NEW YORK | New York’s City Council is plotting a crackdown on Airbnb, the largest home-sharing platform in the world, as the hotel industry and its unionized workers push lawmakers in some of the nation’s biggest cities to blunt the $30 billion company’s growth.
New York City’s push resembles a legislative effort underway in Los Angeles, and comes months after San Francisco passed a measure mandating that hosts of short-term rental platforms register their homes with the city, leading to a decline in listings. The coastal cities are among Airbnb’s largest markets in the United States.
The Council is crafting a bill that would require online home-sharing companies to provide the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement with the addresses of their listings — a potential blow to Airbnb if its users are revealed to be turning rent-regulated apartments into business enterprises in a city starved for more housing. The move is coming two years after New York’s state Legislature first took aim at Airbnb with a bill that banned the advertising of illegal short-term rentals — but ultimately did little to hurt the company.
The New York push comes amid a well-funded advertising and lobbying campaign by the hotel industry, which has run ads supporting a recent report from City Comptroller Scott Stringer that was critical of Airbnb, and is accusing the company of reducing the amount of affordable housing in cities. The industry and unionized hotel workers joined forces to fund a national campaign known as Share Better.
In New York City, the Hotel Trades Council spent nearly $100,000 in the city’s 2017 election cycle, and its consultants worked on Corey Johnson’s successful race for Council speaker last year. A spokesman for the union declined to comment.
The hotel- and union-backed arguments are resonating, prompting many lawmakers to try to rein in a company that, many feel, operates outside the scope of traditional housing regulations.
In Los Angeles, the City Council is considering a bill that would legalize and regulate the home-sharing industry by limiting rentals to 120 days a year, requiring them to be a host’s primary residence and cutting off users found to be in violation.
Rick Coca, spokesman for Council Member Jose Huizar, who is sponsoring the legislation, said their office spent several years crafting a bill that attended to the concerns of both Airbnb hosts and Los Angeles residents.
“We’re just trying not to tip the glass too far one way or the other so we don’t drown people in a bad policy,” Coca said in an interview. “These are industries that exist, and they exist beyond sort of what government can do, so it’s in our interest to regulate them for the public’s well being.”
The New York City bill, expected to be introduced within the next month, also mirrors a so-far-unsuccessful effort in Albany to require more reporting from Airbnb. In addition to releasing addresses for its listings, home-sharing hosts would have to give the mayor’s office their full names and addresses, which would reveal whether or not they are renting out their own homes. Current state law bars online platforms from enabling rentals for fewer than 30 days, unless the host is present, in most apartment buildings.
Hosts would have to report whether they are renting their entire home or just a room and whether it is their primary residence, according to details shared with POLITICO by several people with knowledge of the legislation.
The City Council’s lawyers are still determining the scope of penalties, which would be applied to each listing that hosts shield from the reporting requirements.
“Airbnb has refused to disclose data on their illegal listings, even when they’ve been subpoenaed by the city and questioned under oath by the Council,” Johnson told POLITICO in a prepared statement. “So we’re taking action to do what they have failed to do — protect affordable housing from shady operators.”
Neither politicians nor the company itself can provide data on how many Airbnb listings are rent-regulated apartments. But based on anecdotal accounts, many elected officials believe the company removes housing for low- and moderate-income tenants from the rental market.
“This bill will have a chilling effect on unscrupulous landlords renting out affordable housing units as illegal hotels,” Johnson added. “They won’t be able to hide anymore, and those who use the site without breaking the law will have no problem giving their name to the city. It’s a win for everyone except illegal hotels.”
Bill sponsor Carlina Rivera said tenants in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which she represents, have complained for years about Airbnb’s impact on their neighborhood.
“They’re a behemoth in the real estate game and I just want them to comply with city regulations, to be a good partner, so we can tackle the housing crisis unit by unit,” she said. “There’s probably tens of thousands of units that could potentially be put back on the market for housing. I think a lot of them are rent-stabilized.”
Airbnb said it has begun to respond to the Council’s subpoena for data related to a property on West 15th Street and is “actively cooperating to quickly address the remainder of their legal request,” according to a statement from Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy for the company.
He also said Airbnb — which has mounted aggressive lobbying and advertising efforts against other measures — will oppose this legislation.
“All across the city, we have heard from dozens of families who are sharing their home to make ends meet and who have faced harassment, either from special investigators funded by the big hotel industry or the Office of Special Enforcement itself,” Meltzer said.
“And we have expressed willingness to work with lawmakers to safeguard the safety and privacy of these regular New Yorkers,” he added. “But until there is an honest attempt by lawmakers to delineate the tens of thousands of hosts who are responsibly sharing their space and the few bad actors who take advantage of the system, we remain committed to pushing back against any legislation that solely aims to frighten hardworking New Yorkers.”
The company ran ads last week against Stringer, the city comptroller, after he released a critical report it said was inaccurate. It also dropped its lawsuit challenging Albany’s bill in 2016 that limited advertising on the site and imposed steep fines on certain hosts, and it agreed to settle lawsuits it did not win in San Francisco and Santa Monica.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration has increased its enforcement of the home-sharing platform, but has not taken on Airbnb with the same fervor it employed against Uber in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to cap ride-sharing companies three years ago.
Multiple sources involved in City Hall discussions over Airbnb said Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen, who oversees housing and economic development, has been willing to strike a compromise with short-term rental companies. But the mayor’s political team has expressed concern about the fallout from a potential deal, the sources said.
The Office of Special Enforcement is budgeted to have 48 employees and $6.45 million in the upcoming fiscal year, up from 11 staffers and $849,000 four years ago, spokesman Patrick Gallahue said.
“The need for more data has been at the center of our demands with Airbnb and other platforms. It’s something the city needs to identify bad actors and hold them accountable,” mayoral spokesman Seth Stein said. “We will review the legislation when it’s introduced.”
He said illegal hotels “create safety problems and take housing for New Yorkers off the market.”