Airbnb, the online service that enables people to rent rooms and homes, is trying to get on the right side of the law, but the temperature keeps rising.
In New York City, one of Airbnb’s top markets, officials are casting a wider net to catch people who rent apartments illegally using the sharing website. Meanwhile, Airbnb is distancing itself from people who use its website to break local laws and the company says it is trying find ways to cooperate with local officials.
“We have zero tolerance for illegal hotels on our platform in New York,” says Peter Schottenfels, Airbnb’s press secretary for New York and New England.
That includes Rose King, owner of several New York City apartment buildings. New York City has sued King for $1.2 million for illegally renting dozens of apartments over Airbnb.
Expect more lawsuits: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed New York City budget includes another $2.9 million over the next two fiscal years to add more inspectors to the team cracking down on illegal Airbnbs. For its part, Airbnb has removed King’s listings from its website and says it is actively policing its service to find other hosts breaking local laws.
In New York, the law appears to allow some Airbnb rentals, but not others. In an apartment building it’s only legal to rent an entire apartment as long the lease is for longer than 30 days—that’s a conventional apartment sublet. Most Airbnb stays are considerably shorter than that.
However, different rules apply if someone rents a room in their apartment to a guest. That’s legal as long the rental is for less than 30 days.
In October 2016, New York State passed a law that imposes fines of up to $7,500 on hosts who break these rules. The city has reportedly fined more than 100 landlords under the law. However, there are reportedly more than 23,000 potentially illegal Airbnb listings in the city.
Housing advocates and city officials worry that thousands of the apartments listed on Airbnb are no longer available for New Yorkers who need a permanent place to live. Instead, many of these apartments are only available as unregulated hotel rooms, like the Airbnb apartments owned by landlord Rose King. That decreases the rental supply and increases competition for vacant apartments, driving up rents.
Airbnb says that is sensitive to the housing shortage in its top markets like New York and San Francisco.
“Protecting available housing in New York is a top priority and we will continue to work with all stakeholders to ensure home sharing does not impact the rental market,” says Schottenfels.
In October, 2016, Airbnb implemented a “one host, one home” policy to bar hosts who offer homes on the website from listing more than one entire home listing. To get around this rule, landlords like King list their apartments on Airbnb using several different names. For example, King enlisted several people to pretend to be the Airbnb hosts of the apartments she controlled.
Airbnb also says that it is policing its own listings. “Since November 2015, we have removed more than 4,200 listings belonging to commercial operators from our platform in New York and will continue to do so moving forward,” says Schottenfels.