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Why New York Needs Airbnb

Sophie helps a guest check her bags.

I spent the summer of 2008 living in a youth hostel in the middle of Times Square, where an old classmate I had reconnected with on MySpace had filled his two-bedroom apartment with bunk beds. I shared a basement with a rotating cast of 14 tourists and two kittens while he slept in a loft space above the living room and his roommate took the other bedroom. The idea was ahead of its time — Airbnb, a site for listing short-term rentals of rooms or entire homes, emerged just a couple months later.

In exchange for free room and board for the summer, I would help my host check the guests in, hand them their keys, and answer the questions they had about the city, although I had just arrived myself and didn’t know much more about it than than they did.

For instance, I didn’t know at the time that we needed a certificate of occupancy to be doing what we were doing, or that we didn’t already have one. All I knew was that our hostel was one of the few places that a traveler on a budget could find a room in New York City for less than a hundred dollars a night.

Most of our guests were polite and cheerful, coming home with shopping bags full of jewelry and computers to drop off in their rooms (the exchange rates in Europe were favorable that summer) while they poured over museum pamphlets and made a quick pot of tea. There might have been loud parties from time to time, but the party people typically stayed out until four a.m. when the bars closed and came back to the hostel only to sleep it off.

If anyone was rowdy, it was the cats. Megan regularly locked herself in the closet by accident and Sophie, who was always looking for good head to sleep on, kept me awake at night more than once.

The Lobby

What we were doing was not exactly a secret — the owner used an online hostel booking service and a basic website to advertise the space — but I suspect the neighbors hadn’t been consulted about all of the people who would soon be sharing their stoop.

With the buzzer constantly ringing in the confused strangers who would show up on the doorstep with their suitcases in hand, it was hard to hide our temporary residents for long.

Our neighbors started having meetings about the “illegal hostel” on the first floor, which we found out about through the many hand-made signs that lined the hallways and doors in our building.

Ultimately, we were evacuated from the space because of the toxic mold that had grown in the basement thanks to the hot tub that the previous tenants had installed. (So maybe the hostel wasn’t as wholesome as I’m making it sound, but I’m at work right now, so we can talk about that another time.)

I was tired of living in Times Square at that point, and had decided move across the East River to Brooklyn, where I would always have a moat between me, the blinking signs, and all of the screaming Justin Bieber fans outside MTV’s studios.

If homeowners now are making serious cash off rentals on Airbnb, I would be very surprised. I soon learned that the fees we collected from tourists barely covered the rent. I eventually quit my job altogether because my paychecks were bouncing.

Now that I’ve lived in this expensive city long enough to realize just how spectacular that apartment was (aside from the mold), I can understand why my former classmate wanted to rent it out rather than move to less convenient parts of the outer boroughs to make ends meet like the rest of us.

Especially when the stock market crashed that fall and I was left jobless in a new city where I knew virtually no one other than the tourists I met that summer who had already gone back home.

Years later, when my apartment building lost heat and electricity for three straight weeks after Hurricane Sandy, I would appreciate that business model — and Airbnb –even more.

It was through Airbnb’s online booking service that my husband and I found a free studio apartment in Chelsea for a full week so we could shower, sleep, and get back to work. Our host, an IT professional who needed a cat sitter while he went on a sailing trip, had told his landlord he would be having Airbnb guests and joined us for dinner and a beer before he went on his way.

There was nothing scammy about it — just a New Yorker making his city more livable for himself and his cat, and helping a couple of Sandy victims along the way.

In fact, New York City’s willingness to use Airbnb to house its displaced residents in privacy and comfort while we went about our daily lives showed that city officials do understand what people really need in an emergency.

So it’s mind-boggling that laws in New York and other cities are still making it difficult for people to rent out their apartments on Airbnb and similar sites. Yesterday, CNET reported that New York City resident Nigel Warren will pay a $2,400 fine for violating a law that prevents property owners from renting their homes for periods of less than 30 days. Warren was a renter, not an owner, and his landlord had received the initial warning from officials.

No one wants 14 tourists moving in next door to them, and this law does seem to be aimed at people who turn their entire apartment buildings into hotels, but the law ignores an important aspect of living in a big city.

Home ownership is out of reach for many people, even in a household like mine, with two incomes and no children. Why shouldn’t renters be able to open our doors to visitors and, with clear guidelines on how we can do this legally, stretch our budgets a little further?

For every overachiever trying to cram half of Europe into his apartment, there will be countless others who are just trying to have a nice vacation and pay their rent. And these people can all be online,with photos and full descriptions of their apartments, for law enforcement to see.


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