It’s no secret that the Airbnb economy is thriving in New York City — after all, the Times was on it this week. Visitors to the city can tap in to the crash-pad social network to rent out anything from enormous luxury loft apartments in Williamsburg (for mere hundreds of dollars a night) to cozy, but apparently windowless futon-hallways in the East Village for as little as 60 bones. Airbnb isn’t couch-surfing cheap, but it still offers travelers a more affordable option than hotels and lets outsiders in on the less tourist-riddled pockets of the city.
But Airbnb also offers willing hosts something pretty rad: the opportunity for a kind of extralegal independent entrepreneurship. “What’s the difference if somebody has to live in Manhattan with four roommates because they can’t afford living in New York, or if I’m doing Airbnb?” S., who hosts in the East Village, told us. “You know the money is still going into the city. So I don’t understand what the problem is.”
However, the New York State Attorney General’s office, under the leadership of Eric Schneiderman, does have a problem with this. Last month, Schneiderman subpoenaed user data from Airbnb about all of its New York hosts. Though a New York Post source denied that “the casual user” of Airbnb is being targeted, the State is admittedly taking aim at hosts who “rent their primary unit for large amounts of time throughout the year.” That sort of language would seem to leave the once-a-monther vulnerable to potential legal consequences.
Airbnb has fiercely defended the legality and safety of its practices. In an e-mail sent to members on Sept. 28, the company rejoiced in the victory for Nigel Warren, a New York City based Airbnb host, when his $2,400 fine for breaking a law against short-term rental was taken back. Airbnb promised, “We will continue working toward clarifying the law and ensuring that New Yorkers can share their homes and their city with travelers from around the world.”
Yesterday, Airbnb told B+B in a statement, “More than 100,000 people have already signed a petition calling on leaders in New York to fix the law and support Airbnb and the sharing economy. And we are actively fighting the government’s demand for personal data about our hosts in New York.”
B+B spoke with several Airbnb users within our coverage area to get a feel for how local hosts are reacting to the controversy. Most people didn’t want their names to appear at all in this article, fearing legal consequences, or worse yet, trouble with their landlords.
Yet uncertainty about those legal consequences is still widespread. “There is no real clarity from what I can find about what is legal, and what is illegal in terms of short term rentals,” Leslie, who rents out extra rooms in her home in Williamsburg, told us. “Every lawyer I ask has a slightly different take on what is actually legal where this is concerned.”
While many Airbnb hosts are casual users, most of the people we spoke to rely heavily on income from renting out an extra room or spare bed in their apartment. Our East Village contact, S., told us, “It saves my ass.”
Jo, who also welcomes people into her apartment in East Village, wrote in an e-mail, “For me, being a single working person who doesn’t make a fortune, it has really helped me, as my place is not really big enough for a permanent roommate.” Jo added that she pays taxes on her earnings from hosting.
Airbnb can also provide hosts with quick cash. One host, who wishes to go by the name Lee, rents out an extra room along with his roommate in their Bushwick apartment that features rooftop access and a BBQ. Lee recently quit his job and is temporarily unemployed. He told us Airbnb allowed him to get out of a financial bind. “It’s the only way I can afford my housing,” he said. “It’s better than the benefits I could claim from the government.” In the past five months, Lee has hosted some 45 people.
We asked S. how many people she has hosted in just over two years of belonging to Airbnb. “It’s really hard to say. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
Leslie, who has hosted visitors “from all over the world” in her dual-family apartment in Williamsburg since 2007, also had a difficult time answering this question. “I have no idea. Any estimate would not necessarily be accurate. It’s hard to say. A lot.”
Leslie also told us that renting out her extra space “provides a significant contribution” to her family income. But she was quick to point out that the activity generated by her Airbnb hosting, like any other business, feeds into the local economy, and benefits her neighborhood as well. “I’ve probably brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars into Williamsburg just from what my guests over the years have spent here,” she told us.
In a blog post about New York City Marathon weekend, Airbnb estimated that 73 percent of its guests in New York would hail from a foreign country.
Though it’s more than obvious there’s money to be made in the New York City real estate and tourism market, and all interviewees agreed their efforts are profitable, we noticed several nuances in how our local Airbnb hosts operate their businesses.
S. rents out an extra room in her apartment. We asked if her landlord is aware of her hosting practices. “No, this is private,” she told us. “And you know, it’s not anybody’s business what I’m doing. I’m not hurting anybody. I’m not hooking. I’m not selling drugs.”
S. said she doesn’t discuss hosting with her neighbors. “Only my close friends and family know that I do this. I don’t want to make a big hoopla out of it, I don’t want to draw attention to myself. You know, it’s not necessary.”
On the other hand, Leslie co-owns her building with another family. “It’s my building, I own it, and as long as everyone is safe and respected, and I’m following the laws, it should be allowed,” she insisted. Leslie is more open about her hosting practices, understanding it as a service to the community.
“Our neighbors are happy to have people from all over the world coming here,” she told us. “People who wouldn’t have necessarily been able to come here because the hotel prices were too prohibitive for them. They come here and they spend their money here. They go to the bodega across the street, they go to local restaurants, they ride the bikes, they take the subway, they ride the taxis.”
M., who also wishes to conceal his identity, has a very different hosting ethos. Instead of renting out a room where he lives, M. rents out an unoccupied apartment he leases in Williamsburg.
“I’ve kept it because it’s a sweet apartment. And in order to keep it, I’ve turned it effectively into a business. I keep people coming in and out of there. Most of the people in the building are young, they don’t really care. They’re also kind of transient in their day-to-day life, the management company’s completely incompetent, and they lied quite a bit in order to get this building filled up,” M. told us. “So I can give a shit about how they feel — the management company — but they would probably be the first issue that I deal with.”
Though M. doesn’t seem to fear the legal consequences much — “I feel that I’m just one in thousands,” he said — he does understand the consequences if his landlords were to find out. But, he says, “It’s a business to me.” And apparently the benefits outweigh the risk. “I’ve learned that the power of using Airbnb can really supplement your income.”
As far as the ethical quandary his operation presents, M. explained, “I don’t really care much for the bureaucratic system that’s around the residential real estate market, the developments, the housing authority, the hotel industry in New York. I think they’re all run by really greedy bureaucrats, and this is kind of a way that people can capitalize on their opportunities, the individual, the little guy. And they’re actually trying to steal that away from us.”
But not every Airbnb host is comfortable with the way things are. “We’re already giving a lot of money to the city. We’re happy to collect sales tax and start giving the city more,” said Leslie, who also spoke of the need for regulation and clarity about what’s legal and what’s illegal for hosts. “Why take money away from local neighborhoods in New York and families? Why not create a law that’s clear, with rules that are clear and fair, and move forward?”