The hotel service chain Airbnb is now in the process of an all-out billion dollar PR campaign in order to convince New York public officials and many of their opponents that the company is a source of a new kind of populism which grows the so called “sharing economy”. One now can find their ads everywhere from youtube to the subways where posters are placed both on the walls of the platforms to inside many of the cars. Couple this with the money being spent up in Albany and it becomes obvious that Airbnb is doubling down on making one of their most fertile markets a more welcoming host. And to help the company with their quest the New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante has chosen to release a piece which pushes forward one of Airbnb’s main talking points, that they help middle class New Yorkers keep their homes. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/06/nyregion/airbnbs-promise-every-man-and-woman-a-hotelier.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&version=HpSum&module=third-column-region®ion=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&_r=1.
Ginia Bellafante’s piece which was published on July 3 2014 entitled, “Airbnb’s Promise: Every Man and Woman A Hotelier”, glosses over some of the concerns that several New York lawmakers and tenants rights’ groups have with the company. In fact the only incident which was mentioned in her article involved the case of the Ari Teman, a 31 year old comedian who rented out his Chelsea apartment through Airbnb. When he came home he found himself in the middle of an orgy which had been advertised as a XXX Freak Show as first noted in the New York Post http://nypost.com/2014/03/17/airbnb-renter-claims-he-returned-home-to-an.... She went on to mention Airbnb’s wish to overturn the New York State rent Multiple Dwelling law that prohibits any residential units from being rented out for less than thirty days which was first passed in 1929 and later updated in 2010.
What was left out of her piece was why the lawmakers and tenant’s rights groups felt that the law needed to be updated due to the ever evolving realities concerning how many landlords and building owners continue to navigate around the law and how many of the city’s agency put in charge of dealing with this problem have a history of looking the other way. What was also omitted from the article was any mention of the more than 300,000 rent regulated apartments lost over the past several years, many of which were illegally deregulated by landlords renting these residential apartments for transient use to cash in on the booming tourist industry.
While the brunt of the article’s message is that Airbnb and similar companies provide a way to limit the income inequality which is so prominent in NYC’s five boroughs, it ignores several basic facts surrounding the company. First many of those who rent out their apartments, called super hosts, own or rent 23 or more units all of which are listed on Airbnb’s website which should put the validity of Bellafante’s argument into question. As for the point that residents use the service to keep their homes, the question of why the city’s rents are so inflated is rarely asked.
In a move to dig their heels against their opposition Airbnb has decided to help sponsor one of New York City’s biggest events, the November marathon which is operated by the Road Runners and brings in hundreds of thousands of participants, as noted by Crain’s magazine. This decision to provide sponsorship to the event comes on the heels of the legal battle Airbnb was facing from the New York State Attorney Eric Schneiderman’s office demand to obtain the company’s list of clients.
While a judge deemed the scope of the initial subpoena too broad in covering all New York State, Attorney General Schneiderman reissued the subpoena to include only areas protected by the state Multiple Dwelling laws. Airbnb responded by sending a name suppressed client list to Schneiderman’s office after removing all of the illegal hotels from their website. The number of illegal operations made up as much as two thirds of the company’s listings in the New York City area.
The spokesperson for the Road Runners group, Chris Weiller stated that he understood the sponsor’s legal issues but then pointed out the financial boost that the event holds, bringing in some 65 million dollars to the hotel industry. It should be noted that most of the rooms booked in legal hotels for the runners are relatively few and are usually used by the event’s staff and professional runners. A spokesperson for Airbnb was quoted as saying that his company is not looking to replace the hotel industry but to be an alternative for guests and the runners themselves.
Josh Gold the head of the Hotel’s Trade Council had a very different take on Airbnb’s sponsorship, “It's unfortunate that a prestigious organization like the NYRR would accept a sponsorship with a company that is still struggling to abide by laws in New York City and state and around the world. Whatever the amount of money NYRR was offered, I hope it was worth it to align with a company that is still struggling to exist within the law." http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20140703/HOSPITALITY_TOURISM/140709938/airbnb-to-be-a-sponsor-of-the-nyc-marathon.
According to a new piece by Gothamist writer Vivienne Gucwa, wrote that the quality of life for long term tenants is usually greatly lessened due to noise from loud parties and luggage being moved in out of units along with over used elevators and banging on doors at 4am when some tourists lose their keys. What is unusual about this story is that Gucwa wrote her piece while experiencing what it means to be a victim of living in a building where illegal hotels operate. Despite the image that Airbnb tries to set for itself as being a useful tool to allow middle income tenants to make a little extra money to pay their rent Gucwa stated that, “This is not the sporadic and reasonable sharing that my friends and those smiling people on the subway utilize to pad their incomes. In a single week I will experience the French family's first boisterous night in New York, the squeals of a couple forgetting their key at 4 a.m., the incessant clomping emanating from a thriving business that doesn't deem it necessary to buy carpets. One group liked taking baths so much they couldn't be bothered to stop while there was a hole in my ceiling.” As noted in the article, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement has seen the number of complaints of illegal hotels go up 50% since October of 2013. Of the 984 complaints filed, 617 came from Manhattan with Brooklyn coming in at a distant second with 198. Unfortunately many of these complaints are slow to be answered in large part because OSE’s staff is underfunded, a skeleton crew having to service all five boroughs. Other than calling 311 and filing a 4A complaint most tenants have little recourse in combating the problem. Electeds too are showing frustration with the increase of illegal hotels thanks in part due to the increase of Airbnb’s popularity as noted in the article.
State Senator Liz Kruger was quoted as saying, “We are in a dynamic, changing world where laws need to adapt to match reality. I'm not a Luddite, but there's a lot of businesses who think that because they're an internet business, they're somehow special and the rules don't apply," We estimate that two-thirds of their (Airbnb’s) listings in New York City are illegal.” http://gothamist.com/2014/07/02/heres_what_you_can_do_about_the_row.php?utm_source=Gothamist+Daily&utm_campaign=4a3a001d14-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73240544d8-4a3a001d14-639001
To put this in the proper light, New York City right now is going through a record setting housing crisis with rents being higher than ever and middle and lower income tenants paying an ever increasing portion of their salaries towards rent. It’s also no secret that many of these now so called market rate apartments which were once rent stabilized were deregulated under questionable means including constant harassment of the tenants by the management staff along with an upsurge of frivolous eviction cases. However, one of most used methods for clearing out once rent regulated buildings in Manhattan and now in Brooklyn is the practice of using residential apartments as illegal hotels. The increase in noise and neglect of one’s building along with the constant overcrowding of units force tenants out their homes. The units are later rented out to tenants willing to pay three to four times the legal amount the landlord is allowed to charge. Airbnb perhaps may have wanted to consider this before planting a flag in NYC.
Until next time…