Airbnb has found itself in a tricky legal tussle with the state of New York. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent the home renting company a subpoena on October 7, ordering Airbnb’s data for 15,000 users who have rented out their home or apartment in New York City.
This number accounts for fewer than 7% of the 225,000 Airbnb users in Manhattan alone. The city is demanding this data because it's eager to smoke out people who are utilizing Airbnb to rent out rooms (and sometimes whole apartment buildings) like a hotel. Airbnb has since filed objections against the subpoena, arguing that a 2010 New York City hotel tax referenced in the summons is unconstitutionally vague.
The 2010 law states that it is illegal to rent an apartment for less than thirty days—a law that Airbnb hotels are clearly and illegally bypassing by allowing travelers to rent rooms for whatever duration they please.
This subpoena didn't surprise me because, well, I willingly—and very begrudgingly—lived in a New York City apartment-turned-Airbnb hotel for five months.
My Life Of Crime
And let’s be clear, it was some serious anti-glamorous Manhattan housing. This tiny walkup was located just south of Madison Square Garden, on a street best known for scoring a whole minute of quality background time in Premium Rush.
The one bedroom was just that, four walls closely encasing the double bed, and a mini stove sitting in the far left corner. There was a closet sized bathroom in which the bathtub water handle would fall apart at a touch, and where I would find winged roaches just chilling on the drain for fun.
The landlord ran the apartment like a hotel. He owned the entire three level walkup, and outfitted each room with the same exact lime green bedding and orange pillow accents. I watched tourists from around the world go in and out of that apartment like a rotating door— some stayed for the weekend, some for two weeks, but I was definitely the only (semi) permanent resident.
The kicker? I was paying a monthly rent you'd usually associate with a Manhattan apartment three times the size of the room I was staying in. That, plus I had to put up with my landlord’s weirdly guttural noises I consistently woke up to in the morning—some days it was just not worth it.
Despite the obviously depressing pitfalls, there was a catch. I had a place to stay. Until that point, I had moved so many times in New York that my Manhattan Mini Storage cubby had become a second home. I desperately needed housing for exactly five months time, and I had no furniture to my name; just boxes of clothes, a TV, and a rolling shopping cart.
A Scam? Or Just An End Run Around Manhattan?
I could call my landlord a scammer. I could call the whole practice a scam. But in doing so I would be asserting that I was scammed, which in fact, I wasn’t. I knew what I was getting into, and— I can’t stress this enough— I had a roof over my head.
The Airbnb hotel practice is certainly illegal according to the 2010 law, but who's getting the short end of the stick? Perhaps it is the New York City hotels who are losing revenue from wanderlust tourists looking for a place for the weekend? Maybe it's the earnest apartment shopper truly willing to sign on a year’s lease, only to find multiple complexes shelled out and remade into faux hotels.
Or maybe it's the everyday Airbnb user entranced by gorgeously tempting photos from the Airbnb website, only to be faced with the brazen actuality of a dark, shoebox-sized room, winged roaches sitting in their tub throne, and a guttural landlord.
A petition to the New York Senate authored by Airbnb user Mishelle is circulating among Airbnb's clientele, arguing that users are not running illegal hotels.
“Legalize sharing and fix the poorly written slumlord law,” the petition urges the legislature.
Airbnb endorsed the petition on October 14, urging their users via email to sign the petition and “save Airbnb” in New York. The petition now aims to collect 60,000 signatures, up from the original goal of 20,000. As of October 17, it had received backing from 54,115 supporters.