In New York, unusual task force fights home-to-hotel rentals like Airbnb

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Traffic passes the Branson building on Tuesday in New York City. The city is suing the owners of the Branson building, claiming that part of the apartments were being used as hotel rooms. AP Photo / Bebeto Matthews

From an office near the Brooklyn Bridge, a specialized team of investigators tackle a growing problem in the country’s largest city: apartments are rented out like hotel rooms.

Building and fire inspectors, police, lawyers, municipal tax specialists and others are combining a knock on the door, a digital detective and even video surveillance in an unusual approach to a problem that is seething in the country.

New York investigators have cited more than 7,000 fire and building code violations, closed more than 200 short-term apartments and sued multiple operators – ending 250 additional short-term rentals – in the past nine years, according to the mayor’s office of the special application. . With Airbnb and other websites causing a short-term rental boom, some lawmakers now want to triple the staff to investigate illegal hotels and go beyond responding to complaints to scour the web for ‘suspicious ads.

“The problem has skyrocketed over the past few years,” and the app must keep pace, said City Council Housing and Buildings Committee chairman Jumaane Williams.

But some homeowners called the town’s tactics cumbersome. Airbnb says New York unfairly lodges casual users with hotel operators, although officials say the app is focusing on the big players.

“It can get overzealous,” said Airbnb public policy manager David Hantman, who wants New York’s laws changed to exempt people who rent their own homes and “target the really bad actors.”

It is largely illegal in New York City to rent entire apartments for less than 30 days, although it may be acceptable to rent spare rooms if a resident is also staying at home.

However, vacation rental sites have many apartments. The city filed 1,150 complaints about illegal hotels last year, up 62% from 2013.

Hosts say “home sharing” helps them pay their bills and makes travel more fun and cheaper. But city officials note that guests typically don’t have fire sprinklers and other required safety features in hotels, and residents are faced with spinning casts of strangers.

“You get on the elevator and you don’t even know who’s going to get on,” says Audrey Smaltz, a fashion industry entrepreneur whose Manhattan building has been used as a $ 500-a-night hotel, according to one. city ​​trial. “I don’t feel safe.

Countless travelers learned the entry code for the front door, and a stranger wandered onto the roof and watched Smaltz through his penthouse patio window one night last fall, he said. she declared.

There are currently no short-term rentals in the building, the owner said in court documents.

Many cities sometimes consider and allow short-term vacation rentals. San Francisco is currently developing rules allowing certain stays at the house as a hotel and determining the enforcement procedures. In Chicago, a business and consumer department handles complaints about unauthorized vacation rentals and can issue fines.

New York, meanwhile, uses its multi-agency mayor’s office for special execution.

Investigations typically begin with a police officer, fire inspector and home inspector knocking on doors and asking locals if they live there, acting manager Elan Parra said. When investigators find a paying visitor, they ask for the details of the reservation.

This can result in violation notices, fines, follow-up inspections and evacuations, if inspectors declare a serious safety threat.

The consequences might not end there. Using software to cross-reference information, investigators look for trends in complaints, announcements, tenants, building owners, managers, businesses, or other factors that might indicate a multi-apartment transaction and justify not only administrative fines, but legal action for damages. Occasionally, investigators stake out a building with video cameras, Parra said.

“We focus on the places where people complain, where there are concerns and issues clearly presented. … We want to make sure that we allocate our resources to obtaining and eradicating the worst operators and security risks, said Parra. This month, his office closed three Brooklyn lodgings that he said were hostels full of bunk beds and at risk of fire.

Meanwhile, City Councilor Helen Rosenthal and several colleagues have called for increasing the staff from 11 to around 36. City Councilor Ben Kallos wants the city to publicly display how complaints about illegal hotels are resolved.

But some short-term rental proponents say the office has gone too far.

Airbnb brought to light a man in Manhattan who faced a $ 2,400 fine after renting his room to a tourist, despite his roommate staying in the apartment throughout. A city council eventually agreed it was legal and overturned the fine.

Another man sued the city for illegally inspecting a hotel, claiming investigators intimidated guests, grabbed him by the neck and pushed him away. The city denied his claims and settled for what he said was $ 2,000; the city could not immediately confirm the amount.

The man, Mina Guirguis, says he started renting rooms in his Manhattan loft to visiting international students after he and his wife both lost their jobs amid the 2009 recession. are quickly extended to a second loft and another entire building that they have rented. Guirguis said he was unsure whether short-term rental laws applied to his facility.

Now Guirguis and his wife have been evicted from the buildings and the city has taken them to court this fall.

“We went through something that I never could have imagined being able to happen in the United States,” Guirguis said. “There is something that needs to be stopped.

Parra says inspections are conducted legally and with courtesy.

“It’s really a civilian app: they ask questions,” he said.

And the city may be just getting started.

“You’ll see more apps as we go along,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said this fall.


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