Dozens of pols join coalition, look to burst Airbnb’s balloon


BY ZACH WILLIAMS  | Elected officials last week announced a new coalition to promote affordable housing and put Airbnb under increased scrutiny.

They said at a Sept. 12 City Hall steps press conference that Airbnb promotes illegal hotels and enables unscrupulous building owners to flout a 2010 law banning apartment sublets of less than 30 days. The new organization, Share Better, will also advertise extensively to counter Airbnb’s own recent ad blitz. The San Francisco-based “home-sharing” company meanwhile denied wrongdoing and dismissed the new organization as beholden to city hotel interests.

The new group did not specify how many affordable housing units have been lost due to Airbnb’s activities. State Senator Brad Hoylman said, though, that action must be taken to protect the city’s remaining rent-regulated units.

“We all are in favor of the share economy, but what about the fair economy?” he said. “It’s got to be fair to rent-stabilized tenants. Rent-stabilized tenants are becoming an endangered species and if we don’t step up as elected officials — as advocates — we are going to lose them.”

Assemblymember Dick Gottfried — who co-sponsored the 2010 law with state Senator Liz Krueger, who was also at the event — said Airbnb ads present an image far from the reality of its roughly 20,000 New York City listings.

“We see all these cheery ads about nice people renting out rooms, but the illegal hotel law is aimed at something different,” Gottfried said. “When people rent out their apartment again and again it makes life a nightmare for the neighbors in the building.”

Nearly two-thirds of rentals listed on Airbnb were for an entire apartment, according to the coalition, with 12 percent of hosts accounting for 30 percent of the company’s New York City listings.

Councilmembers Rosie Mendez, Margaret Chin and Corey Johnson, Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh, Borough President Gale Brewer and Public Advocate Letitia James are also among the around 30 local politicians affiliated with Share Better, according to the coalition. Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), Cooper Square Committee and the Urban Justice Center are among nearly three dozen advocacy and neighborhood groups involved with the effort.

Mayor de Blasio has yet to make a definitive statement on the issue, though city records indicate he received donations for his mayoral campaign from Airbnb’s founders.

By staying with an Airbnb host, guests are at risk because emergency egress, fire sprinklers and other mandated safety measures only apply to official hotels, according to the coalition.

“We are urging the mayor to hire more inspectors,” James said.

She added that efforts are also underway to urge the M.T.A. not to allow Airbnb to advertise on public transportation while state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman continues an investigation into the company’s business practices in the city.

Horror stories on the coalition’s Web site include a New York City host who returned to find used condoms and feces in an apartment. According to Tom Cayler, a Hell’s Kitchen tenant and member of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance, one Airbnb host threatened his child after he complained.

Airbnb representatives were in the audience at the press conference. Speaking afterward, they charged that the mainstream hotel industry is funding the coalition out of economic self-interest.

According to media reports, the coalition is using the services of Neal Kwatra, the founder of Metropolitan Public Strategies. Kwatra previously was Schneiderman’s chief of staff and political director of the New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council, the hotel workers union.

In a Sept. 12 statement, Airbnb said it opposes illegal hotels and seeks to promote affordable housing. More than 2,000 questionable listings have been removed from its Web site, the statement said.

According to Airbnb, 87 percent of its hosts live in the home they share, renting to guests on average about four nights per month. The number of the city’s Airbnb listings is too small to affect the city’s rent-regulated housing stock, according to the statement.

“Some in the hotel industry will do everything they can to stop the sharing economy,” the statement said.