Hey, Wanna Rent My Couch?

Bunking in other people’s apartments is a growth industry. There’s a whole (and growing) online universe of apartment-swapping, of sublets, of short-term rentals, promulgated by firms like Airbnb.com. And, as it turns out, nearly every such deal is illegal here. Last spring, a law went into effect that bans the rental of New York City apartments for fewer than 30 days, providing what the mayor’s office described as “a clear definition of what constitutes transient and permanent occupancy.” Yet “the legislation hasn’t changed behavior,” says Paul Gottsegen, president of Halstead Management Company, adding that his firm continues to field complaints from neighbors about illegal renters. Stuart Saft, president of the Council of New York Cooperatives and Condominiums, says that owners in buildings he represents have begun demanding that their boards act upon transient guests.

One problem for managers: Few people know how to enforce the law. Says attorney Robert Braverman, whose firm represents about 120 co-op and condo buildings, “Who do you call? Is it 311? There’s no language in the statute regarding who has jurisdiction.” (For the record, yes, you’re supposed to call 311, and a task force will take it from there. The key words to drop are “illegal hotel.”) The NYPD probably isn’t going to be much help, but having the law on the books gives building managers muscle. Many now rely on building staff as lookouts, and some hire private investigators or install video cameras. Still, as Brickunderground.com’s Teri Rogers points out, it’s hard to tell the difference between a houseguest and a paying tenant.

So managing agents are prowling websites to find listings in their buildings, and they’re plentiful. Last week, there were 8,324 properties in the New York area on Airbnb. Homeaway.com had 1,221; Craigslist, at least a thousand. Surely many of these deals are noncompliant, yet “there are no mechanisms in place to prohibit these postings,” says attorney Steven Wagner. “The law addresses the conduct, not the advertising.” (An Airbnb spokesperson says that the site’s terms of service demand that users comply with the law, and Homeaway’s rep says the site “encourages owners to educate themselves on the individual rules and regulations that may apply.”)

Playing landlord sure does pay. A seven-room prewar on the Upper East Side is being offered for $295 a night; a West Village studio for $199 a night. Leslie, who rents out her rental studio on Craigslist, says she made $900 for nine nights before the New York City Marathon. (She stayed with friends.) She worries about being caught but intends to continue: “I’d rather not do it, but I don’t make enough money,” she says.

Cease-and-desist letters are most management companies’ first salvos, and evictions can and do follow. A number of Saft’s buildings have instituted four-figure fines that increase with each violation. Braverman says he’s gone to court in at least six cases this year. Still, with so many tourists elbowing for far grimier accommodations, many New Yorkers are going to continue marketing their best asset. Marie, an ad exec who earned $15,000 last year via Airbnb, is one of them: Her apartment, she says, is “currency in a really tight economy.”

Hey, Wanna Rent My Couch?