Airbnb Will Help New York City Track Down Illegal Rentals, and Other Cities Could Be Next

By Victoria Song on at

Airbnb and New York City have a long and contentious history. On the one hand, Airbnb wants everything to be hunky dory in its biggest market. On the other, New York City’s stringent short-term rental laws effectively make many Airbnb rentals illegal in the city. New Yorkers are also caught up in the mix – affordable housing is hard enough to find as it is and some residents are unhappy with the revolving door of strangers coming in and out of apartments.

Back in February, the city subpoenaed Airbnb for the non-anonymised data of more than 17,000 listings. At the time, Mayor Bill de Blasio explained it was a measure to force Airbnb to provide transparency and prevent people from abusing the rental platform. “We want to see their listings,” he said on local news station NY1. “We want to see which apartments are being rented out. We want to know what’s really going on. We want to know there’s not illegal hotels. We want to make sure that something that’s supposed to be an occasional business is not a full-time business.”

Last week, Airbnb came to an agreement with the city about how to share that data without totally throwing privacy out the window. Airbnb has agreed to share the data in two phases. First, Airbnb will give the city anonymised data for more than 17,000 listings between January 1, 2018, and February 18, 2019. These involve listings that were listed as “entire units”, “private rooms” and “shared rooms” with a maximum guest occupancy of three or more, for a stay totaling less than 30 consecutive days. The way the city’s short-term rental laws go, it’s illegal to rent out an entire apartment unless it’s to a maximum of two guests, while the owner is present. New York cracked down even further back in 2016 with a law that prevents advertising rentals that violate the existing law. Recently, it’s also taken to raiding offenders both big and small.

Once receiving the data, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement (OSE) can then request de-anonymised data for specific listings that are likely to be illegal. In that event, the OSE would receive identifying data like addresses, total days booked, payout information, emails and phone numbers.

Beyond the effect it could have on hosts in NYC, the agreement is significant in that it could lead to a ripple effect in other cities that have started cracking down on Airbnb. Cities like Paris, Barcelona, and Santa Monica have tough restrictions on Airbnb rentals. San Francisco has adopted a similar policy to New York, while Las Vegas has slapped Airbnb with some strict regulations to protect its hotel industry. In Japan, nearly 80 per cent of Airbnbs were axed last summer in response to new regulations. It’s possible that local governments in these areas might take a gander at the NYC agreement and decide they’d like the same arrangement.

That could have some positive effects – mainly deterring illegal hotels while allowing regulatory breathing room for your average citizen who earns a few extra quid off of an empty room. Ideally.

“We have long said that we want to work with the City on an effective regulatory framework and we recognise data sharing is an important part of that,” an Airbnb spokesperson told Gizmodo over email. “We hope that our compliance with this subpoena – by providing data in line with our shared enforcement priorities against illegal hotel operators – is a first step toward finding such a solution that is consistent with Airbnb’s legal rights and obligations, and allows us to share the kind of actionable data with the level of precision that the City needs.”

In the meantime, it’s probably to double or triple check that the Airbnb you’re staying in is legal. And if all else fails, you could scheme to win the lottery and stay at that apartment-style hotel Airbnb is opening in Rockefeller Plaza. Though, at that point, just get a hotel room.

Featured photo: Getty Images