New York City is using sheriffs and obscure building code violations to crack down on Airbnb

Shortly after Nan Doyle stepped out for brunch on Labor Day, three men with badges rang the bell to her apartment in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood.

Doyle’s Airbnb guest answered. He was staying with her in the three-story brownstone she bought with her husband in 1998. The badged men asked if they could speak with the owner and, when the guest said she was out, they asked whether he was renting the apartment. The man said yes, he and his family had booked it through Airbnb. The badged men then asked if they could enter to inspect the building’s sprinkler system, which they said might violate New York City’s building codes. When the Airbnb guest refused, they wrote out four civil summonses.

Doyle, 55, learned about the visit later that afternoon from her guests, a family with three small children visiting from California. She inspected one of the summonses: “lack of a system of automatic sprinklers… in transient occupied building.” The papers listed a hearing date in October but no fines. Four days later, on Friday, Sept. 8, Doyle received another visit, this time from a pair of sheriffs. They served her with two more summonses: one for listing the property on Airbnb and the other for listing it on vacation-rental site VRBO. Each carried a fine of $1,000.

New York state in October 2016 passed some of the toughest restrictions on short-term rentals in the country. In most of New York City, it’s now illegal to advertise or rent an entire apartment on a platform like Airbnb for less than 30 days unless the host is present and there are only one or two guests.

The legislation was billed as helping the city crack down on landlords and other “bad actors” who were taking permanent housing off the market by renting out residential units to tourists on VRBO and Airbnb. The intent was to prevent commercial landlords from turning themselves into illegal hotels through Airbnb and other sites. The legislation was backed by the hotel lobby as well as affordable housing advocates.

But a year later, regular New Yorkers who never intended to become commercial landlords or hoteliers say the crackdown on short-term rentals is also targeting them.

“The city has said they are trying to rid Airbnb of bad actors—the people who are renting out entire buildings or blocks of apartments, the absentee landlords,” Doyle told Quartz. “That’s not that case for me. I’m always here when my guests are here. I always personally greet them, buy them breakfast, talk to them. It’s the opposite of what this special enforcement division has said they want to go after.”

City regulators visited Skip, 57, at his Brooklyn home while he was out at a philosophy class. A van from the Office of Special Enforcement (OSE), the city agency charged with enforcing short-term rental rules, appeared one morning in April and dispatched a police officer and two sheriffs to Skip’s row house in Sunset Park, where he has lived since the 1960s.

At the time, Skip had two Airbnb guests staying with him, a young couple from Argentina, who answered the door. According to what the couple told Skip, the city agents asked if they could enter the house or open the curtains to see inside. When the couple refused, the city’s enforcers wrote out multiple summonses for building code violations—not having a fire system, not having a sprinkler system—and glued them to Skip’s front door.

“They were never in here so they don’t know what I have or don’t have in my house,” said Skip, who asked his last name be withheld, fearing retribution from the city. “They’re making up things, they’re giving me summonses and they’re making me prove them wrong. They’re finding me guilty without even seeing anything.”

Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman for the mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, which includes OSE, said the city has not changed its enforcement priorities for short-term rentals. “We focus proactive work on owners and hosts who take permanent housing off the market and present a danger to New Yorkers as well as visitors to the City,” Gallahue said in an emailed statement. “The only times that summonses and fines are issued are when there is enough evidence gathered to warrant summonses and fine.”

Since January, OSE has completed more than 2,500 inspections in response to 1,280 complaints (there can be multiple inspections for a single location). The penalties issued to Doyle and Skip, people who rented out rooms in their homes while they were present, suggest that the city isn’t focusing just on “bad actors.” The trend should concern Airbnb hosts who may think they are following local laws, but risk violating one of New York City’s many building and zoning codes. It also provides a playbook for how other cities that have taken a strict line on short-term rentals—Barcelona, Berlin, and Miami Beach, for instance—could escalate their enforcement activities.

In April, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio allocated an extra $2.9 million in funding to OSE over the next two years, to be spent mostly on “illegal hotel enforcement.” OSE said it add 16 people to its 32-member team. That same month, the office put out a request for a provider to manage its “quality of life enforcement data system.” The request explained that the city would match complaints coming from calls to the city’s 311 complaint line and elsewhere with public records, such as property records and fire department violations, to streamline OSE’s short-term rental investigations. Specifically, OSE requested a vendor who could “set custom alerts with different priority levels for targeted users” within the system, according to a copy reviewed by Quartz.

The city’s efforts have been helped by Share Better, a coalition of hotel unions, industry leaders, politicians sympathetic to the hotel business, as well as affordable housing advocates. In July, Bloomberg reported that Share Better had hired private investigators to conduct sting operations on hosts suspected of violating New York’s short-term rental rules. Armed with hidden cameras and fake social media profiles, the investigators reportedly checked units for anything that might suggest it was being run as an illegal hotel—such as tiny bottles of shampoo—and then relayed their findings to OSE. In August, another industry group, the Hotel ​Association of New York City, hired a retired NYPD officer to do undercover enforcement.

Gallahue told Quartz the city does not have an operational or financial partnership with Share Better. “Any alert or credible complaint about illegal activity would be investigated whether that comes from an elected official, a neighborhood association, an individual New Yorker, or a group,” he said. The city is required to respond to complaints from its 311 complaint line.

These enforcement activities are catching plenty of “bad actors.” The city has sued a Lower East Side building owner for Airbnb’ing units in three buildings and fined a landlord in Dumbo up to $55,000 for illegally constructing and renting out residential roofs on a building zoned for manufacturing.

Airbnb supports legislation introduced earlier this year that would allow New Yorkers to rent out one unit—the home where they live—for short-term stays. On its website, the company recommends New York hosts consult chapter two of the city’s zoning resolution, a 90-page document, for “definitions of terms like ‘hotel’ that could apply to you.”

Airbnb says the city is unfairly going after ordinary hosts. “The Office of Special Enforcement openly works hand-in-glove with the hotel industry to go after responsible hosts,” Josh Meltzer, Airbnb’s head of New York public policy, said in an emailed statement. “It’s time for lawmakers to take a rational approach to the sharing economy, and support a common-sense policy that protects housing affordability and quality of life, while still allowing New Yorkers an opportunity to earn extra money.”

Skip contested his summonses at a hearing in July. It cost him $1,050 in legal fees but he got the charges dismissed. “It cleared out a good part of my savings,” he said. Skip, who has epilepsy and is on disability, said he has continued to rent his home on Airbnb. “If I don’t, I have to sell my home,” he said.

Doyle plans to fight her summonses and fines at her court date later in October. In the meantime, she said she’s suspended her activity on Airbnb, wary of attracting even more penalties. “Even though they never saw my building, the inside of it, they’re assuming we’re not going to have things like an automatic sprinkler or a fire egress, because it’s a residential building,” she said. “Those are things you have when you run a hotel.”

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