New York today: the real story

Earlier this week, an administrative law judge in New York issued a new interpretation of the “shared space” exception to New York’s short-term rental restrictions, fining an Airbnb host named Nigel Warren $2,400 for hosting on Airbnb.

The headlines are dramatic: Airbnb Is Illegal! But we want you to know that these headlines don’t tell the true story.

This was one court decision that we strongly disagree with. We believe it is a misinterpretation of “shared space,” and it does not mean every Airbnb listing in New York is illegal. We are not going anywhere.

New York has been important to Airbnb since the beginning—and we are more dedicated than ever to advocating for clearer, fairer laws that allow our hosts to share their own homes with guests legally, as a force for good in the city.

The headlines may be overstating the case, such cases are rare, and Nigel won on four out of the five counts against him. But that is little comfort to a host who was simply renting out his own apartment on an occasional basis and now finds himself on the hook for exorbitant fines.

What makes this decision most troubling is the manner in which this administrative law judge interpreted a fairly clear provision in the New York law making “shared spaces” legal.

We believed, and still believe, that as long as a host is present during a stay, the stay is legal. That is why we intervened in this case. But the administrative law judge used some fairly tortured reasoning to come up with a brand new test, which essentially implies that a stay might be legal only if the host and guest intend to form a relationship or friendship of some kind.

This could be considered good news, since so many Airbnb guests and hosts do form relationships throughout the booking and visiting process, and afterwards. And there were a number of specifics that made this case unique, which means it may not be a predictor of future cases.

But put simply, this decision is wrong on the law, and bad for New York. The laws in New York and around the world are confusing and often contradictory, but we intervened in this case because this was the one area of the law that seemed most clear. Therefore, we are examining our options to help appeal this case on Nigel’s behalf.
As always, we encourage all of our hosts to understand and obey their local laws. But this judge’s decision demonstrates how difficult is for hosts and even companies like ours to adequately understand laws that were not meant to apply to regular people hosting to make ends meet.

And more importantly, this decision makes it even more critical that New York law be clarified to make sure regular New Yorkers can occasionally rent out their own homes. There is overwhelming agreement that occasional hosts like Nigel Warren were not the target of the 2010 law, but that agreement provides little comfort to the handful of people, like Nigel, who find themselves targeted by overzealous enforcement officials.

In 2010, New York rightly set out to crack down on illegal hotel operators. Many of these operators were converting large numbers of affordable housing units into unsafe hotels—putting lives in danger, and clearly circumventing regulations governing hotels.

But as so often happens, a regulatory initiative that began with a noble goal ended up capturing more than just the bad guys. When the 2010 law was drafted, few people were aware that Airbnb even existed. As a result, the growing community of Airbnb hosts in New York—regular people using the income from Airbnb to pay the bills—simply had no voice in the legislative process until it was too late. Legislators really only heard one side of the story.

As so many of those same legislators have made clear since then, the target of the laws was never intended to be these individual residents. These are not illegal hotel operators trying to make a quick buck. These are people like Maria, who has used her income to work less and spend more time with her husband. Or Emmett, who still keeps in touch with the friends he’s met from Europe, Asia, and Africa. Or Evelyn, who saved her home from foreclosure with the money she makes from Airbnb.

More than half of our hosts in New York have said that the income they earn through Airbnb has helped them stay in their homes. These individuals respect the people around them and love their city. In Airbnb, they have found a service that allows them to screen out bad guests and select only those with good reputations.

These people are renting out the homes they live in, so they have every incentive to choose guests carefully and protect their homes and neighborhoods from damage, noise, and danger. And that’s exactly what they do.

This is a debate about whether to allow regular people throughout New York to open their own homes to travelers and help pay their own bills while doing so. Many times, our hosts are simply renting out a couch or a spare room. Or maybe they rent out their entire homes once in a while to go on vacation or travel for work.

These are not illegal hotels. These are amazing stories within a core community of hosts and travelers adding to the diverse fabric of New York.

It is time to fix this law and protect hosts who rent out their own homes from time to time. In New York, 87% of Airbnb hosts list a home they live in. They are average New Yorkers trying to make ends meet, not illegal hotels that should be subject to the 2010 law. That’s why we have been working with city and state leaders on potential legislative solutions that will help New Yorkers share their space and bring travelers to neighborhoods throughout all five boroughs.

We will keep you posted on those efforts, and we are hopeful that this case will provide the final catalyst for lawmakers to fix a well-intentioned but overly broad effort to stop illegal hotels.