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Illegal Hotel Complaints Up 62 Percent as City Council Grills Airbnb

By Jeff Mays | January 21, 2015 3:24pm
 Short-term rental sites such as Airbnb are violating the law, hurting efforts to provide affordable housing and placing the safety of legal tenants at risk, elected officials said Tuesday during a marathon City Council hearing. An East Village apartment listing on Airbnb is shown here.
Short-term rental sites such as Airbnb are violating the law, hurting efforts to provide affordable housing and placing the safety of legal tenants at risk, elected officials said Tuesday during a marathon City Council hearing. An East Village apartment listing on Airbnb is shown here.
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Airbnb

NEW YORK CITY — Illegal hotel complaints increased 62 percent last year because short-term rental sites such as Airbnb are violating the law, hurting efforts to provide affordable housing and placing the safety of legal tenants at risk, elected officials said Tuesday during a marathon City Council hearing.

"I'm just amazed as to how bad it really seems — what you're doing and the impact it could have on this city," Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, chairman of the Committee on Housing and Buildings, told a representative from Airbnb during more than an hour of sometimes combative testimony.

Under a 2010 state law, renting out an entire apartment for less than 30 days is illegal. According to Share Better, an anti-Airbnb coalition, 60 percent of the apartments the site listed in the city — more than 15,000 — are illegal.

According to a recent report from Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose threatened legal action led to the purging of 2,000 New York City listings from the site, 6 percent of hosts were responsible for 36 percent of private, short-term bookings worth $168 million or 37 percent of revenue.

"When you have illegal hotels in the neighborhood, you destabilize the neighborhood," said Queens Councilman Peter Koo, adding that affordable apartments in Flushing are sometimes snapped up by entrepreneurs at higher-than-market rates and used to host Airbnb users.

"That hurts the amount of hotel taxes the city can collect and discourages hotel development," Koo said.

Audrey Smoltz, who has lived in a West 55th Street building since 1977, testified that the entire fourth floor had been turned into short-term rentals with a steady stream of tourist from New Zealand and France.

She says repair requests from longtime tenants were ignored while the short-term rentals were renovated.

"I want to live in the same safe, peaceful building that we have always lived in," Smoltz said.

Williams, Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal and Public Advocate Letitia James repeatedly asked Airbnb representatives what they were doing to stem illegal listings to their site like the ones Smoltz complained about.

Asked by Williams if the site kept track of illegal listings during one exchange, David Hantman, head of public policy for Airbnb, said: "We don't research that."

"We ask every host to obey the law and obey your lease," Hantman added.

Hantman said the law should be changed because it was hurting regular New Yorkers who rent out space in their apartments only occasionally.

"We are pretending that we are talking about illegal hotels but we are going after everyone," said Hantman.

Williams disputed that and used the example of Lee Thomas, of Ozone Park, Queens, who spoke at the hearing about how he used Airbnb to rent out a guest cottage in his single family home when he became ill with cancer.

"The only asset I was able to use from being totally wiped out was my guest apartment," said Thomas.

However, owners of one- and two-family homes are allowed to rent out space in their units under the law.

"You are not the type of person we are talking about here. This hearing is not for you," said Williams. "You haven't violated anything."

The council told representatives from the fire department and Mayor's Office of Special Enforcement that they were not equipped to deal with the problem.

Elizabeth Glazer, head of the Mayor's Office of Special Enforcement, said the agency handled 1,150 illegal hotel complaints last year, a 62 percent increase from 2013, performed 883 inspections and issued a total of 804 violations.

Council members called that woefully inadequate given the estimate of 15,000 illegal rentals on Airbnb alone.

"Nothing is being done. You get a violation, you get a second violation, a third violation and nothing is being done," said Queens Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz.