Date: November 2015

Originally Published: NY Daily News

New York City is in the midst of an affordable housing crisis. Thousands of people can barely afford to live here, and what relief might be provided by Mayor de Blasio’s ambitious plans is years away.

While there are numerous root causes of the problem, the explosion of illegal hotels, led by the global tech giant Airbnb, has certainly exacerbated the problem.

Airbnb makes it easy for landlords and individuals to illegally convert residential rental housing into transient properties. Once these apartments are taken off the housing market, New Yorkers are unlikely to get them back. It’s easy to understand why: renting an apartment to a tourist for an average of more than $230 per night is far more lucrative than if that same apartment were rented to a permanent resident for a fraction of the monthly value.

That’s why New York has a law on the books to protect our affordable housing market from this deceptive brand of profiteering. The problem is how to effectively enforce the law, when the biggest company doing this has long refused to self-regulate or share relevant data with law enforcement officials so that they can crack down on serial lawbreakers.

In 2014, Airbnb fought a subpoena by the state attorney general to block the release of data on their illegal activity, despite an investigation finding that nearly 75% of their listings in New York City were in violation of the law. Then, nine months ago, Airbnb’s top public-policy executive told the City Council that the company does not do its own research on which listings are illegal. That strained credulity.

Instead, Airbnb has invested tens of millions in parading around legal users, many of whom have camera-ready stories about renting out their apartments to make ends meet, to obfuscate the company’s responsibility to comply with the law.

And then we had a breakthrough — kind of.

After more than two years of fighting tooth and nail to block the disclosure of data on their listings, Airbnb changed its tune when they came under intense scrutiny at the most recent City Council hearing, saying they “wholeheartedly support the effort to target illegal hotels.” Then, Airbnb published a “community compact,” in which they finally promised to share data.

But Airbnb’s latest pledge only covers the release of anonymous data. This is of zero value to government and law enforcement officials — because it won’t do anything to help identify and target the worst illegal hotel kingpins or reverse the trend of major commercial operators depleting our stock of affordable housing.

If Airbnb is really serious about being a good corporate citizen, it will start by telling the city the names, addresses and total number of hosts who are illegally renting out their unoccupied homes and apartments for fewer than 30 days. This would also include the number of nights the rentals are booked and nights available per listing, as well as the revenue received per host.

To allow the city to crack down on the worst of the worst, Airbnb must also share the number of hosts who have multiple listings. Any host with multiple listings is running a commercial business in violation of the law.

To prevent hosts and corporate entities from hiding behind the shield of multiple anonymous accounts, Airbnb should share hosts’ IP addresses, so illegal activity can be tracked. Airbnb can easily identify these users through credit card transactions or the hosts’ billing addresses.

Lastly, Airbnb should disclose the amount of revenue generated from hosts with multiple entire apartment rentals versus those who are just renting a room — so we can see how much they are profiting off of illegal rentals.

Airbnb likes to claim they’re helping middle class New Yorkers. The best way to really do that is to preserve the homes they can afford, not provide asylum for lawbreakers robbing New Yorkers of affordable housing.

The company is finally saying the right thing. But data speaks louder than words.

Rosenthal represents the Upper West Side in the City Council. Williams represents Canarsie and Flatbush and chairs the Council’s Housing Committee.