Airbnb's revolutionary simplicity has made it easy for scores of people to list and discover lodging options in private residences and book them easily, quickly and safely, but a basic search for New York City lodging demonstrates that more than half of the available bookings on the popular vacation rental website run afoul of New York State law.
Airbnb is aware of the problem. It lobbied and spoke out publicly against the passage of the New York State law in June of 2010 that banned a particular yet very popular type of short-term rental, but it did not make changes to its site when the law went into effect in May 2011. State officials say that Airbnb's vow to work with the city on a solution does not extend beyond a heavy lobbying effort to change this law.
Making Airbnb work in New York City is a priority, said David Hantman, the service's Global Head of Public Policy. "We can't possibly keep up with the law in all the cities," Hantman told Skift. "Is there a model city? What we'd like to do is figure out a way to make New York the model city. We think we are creating a system that's better than the current situation. My main goal is get laws that clear the way for our hosts."
The difference between a legal and an illegal apartment rental in New York City is relatively clear: If a listing offers an entire apartment in a Class A dwelling -- which represent all but a few dwellings in the city -- for less than 30 days and the host is not present during the rental, it's illegal. If the listing is for a room in a house and the host will be present, it's legal. Also legal under the law are traditional B&Bs, couch surfing, and home swaps as long as money doesn't change hands.
Airbnb says the law should be more clearly defined, and cites apartment listings - even those for 29 days or less - that are legal. "It's a matter of opinion," Hantman said.
On a recent Airbnb search for a two-night rental for the weekend of January 18 in New York City, about 5,800 options turned up - more than half remained after clicking "entire/home/apt," all of which are illegal under New York law.
A city official provided Skift with an example of a property listed on Airbnb that the city recently shut down: A three-family home on the 500 block of Greene Avenue in Brooklyn was vacated for overcrowding following an inspection by the city. Inspectors found inadequate exits and no sprinkler or fire alarm system. The home was occupied by 44 guests.
"The vast majority of Airbnb listings are multiple units by the same entity," said Sarra Hale-Stern, District Office Director for New York State Senator Liz Krueger, who sponsored the legislation that made short-term rentals illegal. "It's not Aunt Suzy going off to London for the month. It's corporate entities doing it 12 months out of the year," Hale-Stern said.
For years, Airbnb's most famous host was Toshi, who acted as a middleman for owners who needed someone else to shuttle tourists around, hand out keys and manage listings. Eventually, the Toshi name turned too toxic and he was forced to change his operating name to Smart Apartments LLC, but the listings remained on Airbnb.