Two True Stories from the Airbnb Wars

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Airbnb, the website for short term apartment rentals, is battling New York’s Attorney General to keep its business records private. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman believes Airbnb users may be evading taxes and violating housing codes, and he’s issued a subpoena. But whether the AG gets the information he wants or not, Airbnb is now deeply enmeshed in the New York housing market.


Just a few years ago, if you asked the average New Yorker, whether they’d be willing to rent out their apartment to a complete stranger for just a night or two, they’d probably have called you crazy.

Today, it’s normal. For one thing, the money is good. For another, the internet has built social trust. Airbnb now counts more than 15 thousand New Yorkers hosting strangers in their homes. People like Chris, a musician who doesn’t want his last name used.

Renting in Manhattan to Support a Brooklyn Lifestyle

“I have cleaning people that can do the cleaning for me, but I actually prefer to do it myself,” Chris said while giving a tour of his tenement apartment on Manhattan’s west side. 

While the apartment is nothing special, the location is great. And Chris goes the extra mile for his guests: He puts out bottled water and brownies, and checks in with them regularly by text message.

“At the moment, I am quite dependent on it. I mean, it helps pay my rent in Brooklyn, which is not cheap,” Chris said. Although he’s had the lease for years, Chris now lives in Williamsburg, and rents out the two bedrooms separately on Airbnb, for around $100 a night.

Desperate Measures: Filming Your Own Tenants 

But for all the Chrises out there, embracing their inner hotelier, there is a growing number of people who have seen Airbnb up close and absolutely hate it.

“They pretend to be good citizens but they’re not,” said Ken Podziba, who owns a few buildings in Nolita, which he inherited from his parents. Being a landlord is not his passion. Podziba cares a lot more about his day job, running a nonprofit that teaches people how to ride bicycles.

So he never expected to snoop on a tenant, install surveillance cameras, or hire one but two private investigators.

“It’s so not me. It’s like how did I become that guy?” Podziba said.

This surveillance began a few years ago when Podziba got some strange news from his super. The tenant in Apartment 3 had plastered over her front door, and built in a new door. Podziba’s lawyer advised him to immediately start videoing the hallways. And he quickly figured out that Apartment 3 had become a kind of a hotel, charging $250 a night.

A still from the surveillance camera footage captured by Ken Podziba

Podziba believes the tenant made a half million dollars before he succeeded in evicting her. But he’s saving his anger for Airbnb. “They see how lucrative her business was," he said. "And they refuse to take it down. So they’re not good guys."

A Subpoena for Airbnb: What Now?

Which brings us to the Attorney General’s subpoena. If the AG gets two full years of records as he is requesting, hundreds, perhaps thousands of similar arrangements could be exposed.

Chris, the renter, is worried. But he hasn’t dropped Airbnb.

“If I’m already in trouble I need to at least make money to pay the fine that I’m going to get,” he said.

Chris and Ken Podziba are both nice guys. In his own eyes, each man is behaving reasonably. And maybe this is a surprise: Chris can understand why Ken would kick his tenant out.

“To that landlord I would say, Good. They shouldn’t be doing that. This is your place. And you are considerate or attentive enough to you to know what’s going on,” Chris said.

And Podziba has kind words for Chris, and the other Airbnb entrepreneurs.

“I don’t really blame individuals that do it,” he said. “Everyone I know thinks they deserve more money. I might do it myself.”

Hey, no New Yorker wants to leave cash on the table. 


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Comments [8]

extenant from california

This was sent to me by a friend. Total crap! Ken Podziba is a slumlord not a nice guy. Every year even if you were paying high market rent he would raise the rent to as high as he thought he could get. I heard he sued the super who was born in the building for not having a lease. Real nice guy.

