Borough President Gale Brewer, along with other elected officials including Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, Council Member Dan Garodnick, State Senator Brad Hoylman and State Senator Liz Krueger in front of City Hall (Photo by Sabina Mollot)
By Sabina Mollot
Last Friday, over a dozen elected officials and housing advocates gathered at City Hall to blast Airbnb, the home-sharing listing website that’s being investigated by the attorney general, as having become the city’s largest illegal hotel operator. The popular service, which allows users to list their apartments for short term stays, has become the bane of the hotel industry as well as a problem for some tenants, mainly due to safety issues when neighbors rent their apartments to strangers.
Then there’s the inevitable quality of life issues like late night noise and even bedbugs. Two years ago, when there was an uptick of bedbug sightings in Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, Tenants Association John Marsh said he thought illegal hotel activity may have had something to do with it.
Meanwhile, in some properties, like ST/PCV, renting out one’s home for a bit of extra cash is not only against the law, but against the terms of the lease.
At City Hall, the speakers, following the formation of a coalition called Share Better, criticized Airbnb for not warning users that they may face eviction for renting out their homes. It was only after ST-PCV Tenants Association leaders as well as CWCapital employees met with representatives from Airbnb that the company agreed to send a pop-up message to would be Airbnb users with ST/PCV addresses that it would be illegal to rent their unit.
Susan Steinberg, chair of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, said this week that as a result of the warning message, she believes illegal apartment rentals are less of a problem today than they had been in recent years.
But they are still a problem.
“It’s just anecdotal things from people that it’s still going on,” said Steinberg. “People they’ve never seen lugging suitcases in and out.”
Additionally, on Monday, a Stuy Town apartment appeared in a listing by an Airbnb “host” named Damian, who was asking $304 a night for a two-bedroom apartment for a minimum of 14 days. The same user described himself in his bio as a manager of multiple apartments. The Stuy Town apartment was listed as a “Gramercy designer luxury suite.” The others available through the same host were in Soho, Nolita and Greenwich Village.
As for whether Airbnb is to blame for the other instances mentioned by Steinberg is hard to say, since there are other similar home-sharing service websites. One, called Flipkey, targeted ST/PCV residents in May of 2013 with a postcard mailed to each apartment that promised an average booking fee of $1,000.
This was swiftly responded to by management, however, who alerted residents via email that renting out their apartments was a no-no. “Please remember that apartment rentals for fewer than 30 days are prohibited under NYC law and use of this service is a violation of your lease and your tenancy,” CW told tenants. “Furthermore, short term rentals such as these are harmful to the PCVST community and negatively impact your neighbors.”
After that, a rep for Flipkey told T&V the company would not attempt to contact residents again.
Under the Illegal Hotels Law, passed in 2010, it’s illegal to rent out apartments in residential buildings for under 30 days. Airbnb has since fired back by lobbying to amend the law.
Tenants hold signs at a City Hall press conference.
But while CWCapital has been attempting to stop the practice of short-term renting, tenants in other buildings said at the rally that in some cases it is owners themselves turning properties into illegal hotels. At City Hall, tenants, armed with signs that read “Homes not hotels” and “Save our homes” shared tales of landlords attempting to slowly turn their whole buildings into hotels because they earn more that way than through monthly rent.
A Hell’s Kitchen resident named Tom Kaylor said his landlord turned a one-bedroom apartment into a five-bedroom by packing in short-term guests. One of them turned out to be registered sex offender who threatened Kaylor’s nine-year-old son.
“We went to the NYPD,” he said. “We got him charged with making terroristic threats, but that didn’t stop the hostel.” In another incident at the building, Kaylor recalled how a Danish woman staying there had someone follow her inside and attack her. When neighbors heard her scream, they came out and her attacker, who’d left her with two black eyes, fled. “She didn’t want to make a police report because she was leaving the next day,” said Kaylor.
State Senator Liz Krueger, who authored the illegal hotels legislation along with Assembly Member Richard Gottfried, said she had tried to get it passed for seven years before it finally became law. “
Fundamentally what we have seen happen is a decrease in affordable housing in the city,” said Krueger, “as these apartments are taken off the market to be used in illegal hotel activities.”
She and other politicians then took jabs at Airbnb’s recent marketing blitz, with different ads depicting New Yorkers along with their guests in their apartments and sharing stories of how renting out their homes helps them afford their own expensive rent. But, pols said, the ads are misleading because most hosts aren’t home while their guests are, which is what makes the transaction illegal.
“It’s very misleading — renting to tourists to make ends meet,” added Council Member Dan Garodnick. “That would be very sympathetic, if it was a complete picture.”
Gottfried noted that regular hotels have to abide by very specific fire and safety codes. “Illegal hotels almost always violate these safety codes,” he said.
Borough President Gale Brewer said she thought Airbnb “is a problem,” though she added that the city does need more low-cost hotels. “This administration needs to look at quality hotels that are legal. That’s what we should focus on,” she said.
Other politicians to criticize Airbnb as making the affordable housing crisis worse were Council Members Corey Johnson, Rory Lancman, Mark Levine and Helen Rosenthal, State Senators Brad Hoylman and Adriano Espaillat, Assembly Members Walter Mosley and Linda Rosenthal and Public Advocate Tish James.
The event was also in promotion of the Share Better coalition, which seems to have been created with the sole purpose of opposing Airbnb. The coalition, as well as Attorney General Eric Scheiderman believe two thirds of the company’s income comes from illegal hotels. After subpoenaing anonymous information about the company’s users, the A.G. asked for identifiable information about 124 users who allegedly are each renting out a minimum of 10 apartments. Seventeen of those users have since sued to block their personal information being turned over so the A.G. currently has the identities of the remaining 107.
A spokesperson for Airbnb, Nick Papas, when asked about the rally and criticism of its business practices, issued this statement.
“We strongly oppose illegal hotels and have advocated for legislation that would modify the law to make it easier for regular people to share their primary residence.” He also referred to information on a recent post on the company blog.
In it, Airbnb insisted that its 25,000 listings were too small of a number to have a negative impact on the pricing of New York City’s three million households. The company also said that it recently removed a number of users who were “abusing” its system by offering multiple listings and not providing a “quality, local” experience for guests. It also blamed the current backlash against its services on the hotel industry.
“Some in the hotel industry will do everything they can to stop the sharing economy,” the post read, “but we look forward to working with leaders in New York on sensible legislation that cracks down on illegal hotels and ensures regular New Yorkers can share the home in which they live.”
On Friday afternoon, when talking to reporters, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised there would be “more enforcement” on the issue. “We have been increasing enforcement and you’ll see more enforcement as we go along,” he said. “There’s difference types of realities, obviously, under the rubric of Airbnb the sharing economy, and some of them are things to embrace and some are examples where some individuals get outside the law and we’re obviously going to follow up on that very aggressively.
“We also need a bigger set of policies to address these changes in our society – you know, the role of technology and commerce – and we intend to do that. But you’re certainly going to see – if you look at the numbers so far, there’s been a lot of enforcement already this year. You’re certainly going to see more.”