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

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Church Avenue station.  

Right now, where we’re living in Bed-Stuy, the possibility of our landlord’s seeing the success of these units on Airbnb and deciding to turn our building into a lucrative hostel for tourists seems pretty unlikely. But a couple of years ago the people in the affordable-housing units across the street probably wouldn’t have been able to imagine a building with old-timey lights and a gym going up in their front yard and probably didn’t think they would be, as activists outside their building put it recently, “the No. 1 target of developers.” When it comes to real estate, the Spirit of New York can also be a real asshole.

One afternoon, I meet up with a friend of a friend, a European designer in his 40s we’ll call Rolf, since he doesn’t want his real name to be used because “it would be detrimental to the cause.” Rolf has three listings on Airbnb: one for the apartment where he currently lives, which he rents out while on vacation; a second for a condo he owns near the West Side Highway, which he’s currently subletting to a Russian oligarch who owes him money; and a third for the rent-controlled studio in the West Village he moved into with his then-girlfriend 20 years ago. Even though Rolf is now married to a different woman and has a family, the building’s owner still thinks he lives there with his ex. “And that we have a lot of relatives coming to stay,” he smirks.

Rolf knows subletting a rent-controlled apartment is illegal, but he doesn’t feel any moral qualms about it. He’s been here long enough to know that if a real-estate loophole presents itself and you don’t jump through it, someone else will. He learned this when he first moved into his place in the Village, back in the ’90s. “The guy moving out was moving in with his girlfriend, who had a rent-controlled place on Park Avenue for like $500,” he says. “She was a lawyer.”

Rolf doesn’t use his real name on the site either, by the way. “I have fake name, fake address,” he boasts in his German accent. “Also my photo,” he says. “I search the internet and use an image of like a young, sporty guy. I want people to think like, Hey, friendly host.” This is why he prefers Airbnb over sites with more stringent requirements, like VRBO, where “I need to show that I’m the manager or the agent, I would have to show my lease.” If he had a little bit more liquidity, he says, he’d acquire even more apartments to use as Airbnbs. “Go ahead, have a drug-infested orgy,” he says magnanimously.

Rolf is the kind of person who gives Airbnb opponents the vapors. “This thing is just hell on wheels,” mutters Tom Cayler of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance. “It’s a scourge, the whole phenomenon: Airbnb, Flipkey, Homeaway, Stayonmyface … They’re incentivizing taking a whole class of apartments off the market. And I don’t see the upside of giving up an entire class of residential apartment buildings so that a couple of guys can become billionaires.”

Like most of Airbnb’s opponents, Cayler, who lives in a rent-controlled apartment near Times Square, sees Airbnb as another force majeure coming to sweep away what remains of his New York, the old New York, the good New York. And no amount of marketing can convince him that Chesky and Gebbia could be just a couple of well-meaning former art-school students with an interesting idea about shared living spaces. “Do you know why they are pushing so hard on this?” he bellows. “It’s called IPO. Initial public offering. This is not the sharing economy. This is the ‘me me me, I need to make my IPO as high as possible’ economy. And they are willing to destroy this entire city to do that.”

“Well, that’s not … that isn’t allowed,” Brian Chesky says when I tell him about Rolf’s fake name and trifecta of apartments. “We’re cracking down on a lot of that behavior … The vast majority of people are renting the houses or the homes they live in.” Airbnb’s position is that it has not and will not have an effect on affordable housing. “There was a study …” says Chesky.

People at Airbnb refer to this study a lot. It’s by UC Berkeley professor Ken Rosen, who reported that home sharing by companies like Airbnb has had no effect on the housing market and, further, that it “has the potential to make urban housing more affordable for more families.”

“But you guys commissioned that study,” I say.

“Okay,” Chesky says sulkily. “So then we said other people should do it, and then they haven’t done it. So the only study we know about is the one we did.”


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