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“The Dumbest Person in Your Building Is Passing Out Keys to Your Front Door!”


50th Street station.  

And: “It unleashed this adventurer in me that I didn’t know existed.”

And: “I feel human again. I feel like myself.”

“Cults,” as anyone who reads Atkin’s book will find out, “make people feel more themselves.”

Airbnb would like to be seen as a cult of compassion, one in which taking 6 to 12 percent off the top of every transaction is secondary to a mission of economic empowerment and social responsibility. Which is one of the reasons it put out a video this summer reminding people of the tool it had created during Hurricane Sandy, which enabled members of the community to host victims for little or no money. “It was amazing to see after the storm people giving everything to strangers,” Shell, a host in Brooklyn, says in voice-over as the Airbnb logo comes up onscreen, telling users to “Text BELONG to get involved.” “You get to see the true spirit of New York.”

But if there is one thing we know about the True Spirit of New York, it is that she is a moody bitch. While some New ­Yorkers may have found the Sandy ad moving, others found themselves saying—with no disrespect to Shell, or the kind people who lent out their homes during the hurricane—“Does New York City need a smarmy sharing-economy start-up from San Fran–fucking–cisco to tell it about its true fucking spirit?” No, it does not.

New York–based tech blog Valleywag called the ad “cynical,” which it did not mean as a compliment; Gothamist called it “sinister” and then went further, arguing that despite the message of the PR blitz, Airbnb could actually make New York’s housing problem worse.

This is one of the most muddled aspects of the debate over Airbnb. The backbone of the company’s ad campaign is that it is making housing more affordable for people who want to live in New York, and that might in fact be the case for Carol and Bob and Shell and maybe even people you know: Sixty-two percent of New York hosts, Airbnb claims, are using the service to help pay their rent.*

And yet: Most of the company’s opponents are affordable-housing activists.

“Airbnb’s ad campaign is sneaky, and sneaky good,” says one of those activists, Jaron Benjamin of the Metropolitan Council on Housing. “One of the stories they presented talked about gentrification, a rapidly changing neighborhood and someone who didn’t have money worried about not being able to pay rent and being evicted ... Then there’s this wonderful organization that came along and tried to help them! Airbnb!”

In reality, Benjamin says, property owners all over the city, having realized they can make more money on short-term rentals, have begun converting apartments into full-time Airbnb properties, resulting in their being taken off the market for full-time tenants and the further depletion of the already limited stock of affordable or even relatively affordable housing. “Oh, it’s definitely the way to go financially,” says my neighbor who owns a three-family building in Bed-Stuy. Possibly not unrelated: This past winter, the data-scraping company Connotate analyzed Airbnb’s site and found rent had risen precipitously in the areas with the highest concentration of listings, like Bed-Stuy and Harlem. This may be a coincidence, and certainly not every landlord has it in him to become an Airbnb hotelier, including my ­neighbor, who doesn’t want to change sheets all the time. But consider the experience of Chris Dannen, a 29-year-old ­webtrepreneur who was served with an eviction notice after a year of hosting Airbnb guests in his Greenpoint apartment. When he dropped off his final rent check, he noticed the management company was converting it into a hotel: The “loft suite” apartments are currently listed on Airbnb for $199. Dannen was, and still is, a believer in Airbnb’s cause. “I’m of the millennial view that it’s a nice way to meet people and make friends.” But he was disappointed in Airbnb’s reaction to his situation. “In retrospect, I would say, they knew this was going to happen to people, and they didn’t do anything to help me.”

It took Airbnb more than two years to put up a notice warning people that listing apartments may be against the law or their building regulations. Even after it did, a lot of people have simply ignored the warnings, either out of indifference to Terms and Conditions or loyalty to the cause. When I looked for Airbnb listings in my building in Bed-Stuy—it was easy to find them, as we all have the same old-timey light fixtures—there were five, all of which are illegal.

“Here is the thing,” says Tory, a 29-year-old part-time tutor and one of our building’s hosts, when we meet for a glass of wine in the building’s library, which I suddenly notice contains more than one well-thumbed copy of Let’s Go New York. “This has been like a thing for thousands—well, not thousands, for tens of years: People have had people just stay in their apartment through word-of-mouth. Like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to be away. Give me $100 for electricity.’ Now just because someone is formalizing it, they’re trying to make that illegal?” she adds indignantly. “I’m paying for ownership, temporary ownership over a space, and I can do with it what I please.”

*This article has been updated to clarify that 62% of New York hosts use Airbnb to help pay their rent, not 62% of New Yorkers.


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