NEW YORK — They cater to travelers, but Airbnb and other short-term rental sites are sparking debate over an issue few tourists are likely to unpack: affordable housing.
Scores of proponents and critics held dueling rallies and crowded a City Council hearing Jan. 20 on the short-term rental boom and whether it saps housing affordability or saves it.
On one side are tenants who say landlords are illegally turning their homes into de facto hotels by renting apartments to high-paying tourists instead of full-time residents.
On the other are homeowners and tenants who say Airbnb provides crucial income in a city where even a studio apartment can easily top $2,000 a month.
In New York state, it’s generally unlawful to rent an apartment for under 30 days unless the apartment’s resident also stays there.
But Audrey Smaltz says an entire floor in the midtown Manhattan building where she has lived since 1977 has been diverted to short-term rentals for much as $600 a night while the number of rent-stabilized apartments has dwindled.
“My friends and neighbors are being replaced by strangers and tourists,” she said, adding that one tourist wandered onto her terrace one night.
City records show her building got illegal-hotel citations last year. Her landlord didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment.
But such strangers and tourists are a financial lifeline for writer-attorney Joshua Greenberg and actress-stage dresser Karen Wight-Greenberg. The parents of two make about one-sixth of their income from guests who book their Brooklyn condo’s spare room about three-quarters of the year but don’t feel as ever-present as a full-time roommate might be.
“This is our answer to affordable housing,” Joshua Greenberg said outside the hearing.
Airbnb and similar sites have become a focal point for discussion nationwide about whether and how to regulate the growing “sharing economy.”
Their impact on housing affordability also has come into question elsewhere, but it’s perhaps most pointed in New York, where Mayor Bill de Blasio has made affordable housing a centerpiece of his agenda.
The number of New York City apartments and private rooms rented through Airbnb rocketed from about 2,650 in 2010 to 16,500 early last year, state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office said in an October report.
The report said nearly three-quarters of Airbnb listings violated city or state laws. Nearly 2,000 units were booked as short-term rentals for at least half of 2013, the report said, and some users were listing multiple apartments and reeling in as much as $6.8 million over four years.
The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement fielded 1,150 illegal-hotel complaints last year — a 62-percent increase from 2013 — and conducted 883 inspections and issued hundreds of violation notices, focusing on health and safety concerns, said Elizabeth Glazer, who oversees the office.
Noting Schneiderman’s report and the thousands of New York listings still visible on Airbnb and other sites, several council members said the city should expand enforcement.
“We definitely have to use some different strategies, some proactive strategies,” said City Council Housing and Buildings Committee Chairman Jumaane Williams, who suggested Airbnb hadn’t done enough to address illegal rentals.
San Francisco-based Airbnb has removed thousands of listings that violated New York laws, and prospective hosts are informed of the laws and asked to obey them, Airbnb public policy head David Hantman said, though he said the company couldn’t check up on them to make sure.
Airbnb says most of its 25,000 New York City hosts rent their homes only occasionally, and many of them do stay there throughout. Regardless, Hantman argued, they have little effect on the housing market in a city of three million households.
The company is calling for “smart regulation,” including allowing collection of hotel taxes on Airbnb rentals in New York, as in some other cities.