Critics Say AirBnb Crowds Greenpoint Rental Market

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Critics Say AirBnb Crowds Greenpoint Rental Market
In an area with an overall rental vacancy rate of only 3.7 percent, some critics worry that a certain type of Airbnb rental is eating up housing that should be available for New Yorkers rather than tourists. (Francis Carr Jr. / The Brooklyn Ink)
In an area with an overall rental vacancy rate of only 3.7 percent, some critics worry that a certain type of Airbnb rental is eating up housing that should be available for New Yorkers rather than tourists. (Francis Carr Jr. / The Brooklyn Ink)

As rapidly-gentrifying North Brooklyn experiences an influx of wealth, its appeal to tourists has grown. Many residents of the region have taken advantage of the area’s recent allure by leasing space in their homes to short-term guests using the popular AirBnb online marketplace. About 17 percent of all New York City AirBnb rentals are in the Williamsburg-Greenpoint-Bushwick macro-neighborhood.

But in an area with an overall rental vacancy rate of only 3.7 percent, some critics worry that a certain type of AirBnb rental is eating up precious housing, much of it rent-stabilized, that should be available for New Yorkers rather than tourists.

According to a recent study of AirBnb’s impact on New York’s housing market, “high-impact” AirBnb listings—those that occupy an entire unit and are used solely to generate profit for owners—occupy around twelve percent of Greenpoint’s rental vacancies.

This high proportion of whole-unit AirBnb listings further squeezes an already crowded rental market, said Rolando Guzman, deputy director of housing preservation at St. Nick’s Alliance, a community group that advocates for tenants in Greenpoint and Williamsburg.

“The data in that report only proves what we have seen on the ground on a daily basis,” Guzman told the Brooklyn Ink. “Apartments are being taken out of rent stabilization for individuals to make higher profits, in this case through the AirBnb website.”

Many of the AirBnb listings in question are in rent controlled buildings that are meant to provide affordable housing for New Yorkers, Guzman added.

“If a building has more than six units, and it was built before 1973, most likely that’s a rent­ regulated building,” Guzman said.

The citywide survey, titled “Short Changing New York City” and conducted jointly by tenant advocacy groups MFY Legal Services and Housing Conservation Coordinators, found that the Williamsburg-Greenpoint-Bushwick macro-neighborhood contains about half of New York’s high-impact AirBnb listings, which the researchers identified according to three criteria.

To be classified as an impact listing, the AirBnb rental must comprise an entire home or apartment; must be booked monthly for rental periods shorter than 30 days; and are either listed for at least three months per year by hosts listing more than one AirBnb unit, or are listed for at least six months yearly by hosts with a single unit. Such listings are effectively taken out of circulation for New Yorkers.

“If you’re renting [out an apartment] six months a year or more, you can’t have any real residential use of it on your own,” said Sarah Desmond, executive director of Housing Conservation Coordinators.

Desmond said her organization, which was founded in 1972 and operates primarily on the West Side of Manhattan, has been fighting short-term rentals since before the rise of AirBnb.

“We’ve seen this issue dating back to 2004, with owners and landlords turning units over to third-party operators,” Desmond said, adding that she is focused on impact listings specifically, and not worried about leaseholders who use AirBnb to, say, rent out a spare room in their apartment.

“I think people think of this benign use of AirBnb as, ‘I was gone for two weeks, and I was renting,” Desmond said. “We’re not concerned about that. We’re concerned about abuses of that that have impact on affordable housing.”

Guzman agreed with Desmond on this point.

“One thing is that you have an extra room that you are renting, and the tenant is keeping an eye on what’s happening” in the unit, Guzman said. “The other one is with the landlord using that apartment as part of their business plan, to make more profit in a faster way.”

Guzman added that the Greenpoint tenants he represents at St. Nick’s Alliance are also negatively affected by the transient and often rowdy nature of AirBnb tourism.

“One building comes to mind where tenants would tell me that people who are short term renters, most likely from AirBnb, will come late at night, start partying with loud music, drinking, at two, three, four in the morning on a weekday,” Guzman said. “A lot of our tenants complain about safety issues, not feeling safe in their own building, because they see so many people coming and going.”

According to Desmond, most impact listings are illegal. New York’s Multiple Dwelling Law—passed in 1929 to address conditions in the city’s overcrowded tenements—says that apartments in buildings with three or more separate units can’t be rented for a period shorter than 30 days unless the renter is also living there during the rental period.

Such listings appear to be maintained exclusively for the purpose of being rented to short-term guests to make a profit, taking a home off the market for New York City residents, Desmond said.

Analyzing recent data from a variety of sources, including Airdna, Zillow, the Department of City Planning, and the U.S. Census Bureau, the study found that Greenpoint contained 153 impact listings in a market with 1,089 vacant rentals, for a ratio of about 12 percent of Greenpoint’s rental market.

A separate report conducted by the state Attorney General’s office between 2010 and 2014 found that Williamsburg and Greenpoint together accounted for the largest share of Brooklyn’s overall AirBnb listings, generating $39 million for hosts during the four-year review period.

That report, titled “AirBnb in the City,” also claimed that commercial AirBnb rentals put additional strain on the city’s residential housing supply. It found that in 2013, over 4,600 housing units in New York were booked as private short-term rentals for three or more months out of the year.

“Of these, nearly 2,000 units were each booked as private short-term rentals on AirBnb for at least 182 days—or half the year,” the report read. “While generating $72.4 million in revenue for hosts, this rendered the units largely unavailable for use by long-term residents.”

According to attorney Adam Meyers, a staffer with the Preserving Affordable Housing Program at Brooklyn Legal Services, it’s difficult to tell to what degree the glut of AirBnb listings drives Greenpoint’s rising rental costs; since Greenpoint is an attractive neighborhood, short-term rentals could be primarily a symptom of gentrification, rather than a cause.

Still, impact listings represent housing stock that isn’t available to New Yorkers, which affects the supply of housing and drives up demand, Meyers said.

“This isn’t housing stock that is in New York; it’s being taken out of circulation for New York residents,” Meyers said.

In an interview with Deanna Ting, an editor at Skift, AirBnb spokesman Christopher Nulty rebuffed the findings published in “Short Changing New York City,” calling them “misleading” and claiming  the report was funded by the hotel lobby. Nulty did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

Desmond denied Nulty’s accusation that the report was funded by interested parties.

“I have no money to make on this issue,” Desmond said. “We’re not for profit, and we’re a pretty bare bones not-for-profit. … [AirBnb] is going to swing any which way they can to try to discredit us.

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