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Rent-stabilized tenants, landlords bash Airbnb during RGB hearing

By Sabina Mollot

In a historic first for the annual tenant versus landlord battle that is the Rent Guidelines Board, both sides are in agreement.

While the landlords still want to up rents and the tenants still want them lower, each is abhorred by the entity that is Airbnb.

At the always contentious debate held at the Cooper Union building downtown on Monday, tenants condemned building owners who flout the law to rent vacant units to tourists to bring in more than their normal monthly rent check.

They described it as a form of harassment to longtime renters who’ve lost a sense of safety and community.

Meanwhile, equally frustrated owners lamented how tenants live elsewhere and rent out their under-market apartments to collect an Airbnb windfall.

Bonnie Diaz, the manager of a building on West 21st Street, said the property’s owner hired a private detective to track down four tenants suspected of renting out their apartments on the short-term stay website.

One was found “living around the corner in a high-rise, making $2,000 a week [renting his apartment on Airbnb]. Another tenant was actually in Florida, another in California, and another was touring the world. We finally contacted him in Israel,” said Diaz.

Joanne Joemelti, an East Village resident, said landlords were just as much to blame for short-term rentals.

“A lot of the landlords are mentioning illegal practices … but a lot of them are also using Airbnb for a profit,” she said.  “I’m not renting my apartment on Airbnb. I’m trying to survive.  Don’t punish people who haven’t been (doing it).”

Joanna Wong, whose family owns two buildings in Lower Manhattan said that a rise in “illegal transients” due to Airbnb has resulted in legal fees her family has to shell out to fight the problem.

“We have tried to formally educate tenants about Airbnb,” Wong said, “But Airbnb has a lot of media that misleads people that it’s legal.

“We’ve also had to go to court. We have tenants saying, ‘Who are these people coming to the apartments?’ and tenants who are complaining that we’re not letting them sub-let their apartments. But our main thing is ensuring security and safety.”

The unusual tenant landlord unity came as the New York State Senate passed a bill that aims to prohibit listings for short-term rentals, boosting the possibility of an outright ban for services like Airbnb.

The proposal outlaws online listings that last for under 30 days. It essentially widens the range of restriction for New York City apartments. Previously, New York State law only prohibited renting out apartments for under 30 days when the official resident is not present. However, listings for such apartments were not officially banned.

The bill, sponsored by Senate Republican Andrew Lanza, passed with a vote of 56-6. To become law, the bill only needs the signature of Governor Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo has yet to indicate whether he is leaning towards signing or vetoing the bill.

The RGB, meanwhile, is set to vote on Monday (June 27) on rents for the city’s one million stabilized apartment.  Proposals on the table are for increases of zero to two percent on one-year leases and 0.5 to 3.5 percent on two-year leases signed between Oct. 1, 2016, and Sept. 30, 2017.

Neither landlords nor tenants are happy with the compromise. But at this week’s meeting, tenant Richard Barr said that while he would like to see rents rolled back,  he sympathized with “the small landlords here who are struggling to make a profit.

“We need something other than the one-size-fits-all system, and hopefully you’ll consider trying to do something about that in the future,” Barr said.

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