Jan. 28 2014 05:31 PM
David Shea from New York City

This is a RIGHT that tenants have in most privately owned bldgs in NYC, and not everyone abuses this right or charges exorbitant prices. I was doing this for a while in order to pay for medical expenses not covered by Medicare, and I charged about a quarter of the $250 you quote here. But my centrally located home is in a bldg which is partially tax-subsidized by the City, and the City doesn't feel that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

This is too bad because it means that people who live in non-subsidized housing have this avenue to fall back on if they find themselves drifting into poverty, whereas those of us who are already impoverished are prevented from using this tool to extricate ourselves. This is poor social policy, since if I had been permitted to continue this for another year, I would have been completely off the public dole, social security excepted.

The City sometimes cites the need to protect the hotel industry from pipsqueak upstarts like me. But the fact is when all my jobs went to India, thus making it nearly impossible for me to save for my old age, I didn't notice the City or anyone else coming to my rescue. And now that City forbids me to augment my income in this way, and is trying to evict me at nearly 80 years of age!

You can read my story in the following NYT article:
(altho' the article errs in not correcting the City for calling what I did a sublet).

Dave Shea,

Jan. 23 2014 01:18 PM
lulu from NYC

Although I understand the appeal of the AirB&B service for travelers and hosts, and the benefits of expanded tourism, the fact is that almost any tenant that rents out their apartment on airb&b or any other method is in violation of the use agreement into which they entered with the property owner. I've not looked at AirB&B, but doesn't it also involve some agreement between host and guests? Do those hosts think that their guests should abide by that agreement but tenants should not have to abide by the legally binding lease with their landlords? Contract law is a foundation of our civil society, and laws should apply to all, no? Isn't that the equality ideal for which this country strives? Or not if there is a bit of money to be made...

Jan. 22 2014 07:05 PM
Joe from NYC

I heard this on NPR this morning and was really touched hearing about how two groups of people, tenant and landlord, that typically are on completely opposite sides were able to feel empathy for the other. I agree with this landlord(and I don't generally like landlords)that most tenants aren't the bad guys here -- it's airbnb for continuing to allow postings of apartments that they have to know are illegal.

Jan. 22 2014 05:31 PM
maydo from New Jersey

As someone who has rented an Airbnb apartment in Paris and loved it, I think it's a great, if imperfect, resource. But as someone whose recent college graduate is looking for an apartment in Manhattan to be closer to her job, I think Chris needs to give up the lease he's had for years on the the rental he's renting out and make it available for someone who actually wants to live there.

Jan. 22 2014 02:23 PM
manhattanhockeymom from Manhattan

Our landlord was turning the building into a hotel. It was HORRIBLE. It put tenants at risk with lots of strangers in and out, but without the security people who would be there in a real hotel. The building became much dirtier, noisier, and less secure. Fortunately they stopped doing it.

People, if you rent you do not own and you do not have the right to make money from the space and destroy the quality of life for your neighbors. Don't do it!

Jan. 22 2014 01:23 PM
Sam from Brooklyn, NY

Yes to this story's conclusion! We need new ground rules so that Airbnb and similar services can continue.

No one wants to do anything illegal, but it is so expensive to live in and visit this city, that this type of service has become invaluable to both residents and tourists. And the benefits extend beyond the "temporary hoteliers" - local businesses get the tourist traffic they otherwise wouldn't get, NYC gets more visitors because it becomes less prohibitive financially and also more personal and welcoming with the face-to-face aspect of Airbnb.

We also love the service as travelers ourselves - because of Airbnb (the renter and the rentee sides) we were able to go to Paris three times and London once on our meager artist budgets - and stay in beautiful, homey places with welcoming locals looking out for us - it was the perfect way to experience another country!

Jan. 22 2014 01:12 PM
happyskrappy from Brooklyn

The side of this that you're missing is the landlords who decide to turn their apartment buildings into Airbnb hotels and decide not to renew their tenants' lease. Sometimes this happens with merely a month's notice. There's already an affordable housing issue in this city...

Jan. 22 2014 09:10 AM

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