BY COUNCILMAN MARK WEPRIN
The other night, while I was watching television, an Airbnb commercial appeared on the screen. The spot, which is part of Airbnb’s new ad campaign, depicts a Brooklyn family sharing their home with tourists visiting the Big Apple. As the cozy group sat at the dinner table and shared stories, I thought, what a lovely way to make out-of-towners feel welcomed in our City. And it would be great, if only it were the norm.
The reality is that the vast majority of Airbnb hosts are not sitting around a dinner table and swapping stories with their guests. More often, New Yorkers are using the home-sharing service as a means of making a quick buck while out of town or keeping units for regular short-term leases, driving up rental costs for everyone. In the City, renting out space in most residential apartments for less than 30 days is illegal if the tenant is not present. While there may be instances in which the service is used in the way it is intended, the fact is that two-thirds of the time, it’s not.
In New York City, a growing number of people are renting out spaces to tourists in their houses, rental units, condos and co-ops. In 2009, when Airbnb debuted in New York, approximately 100,000 guest nights were booked. The following year, in 2010, that number rose to 750,000. By 2011, more than two million total nights were booked – at least 50 percent of which were illegally rented, according to New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
Illegal short-term leases contribute to the declining stock of affordable housing in every part of New York. When landlords realize they can make an astronomical profit by renting rooms by the night, there is a ripple effect that drives costs up within buildings, then within neighborhoods and beyond. Lodging Advisors recently reported that there were 478 Airbnb units in Astoria and 148 units in Sunnyside and Woodside.
In addition to being illegal, renting out space to a complete stranger can be just plain dangerous. It was not long after Airbnb came to New York that horror stories began to flood the news. In one instance, a comedian rented out his apartment in Chelsea, Manhattan, only to discover it that it was used for a disturbing sex party. In another instance, a publicist, Jessica Penzari, rented out her Midtown Manhattan apartment to a woman she believed was in the military. Shortly thereafter, Penzari got a telephone call from police and learned that her guest was actually a prostitute and had been found murdered in the apartment. While these may sound like extreme examples, they shed light on the potential dangers of Airbnb.
At the least, hosts renting out space in a rental apartment or co-op run the risk of inviting a thief or a rowdy guest who will irritate the neighbors. At worst, they may be opening their doors to criminals, endangering the lives of others. It is not fair that neighbors, especially those living in apartment buildings, are subjected to such a hazard. I shudder at the thought of what might happen if we continue to allow these types of rentals. It is only a matter of time before someone gets hurt or killed.
So, while Airbnb’s new television commercials sure make short-term rentals seem attractive, it is my hope that New Yorkers recognize that the message is incredibly misleading. There is no fool-proof way to eliminate the dangers associated with these types of rentals. This is why I will work with my colleagues in government to put an end to the unlawful subletting practices in New York City.
Councilman Mark Weprin is the chair of the Queens Delegation in the City Council.