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Airbnb hosts are worried about being fined as illegal hotels

A new law targets anyone who leases their entire apartment for less than 30 days

Airbnb rally
Airbnb Rally in New York City
Anisa Purbasari

As Airbnb looks to expand its business model to include travel consultation and flight booking, the home-sharing platform continues to tussle with regulators over its primary business: short-term rentals. Dozens of hosts gathered in New York City today to voice their concerns at a hearing conducted by the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement. The hearing was held to allow public comments on the proposed enforcement of a new state law which prohibits the listing of unoccupied apartments for less than 30 days. It has always been illegal to rent like this, but now it is illegal to advertise, in other words, to list on services like Airbnb.

Most of the Airbnb hosts who spoke at the hearing urged the Mayor’s Office to exempt individual hosts from being subject to this law. Joy Williams, a host from Harlem who listed her property on Airbnb after her tenants broke their lease, said that “the law should target illegal commercial hotel operators and not the thousands of hosts who rely on Airbnb as an economic lifeline.”

Linda Rosenthal, New York Assembly member and main sponsor of the law, briefly attended the hearing to express her support of the new rule. She re-iterated her discontent with Airbnb’s practices, saying that “illegal hotels represent a pernicious threat” to New York residents and contribute to rising rents and gentrification of neighborhoods.

The proposed rule gave no indication whether New York City will distinguish individual hosts from commercial operators who are effectively running hotels — illegally — through the Airbnb platform. Helen Rosenthal, New York Council Member, said in her testimony that the focus of the law should be on “the commercial illegal hotel operators. Those who either are building owners who warehouse empty apartments; or individuals who lease multiple apartments in many buildings, to rent them out on Airbnb.”

She acknowledged the complications of enforcing the law on individual tenants, but did not say that they should be exempt. Rather, she encouraged a “proactive and robust educational campaign” to ensure that individual tenants “do not unknowingly engage in illegal acts.”

The proposed rule spelled out the penalties that infringers would be slapped with. Those who violate the law for the first time will be fined $1,000, $5,000 for the second time, and $7,500 for the third and subsequent violations.

Airbnb has begun to soften up its stance after a series of aggressive public feuds with regulators. The company recently settled a lawsuit that it brought against New York City over the new law.

Josh Meltzer, head of New York Public Policy at Airbnb, said in a statement that the company hopes that today’s hearing allows officials to “hear the collective voice of hundreds of hosts, businesses, and organizations who are urging the City to keep their promise to target illegal hotel operators, not middle class families who are struggling to pay the bills.”

“We look forward to working with the City to accomplish that goal,” said Meltzer. “The vast majority of New York hosts share only their own home, and do not deserve to be slapped with fines that are worse than those given to slumlords who harass their tenants."

UPDATE 2:31 PM ET 12/20: Clarified that it has always been illegal in New York to advertise unoccupied apartments for less than 30 days. The new law prohibits advertising those properties or listing them on services like Airbnb.