored an illegal hotels law.
By Sabina Mollot
Airbnb, a company that reps from the ST-PCV Tenants Association and property management have met with in an attempt to keep tenants from illegally renting out their homes to strangers for short-term stays, is now refusing to cooperate with an investigation by the attorney general.
In an official statement on its website, Airbnb had this to say in response to news reports about the investigation, which seeks to subpoena information about the company’s users.
“We always want to work with governments to make the Airbnb community stronger, but at this point, this demand is unreasonably broad and we will fight it with everything we’ve got,” the company wrote in a blog post. The statement went on to say that its “host” users were “everyday New Yorkers who occasionally share the home in which they live.”
The statement comes on the heels of a court victory for Airbnb, in which it was successfully able to argue that an East Village resident who used its service to rent out his apartment didn’t break any laws because a tenant of record was at home during the time a paying guest stayed there.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman did not respond to a request for comment on the investigation, which was first reported in Crain’s.
Airbnb, however, also said it would “continue conversations” with the A.G. to “to see if we can work together to support Airbnb hosts and remove bad actors from the Airbnb platform. We are confident we can reach a solution that protects your personal information and cracks down on people who abuse the system.”
Despite the encouraging promise, Airbnb’s response when it comes to illegal hosting has been noncommittal in the past, at least where ST/PCV is concerned. ST-PCV Tenants Association President John Marsh had previously asked that he company no longer allow any postings that involve any of the property’s 110 addresses.
A spokesperson for Airbnb offered to answer T&V’s questions, but then didn’t respond when asked if any policy was changed in regards to ST/PCV, where a couple of years ago, management had to crackdown on widespread short-term hosting. Some room-and-board arrangements were made by other sites like Craig’s List and Roomorama, but mainly listings for short-term rentals were found on Airbnb.
The problem does appear to have subsided since then though. This week, a scroll through the site only revealed a few listings for apartments that were obviously located in ST/PCV apartments, and they included one request for a long-term guest as well as a couple of listings offering a room rather than the entire apartment.
A spokesperson for CWCapital did not respond to a question about how management’s investigation into illegal hotel activity was going, but Marsh said CW had last left the TA with the impression that it was continuing to pursue offenders. Marsh also said the TA hadn’t gotten any recent complaints abut illegal hotel activity.
It was in 2010 when a law, authored by State Senator Liz Krueger, was passed that made it illegal for apartments in most types of residential buildings to be rented out for stays shorter than 30 days.
Following Airbnb’s recent court win, Krueger responded to the company’s claim that it would work to weed out those who abuse its system that matches travelers with apartments, rather than hotels to stay in.
“One easy way for them to help is to specifically explain the state and city laws relating to this activity on their website,” she said in an official statement, “and have clear guidelines pop up as a splash page whenever a host is listing a unit in New York City or a guest is looking at NYC listings. After all, a tenant may see this as an easy way to make some fast cash, and clearly Airbnb is taking a cut, but the building owner has rights too and faces most of the liability if things go wrong.”
She added that if “Airbnb wants to remove bad actors, they should require their hosts to provide addresses and apartment numbers. Making clear what is and is not legal in a community is the best way to ensure fewer people will unknowingly break the law, risking eviction from their homes and/or fines from the government.”
Krueger spokesperson Andrew Goldston added that while the law was intended to weed out the worst of the offenders, those who have made illegal hotels a business rather than an occasional way to earn cash, any bookings at all are still illegal in many buildings and the feeling of the senator is that Airbnb “is trying to draw a broad line that’s very convenient for them.”