Tech + Health

06.10.14

My Life as an Illegal AirBnb Landlord

A New York writer shares why she risks the law and her lease by using the popular home-sharing website. If only the attorney general could see it ain’t just for orgies.

New York. How I love it so. I love its late daylight against old building facades; its 30-cent bananas from the stands on the corner; its new bike lanes. I deal with its lines at Trader Joe’s, its stalled F trains, and its 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. reservations at Andrew Carmellini’s new restaurant. I’ve even learned to embrace its jackhammering. At 8 a.m. On a Saturday.

After all, New York is the “concrete jungle where dreams are made—there’s nothing you can’t do.”

Or is there?

Jay Z, who’s gone from Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Projects to a loft in Tribeca, might say so, but I beg to differ. That is, if you want to actually make those dreams come true.

A year ago, I resigned from my full-time job to be a freelance writer. It was a ballsy move, but after over a decade of answering to The Man (and Woman) it was one I was willing to make for my career—and my sanity. (Jury’s still out on both.)

I had saved up a sizable amount of money, but more importantly, I knew I had AirBnB, the home-sharing platform that I’d used occasionally to rent out my apartment while on vacation. With a quick change of the sheets, emptying of some drawers and an efficient Windex wipe down, I’d made thousands of dollars. In the midst, I’ve been careful not to disturb any neighbors and have not returned home to any orgies. The worst thing that’s happened has been a broken glass or two and finding a rogue bra under my bed—no big deal, so I figured I’d use it more often as my side gig. I knew that I could not live on blog posts and the $1-a-word assignment alone. (And drug smuggling and stripping were out of the question.)

The problem with this part-time moneymaker—and here we go, Hova—is that it’s not legal to rent out your home in New York unless you are there during your guest’s stay—an impossible feat in my one-room studio where the couch is more like a glorified leather bench.

The attorney general has now issued two subpoenas in attempt to crack down on and gain information from hosts, arguing that by using the service we are operating as illegal hotels and should therefore be paying occupancy taxes. Also keep in mind that renting out one’s home likely violates one’s lease agreement, the majority of which in New York don’t allow for subleasing without permission from the landlord. While this facet of the equation is not necessarily a law-breaking concern and the one being argued in court, it’s surely an eviction concern—and no New Yorker wants that, myself included.

So why, aside from the dream-supporting money, do I continue to take the risk? As a traveler myself, I like to get inside a city. See what’s underneath it. Where the locals go. By hosting travelers at my apartment, I’m able to give a piece of what I look for when I’m somewhere overseas. I can direct them to Jack’s on West 10th Street for a tasty cup of caffeine rather than the caramel macchiato they can get at any old Starbucks. I can guide them toward the Highline rather than shlepping all the way up to Central Park. I can suggest they see Sleep No More rather than Mama Mia. I can give them the option of making their own bowl of cereal in the morning rather than paying $15 for eggs Benedict every day.

Over the past year alone, I’ve hosted two sets of honeymooners, two mother-daughter duos, and a busload of Aussies. While to some, my apartment was nothing more than a place to rest their head and stuff all their shopping bags, to other guests, I’m practically a celebrity. Or, at least, I look like one.

Take, for example, the 30-year-old French mother of two who’s coming to New York for the first time this June with her partner. She’s been emailing me incessantly since booking back in February. Upon accepting her reservation, she wrote me the following message: “When I have seen your web site, I have sent an e-mail to my big sister to tell her my host looks like Carry Bradshaw!! We are a big big fan of ‘Sex and the City,’ and your job is like hers. :-)”

While it’s a blush-inducing observation I’d heard before, hearing it from a foreigner warmed my heart. I may not have sold that book proposal yet, but if this lovely French woman wants to talk me up, far be it from me to talk her down off the double-decker bus.

Our correspondence hasn’t been all Manolo’s and Magnolia cupcakes, though. Upon the opening of the 9/11 museum just this past month, she sent me a note asking me what I thought about her and other tourists attending the museum. We had a very insightful email conversation about what 9/11 meant to her, to me, and to the world, in general. “I just think it's a part of U.S. history. We also have to live with it, and share another way to see that,” she wrote. I could hear the companionship and commisery through cyberspace.

AirBnB allows for connections: host to guest, guest to city, and any other variable you can think of. I really hope the Attorney General, in whatever his ultimate goal is, sees that as he’s reading through thousands of positive reviews and clicking through all the anonymized data that AirBnB has agreed to give him in an effort to quell his concerns.

This anonymized data will apparently include those who live in Class A buildings (two or more units) in the five boroughs and have rented out their entire home as far back as 2010. No names or apartment numbers will be given—just building locations, listing information and, presumably, money made. There’s no way of knowing if I will be one of the thousands of hosts whose data will be anonymized, but in the spirit of the move, I decided on an anonymous byline. (Well, that and I fear eviction.)

At a recent community meeting in which dozens of New York hosts gathered at a downtown WeWork space, David Hantman, AirBnB’s SVP of Global Public Policy and the man leading the fight, tried to ease our concerns: “We believe the Attorney General’s office is focused on large corporate property managers and hosts who take apartments off the market and disrupt communities.”

In other words, the “bad actors,” as they’ve been referred, who are signing multiple leases, minimally decorating the spaces, and renting them out week after week, month after month, with the sole purpose of making a ton of money. Like, you could say, a hotel. One that’s getting away without paying taxes.

Sadly, there are far more regular people like myself—87 percent, to be exact—who have all but one listing, likely their own primary residence, that they rent out occasionally to help make ends meet. To help them pay for those clanky radiators, Metro cards, Trader Joe’s shops, and dinners at The Dutch, Lafayette, or whatever the new hotspot is this season. It allows them to write, or dance, or act, or sing, or paint, or any other number of non-9-to-5 professions that might otherwise leave them light on change, but still hopeful on realizing dreams.