A Brooklyn Neighborhood Where Airbnb Is Being Put to the Test
The New York Times | Katie Benner
July 3, 2016
Bedford-Stuyvesant, a historically African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn, has become one of the latest battlegrounds in the war between New York City and Airbnb.
A study released last week showed that rents had risen fastest in the New York City neighborhoods where Airbnb, which lets users list their homes for short-term rentals, is the most popular — including gentrifying, predominately minority neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant. The report, called “Short Changing New York City,” used 2015 Airbnb data and was commissioned by affordable housing advocates who had long been critics of Airbnb.
The report found that 55 percent of the 51,000 or so Airbnb listings in New York City violated a state law that prohibits rental of a residential with three or more units for less than 30 days unless the permanent resident is present. It also found that more than one-third of Airbnb listings in New York City were considered commercial, meaning a property that is primarily dedicated to generating revenue through short-term rentals and not lived in by the host.
The report contends that Airbnb takes housing off the market for significant chunks of the year and impairs Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create or preserve 20,000 affordable units a year for the next decade. The “Short Changing New York City” study said that hosts in New York City generated about $1 billion in 2015, of which Airbnb takes a cut.
The study was immediately lauded by affordable-housing advocates as more evidence that Airbnb was exacerbating thorny problems that had rankled New Yorkers for decades, including gentrification, a lack of affordable housing and the impact that rising rents can have on minority communities.
And it was quickly denounced by Airbnb as more evidence that entrenched hotel groups, shortsighted politicians and other special interests are stifling the more positive impact the service has had on the city, such as bringing more customers to small businesses in minority neighborhoods and generating income for people who need the money.
The Airbnb spokesman Nick Papas said the numbers in the report were skewed by incorrect assumptions, including the idea that any entire home rental in New York was illegal and that an entire home rented out for more than 90 days was not someone’s primary residence.
Whichever way you see it, the report is yet another salvo in Airbnb’s long-running feud with New York City, and it reflects how complicated the company’s relationshipp is with residents, some who feel the benefits of the service and others, the drawbacks.
Some New Yorkers are concerned about losing income if they can’t list on Airbnb, but since 2010, it has generally been against the law to rent out a whole residence in New York City for fewer than 30 days unless the owner is present or it is a stand-alone house. If a newly passed bill becomes law, lawbreakers will incur fines up to $7,500 for an illegal listing. An Airbnb poll found that 65 percent of voters disagreed with the new steep fines.
Tenants who illegally sublet increasingly face eviction as landlords crack down on illegal listings.
“Airbnb takes a share from illegal rentals, and if a tenant is evicted and can’t find a new place to live, Airbnb has a lot of money coming in the door and no responsibility for the consequences,” said State Senator Liz Krueger, one of the company’s longtime critics.
Many tenants are also wary about the parade of strangers through their buildings who may claim to be Airbnb guests.
Michael Castaldo, a producer and musician who lives in Chelsea, says several of his neighbors do not live in their apartments and have essentially turned them into illegal hotels, complete with noisy travelers.
“We think all the strangers are with Airbnb, but we don’t know for sure,” Mr. Castaldo said. “They say they’re staying with friends, but they won’t say who or they can’t remember the name. But we see the listings for condos in our building on Airbnb rented for more than $300 a day, and the owners are never there.”
But Richelle Burnett, a lifelong Bedford-Stuyvesant resident, lives on a block of brownstone buildings that generally house just one or two families. She owns her four-story home, so she can legally use Airbnb to sublet the two floors that were turned into apartments.
“I needed another income because my son was in school and another was in college,” Ms. Burnett said. “Airbnb has helped us with tuition, home repair and other bills.” While the neighborhood is indeed gentrifying and prices are going up, she thinks that Airbnb has, on balance, been good for small-business owners and homeowners.
“Bed-Stuy has the largest amount of Airbnb hosts in Brooklyn, and we send guests to businesses that wouldn’t normally get that traffic,” she said.
This year, Airbnb started a “one home, one host” program in New York City, which is intended to address the illegal hotel problem. As part of that effort, the company removed 1,500 hosts, who appeared to be operating several listings, from the platform. The number of listings that Airbnb deleted accounted for only a tenth of the commercial hosts reported in the study, but Mr. Papas said the company had made substantial changes and that the data used in the study was now outdated.
New York City’s anti-Airbnb forces and Airbnb paint starkly contrasting narratives. One is of a company that encourages lawbreaking and has little regard for the safety or security of residents. The other is of a government determined to serve entrenched interests at the expense of residents who need money from short-term rentals to get by.
But few New Yorkers seem to think either narrative is wholly true. New York Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, who represents the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, said there was no question Airbnb had a different impact in his area than in a lot of Manhattan. “But tenants in my district want the opportunity to home-share on a regular basis, and it works for this neighborhood,” he said.
Ms. Burnett said that Airbnb was “probably not good for every neighborhood.”
“We need more dialogue, and the city needs to figure out a way to get a piece of the pot,” she added.