Who are your neighbors? The real problem with Airbnb in New York City
In order for cities and communities to fully accept the “sharing economy” of Airbnb, it has to start becoming part of our neighborhoods as well — and yep, this means asking the folks down the hall before you start subletting.
I’ve traveled a lot over the past few years, and without a doubt some of my most memorable experiences have involved staying in properties that I booked through Airbnb. I’ve spent an evening with a glass of local wine in hand listening to owls from the deck of a cabin in California vineyard country, woken up in a hot pink VW bus permanently parked within walking distance of the Oslo Fjord in Norway, and enjoyed a short-term home base in the heart of Lisbon’s historic Alfama district. It’s completely changed the way I travel, offering access to unique indie venues, lovely residential neighborhoods devoid of hotels, and affordable options for a budget that can’t shell out for the St. Regis but doesn’t want to resort to a seedy motel or a hostel packed with partiers.
So, like many devotees of the “shared space” service, it was somewhat alarming to see headlines recently that Airbnb had been deemed “illegal” in my hometown, New York City. It was the latest development in the ongoing case involving an Airbnb host named Nigel Warren being threatened with steep fines after renting out his bedroom in a shared East Village apartment for three nights — his roommates were O.K. with it, but his landlord apparently took issue. To declare “Airbnb is illegal in New York” is an overreaction, to be sure, as short-term rentals of less than 30 days are permitted if the apartment in question is where the host actually lives and is present at the time. But the judge in the Warren case has shown hints of wanting to take it a step further by prohibiting all short-term rentals that are not intended to build or maintain some kind of “relationship.” (Yep, that’s vague.)
Much of the New York-based opposition to Airbnb comes from the hotel lobbying industry, which sees its business potentially getting sliced into by easy apartment- and room-booking services. There’s also a reasonable argument for prohibiting “illegal hotels” that may offer dangerous, cramped accommodations at a low cost.
“These are not illegal hotels,” reads a post on the Airbnb public policy blog. “These are amazing stories within a core community of hosts and travelers adding to the diverse fabric of New York.”
But let’s talk about that “diverse fabric of New York.” Any New Yorker’s own New York is exactly what he or she intends it to be — neighborhoods visited, restaurants frequented, local e-mail newsletters subscribed, budding friendships that are actually cultivated rather than tossed aside like a cigarette butt outside a trendy Lower East Side cocktail bar. We’re busy. We’re overstimulated. There’s all manner of things to do at all hours. And geographically, one’s own New York may be very disjointed, with some of the things emotionally closest to us actually a 45-minute subway ride away, and some of the things physically just a few feet outside our front doors comparatively foreign.
Airbnb is, at its core, an incredibly idealistic service rooted in the value of sharing stories in addition to spaces, of welcoming new cultures and experiences into your New York. A great practice of some of the hosts whose properties I’ve stayed in has been to provide a printed list of their favorite things to do throughout the city. But Airbnb is not just about your New York. In a city so physically dense, it also becomes about your guests’ New York (as it evolves), and often too forgotten, your neighbors’ New York.
Here’s my advice to the dedicated Airbnb hosts of New York City who want the law to swing in their favor: It’s not just about the stories you can tell about cross-cultural experiences, or new friends from around the world, or student loans paid off through subletting. Being a good Airbnb host should also be about being a good neighbor, and that means checking with the people who share your floors, your front doors, and your staircases before you start booking guests, even if your lease agreement permits short-term subleasing.
I had a friend once whose landlord gave up on finding actual year over year tenants and opted instead to rent his apartments out on AirBNB. It was uncomfortable for the real tenants in the building to have a steady stream of lost tourists and it was (I think) a fairly clear violation of the city’s hotel rules.
Recently I spoke to someone who had a similar story: Her next-door neighbor in her apartment building started operating a very popular Airbnb rental without any of the other neighbors’ consent. The end result was a constant stream of strangers in the building, the buzzer ringing at odd hours, and a vastly diminished sense of safety.
There’s a big, big difference in renting out a renovated barn on your Catskills farm versus renting out an apartment in a Brooklyn neighborhood where things may still be dodgy enough that the full-time tenants are rightfully concerned about having so many unfamiliar people going in and out of the building with access to the keys. Many Airbnb hosts do a great job when it comes to selecting reputable guests who have a good track record as previous guests, but unfortunately, not all of them do — for example, I maintain that the notorious “Airbnb guests trash an apartment” incident in San Francisco a few years ago was the host’s own fault and not Airbnb’s, because she doesn’t seem to have done a shred of due diligence in approving the rogue guest. And neighbors here often don’t know one another well enough to be able to assess whether they’d trust one another with that background-checking.
So many New Yorkers have become so accustomed to leaving their neighbors out of their New York. We live so close to one another and, generally, can hear tiny snippets of each others’ day-to-day lives at most hours. My upstairs neighbor’s dog, like most dogs, is prone to barking. I refer to the aforementioned neighbor as “my upstairs neighbor” because I don’t actually know his name, nor does he know mine. Neither of us has ever asked. (I do, however, know the dog’s name. It’s Devil. In my family- and couple-centric neighborhood, it’s much more likely that neighbors know one another’s dogs’ names than their own names.)
Community and social-awareness media company GOOD declared this past April 27 as “Neighborday,” asking, “What might we be missing [by not knowing our neighbors]? Collaborators, friends, emergency contacts, sugar? What does this mean for society?” It presents a collection of “Neighboring” stories about apartments opened up as part-time restaurants, calls for the renewed significance of apartment stoops, and (naturally) block parties.
We don’t all have to go full-out Neighborday. But it’s time we realized that in a city so dense and complex, we shouldn’t be fully ignoring our neighbors as part of “our New York” — especially if we’re opening up “our New York” on Airbnb. We should be ensuring that they’re informed and have a say in the process. And maybe that’ll do something for furthering the idea that Airbnb helps enhance neighborhoods, communities, and local businesses rather than lines the pockets of hipsters in need of some extra beer money.
This was adapted from a post I blogged on Tumblr on May 28, 2013.