BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | A City Council hearing Tuesday on illegal apartment rentals in New York City was dominated by debate about airbnb, the exploding online “home-sharing” operation.
Titled “Short-term Rentals: Stimulating the Economy or Destabilizing Neighborhoods?” the hearing was led by Councilmember Jumaane Williams, chairperson of the Housing and Buildings Committee.
The crowd packing the City Council Chambers included tenants and tenant advocates opposed to airbnb, as well as others who praised the easy financial pickings of renting out their places to perfect strangers, which can pay for a vacation, for example, or just supplement one’s income.
A fast-growing global phenomenon, airbnb’s biggest and most lucrative market is reportedly New York City.
Councilmembers heard overwhelming complaints about how airbnb is helping deplete the city’s affordable housing stock, while also creating building-wide security, safety and nuisance issues. Meanwhile, many noted, the city’s enforcement unit for dealing with the problem of illegal rentals is tiny and can’t keep up with the mushrooming underground industry.
“Over the past five years,” Councilmember Helen Rosenthal said, “airbnb rentals grew from 900 to 21,000, and according to the New York State attorney general, 72 percent of these units are illegal. Until short-term rental platforms accept responsibility for their users who profit from illegal rentals, we have to equip the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement to shut them down, one by one.”
Assemblymember Richard Gottfried sponsored the 2010 Illegal Hotel Law that forbids renting out apartments for less than 30 days at a time.
“For years, tenants have been fighting to rid our city of illegal hotels,” Gottfried said. “Now companies like airbnb are using their hotel-brokerage services to promote illegal hotel use. Their misleading propaganda tries to paper over the fire and safety violations, harassment of tenants and loss of needed housing that comes with illegal hotels. We want to protect the Illegal Hotel Law and get increased enforcement of the law, and more resources and strong penalties for violating the law. Illegal hotels are bad for New York, bad for tourists and bad for housing.”
Added state Senator Brad Hoylman, “Illegal hotels give unscrupulous landlords an incentive to drive up apartment prices and drive out longtime residents, reducing our city’s already-limited affordable housing stock. According to data released by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, my district has one of the highest concentrations of illegal hotels in the city, and I applaud my colleagues at both the state and local level who are working to ensure that our fire, building safety and zoning laws are enforced.”
Meanwhile, in his testimony, David Hantman, airbnb’s head of global public policy, said that, in fact, airbnb now has more than 25,000 “hosts” in New York City, serving hundreds of thousands of users.
“More than 26 million people have now stayed in an airbnb listing around the world,” he said. “And we know from experience here and around the globe that when you learn more about airbnb and our amazing community of hosts, you see how we make cities even better places to visit and call home.
“That is why Amsterdam, Hamburg, San Jose, Portugal, San Francisco, Portland and Paris have all passed new laws within the last year to clear the path for renting out one’s own home.
“New York policymakers shouldn’t be left behind or advocate against their own citizens who depend on home-sharing to pay their bills,” Hantman urged. “We can protect regular New Yorkers who are sharing their home and still prohibit and punish illegal hotels.
“A vast majority of New Yorkers already believe that residents should be able to rent out their own homes once in awhile.”
Hantman claimed that most of airbnb’s hosts — about 90 percent — “simply rent out their own homes once in awhile. The typical host in New York might rent out their home for a few days when away on vacation, or maybe a couple of weeks a year for a work trip,” he asserted. But others have been found to be stockpiling and renting out multiple units.
Tenant advocates have been warning that airbnb has been spending millions of dollars to lobby Albany legislators to change the law to allow the booming business to operate legally.