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Airbnb Renters Living in Fear of Lost Income After Judge's Ruling

 An East Village apartment listing on Airbnb.
An East Village apartment listing on Airbnb.
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EAST VILLAGE — When 51-year-old Edward A., a circus performer, injured both his feet in a 2009 work accident he turned to Airbnb to make ends meet, renting out his apartment to tourists for short-term stays through the website.

"It enabled me to not to go into debt on the credit card, it enabled me to keep buying groceries and contribute to the New York economy," said the East Village resident of more than 20 years. "It enabled me to stay in New York, to keep afloat."

Like many New Yorkers, Edward is now “paranoid” over his Airbnb listing following a court ruling that slapped a landlord of an East Village building with a $2,400 fine after a tenant, Nigel Warren, rented out his room to tourists for a few days using the Airbnb website last September.

The highly publicized case framed city residents who offer their homes or spare rooms as rentals for less than 30 days through the website as operating "illegal hotels" and in violation of city regulations, an interpretation of the law that Airbnb argues isn't always the case.

"It is my primary source of income," said an East Village resident, 43, who like many spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions over their use of Airbnb. "It is a real threat to my livelihood."

The self-employed woman said she started renting either her entire three-bedroom apartment or just a room through Airbnb two years ago so she would have more time to take care of a sick family member.

"It is a great money maker, I won't lie," she said, of the thousands of dollars she has made from dozens of Airbnb guests. "It let's me be human. I'm not living a life of luxury, but I am comfortable."

She has already received a concerned call from a regular renter since the ruling. Edward A. said some of his bookings have already canceled.

A 25-year-old young professional who lives within blocks of Washington Square Park, has decided to only rent out one room rather than her entire two-bedroom apartment due to the court ruling.

"I will be changing our listing," she wrote in an email to DNAinfo. "We only wanted to sublet the whole apartment to earn some quick cash and get the money back that we put down on the apartment in the first place."

Like other Airbnb hosts who spoke with DNAinfo New York, she remained unclear if a short-term rental for spare room while she stayed in the apartment would also be illegal.

In Warren's case he did not stay at the apartment while he rented out his room, but the other permanent co-tenant in the apartment did stay along with the Airbnb guests.  

However, the judge stated that because the guests were complete strangers and did not have access to the entire apartment the stay was illegal.

After the ruling, Airbnb's head of global policy David Hantman wrote in a blog post that the judge had "some fairly tortured reasoning" in the ruling and it implied that "the stay might be legal only if the host and guest intend to form a relationship or friendship of some kind."

He went on to call the law "confusing and often contradictory" adding that Airbnb is assessing its options to appeal the case.

Airbnb does issue a general warning to those about to book a residence through its website stating that "certain types of short-term bookings maybe prohibited altogether" in certain cities, but in the warning it does not mention New York City.

Marisa Senigo, a spokeswoman for the city's Environmental Control Board, which handed down the ruling, said the fine is the responsibility of the building or apartments owner including in Warren's case.

"Whoever owns the residence, that is the person responsible for the decision and the violation," she told DNAinfo New York.

While Warren is only a tenant, he had previously agreed to take responsibility for the incident, according to an earlier news report by WNYC. It is unclear if he volunteered to pay the $2,400 in fines to landlord Abe Carrey, who is listed on the court documents.

Tenant, landlord and real estate lawyer, Paul Kenney, who has been practicing for 12 years, said the decision means in most cases using Airbnb is illegal in New York City.

"The law allows for house guests, but if you are charging a stranger to stay with you for less than 30 days it is most likely going to be against the new law," said Kenney.

"It is going to affect a lot of people," he added.

Despite the ruling, some with listings on Airbnb are determined to keep their line of income from short-term apartment rentals.

"I am considering deleting my [Airbnb] account just because it is so visible and out there," said a 25-year-old East Village resident who works in advertising.

"Maybe it is time to go through Craigslist or other back channels," he said.