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Here's How Landlords Are Striking Back Against Airbnb

By Amy Zimmer | December 8, 2015 6:37pm
 City landlords are doing all they can to prevent tenants from renting out their units on Airbnb.
City landlords are doing all they can to prevent tenants from renting out their units on Airbnb.
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BROOKLYN — The ink barely dried on their broker’s fee check when a couple reneged on the deal to take the $3,000-a month one-bedroom plus office apartment in Greenpoint.

The main sticking point for the DJ and freelance chef: a rider on the lease explicitly prohibited them from marketing the unit on Airbnb, explained David Kazemi, a broker with BOND New York, who added the language to the lease.

“The woman [the chef] was very honest about it. I was like, ‘Are you going to Airbnb the apartment?’’’ he said. “She was like, ‘Yes, September through November and then February through April.’ That’s six months on a one-year lease. These people were straight-up going to rent this apartment and make money off of it.”

Increasingly, landlords want to keep their tenants from renting their apartments through Airbnb or similar sites, city brokers and lawyers said.

Landlords are adding riders to leases clearly stating tenants will face eviction if found to be renting their units. They’re adding cameras, hiring private investigators or implementing new lock systems to catch tenants engaging in the practice.

It is illegal to rent out an apartment for fewer than 30 days, unless the host is present, and landlords are especially concerned about tenants flouting the law because owners are on the hook for any fines levied by the city.

And there’s talk of raising these fines even higher.

Upper West Side City Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal introduced a bill in October that would increase penalties for violating the law from the current range of $1,600 to $25,000 to between $10,000 and $50,000.

Karla Saladino, founder of Mirador Real Estate — whose firm’s primary business is to manage exclusive rentals for landlords and management firms — said one landlord she works with was recently slapped with a $40,000 fine when the city found a few Airbnb incidents in his Midtown building.

“Landlords have repeatedly been asking for digital lock systems where you can track activity and who the keys are given out to,” said Saladino, whose firm now offers Airbnb-related research and advice to their clients.

One of Manhattan’s biggest landlords is planning to install the new locks in the coming year for roughly 5,000 units, she noted, declining to name names.

When a landlord suspects tenants are renting through Airbnb, Saladino has staffers rummage around the site to find possible offenders, since the listings don’t mention exact addresses.

They can often find up to 15 possible rentals on a given day, she said.

“We pull the pictures and send it to the landlord,” Saladino said, noting that there are often telltale signs in the photos, like certain flooring.

Her firm has also become expert in rooting out “professional tenants” — people who rent units expressly for the purpose of renting them on sites like Airbnb. Some of these professional tenants are real estate brokers, Saladino noted, who enlist the help of clients to sign leases and then split the proceeds.

Many buildings are also implementing stricter guest request protocols, said Sherwin Belkin, a real estate attorney with Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman.

“The name of the guest has to be given, the duration of the stay, if any rent is being paid,” Belkin said, “so, when someone says, 'I’m John’s cousin and staying for the night,' and then it seems like John’s cousins are coming in for two or three days many times a month, [a pattern] begins to accumulate.”

When Airbnb started appearing in New York City, few lawyers thought landlords needed to include riders because they believed standard provisions about subleases would be sufficient, Belkin noted.

But now that Airbnb has "spread like wildfire," Belkin said, riders are becoming standard.

And in light of several recent lawsuits that have found in favor of landlords, Belkin predicts that more building owners will take legal action against tenants for flouting the law.

Attorney Michael Pensabene, with law firm Rosenberg & Estis, won such a case on behalf of a landlord battling a rent-controlled tenant in a four-bedroom Upper West Side apartment overlooking Central Park that had been her father’s since the 1950s.

The tenant earned about $10,000 a month through Airbnb, Pensabene said, while she was paying a “mere fraction of that” in rent. 

“She monetized the [rent regulation] benefit,” said Pensabene, noting that the practice raised additional red flags since the building was near a school. “No one knows the transient nature of the people coming. There are no background checks on these people. It’s not a safe situation.”

After tourists taking photos on the shared roof deck at TriBeCa’s 66 Franklin St. let a cigarette butt fall into a planter, causing a tree to catch fire, the building added additional security cameras and modified leases, said Vlad Sapozhnikov, of Oneworld Property Advisors, which manages the high-end rental where units go for upwards of $10,000 a month.

“If you’re living in the building and call it your home, you probably don’t throw cigarette butts off the roof, but if you treat it like a hotel, you have a different attitude,” Sapozhnikov said.

Airbnb — which currently has about 36,000 listings across the boroughs — recently released some data about New York City, claiming that the typical listing earns $5,110 a year and is shared less than four nights per month. Ninety-five percent of "hosts" share just one listing.

"We are committed to working with every stakeholder in New York — Airbnb hosts, policymakers, community groups, landlords and others — to develop an approach for home sharing that allows regular people to share their homes while contributing to the community," an Airbnb spokesman said.