The Further Dangers OF Airbnb

One could say this about AirBNB, they are not afraid of being noticed even in cities where are their practices may not be legal. Lobbyists for the company have been spending plenty of time and money in Albany trying to weaken the New York state’s Multiple Dwelling Law first enacted to define the use of buildings, in particular buildings where commercial/transient use is allowed as opposed to residential dwellings ( class A).

The Multiple Dwelling law became a subject of focus for many New Yorkers in 2010 after, thanks to a group of gallant housing activists and some dedicated electeds, it was updated for the time since its inception in 1929 to include stronger protections for residential housing. But for Brian Chesky, CEO of AirBNB, these regulations have proven to be a major obstacle for his company’s operations in which tenants and owners can advertise units in residential buildings for commercial use to transients.

The tactic of using residential units for transient means has long been used by some of New York City’s most notorious landlords of rent regulated apartments in clearing out their buildings. In fact, it first became the standard business model for management companies of residential Single Room Occupancy (SRO) dwellings in the 1990s. These building owners also have found that they could make much more money renting their units for commercial purposes then for their intended use. To date, thousands of once rent regulated units have been lost due to this practice. For AirBNB, the hiring of Emily Giske, a close friend of City Council speaker Christine Quinn, as a lobbyist means that there is very little interest on their part on what long term effect their business would have on the already dwindling affordable housing stock in NYC. The following is a look at importance of keeping not using residential buildings for transient purposes.

In New York State, legal commercial hotels are required to meet strict fire code standards going beyond those found in residential buildings. This was an area of focus in the case of The State Of New York VS Smart Apartments LLC, Robert Chan. The case centered on a chain of illegal hotels run by Mr. Chan, called “Smart Apartments” (a/k/a “Hotel Toshi”). During the case New York City assistant chief for the FDNY bureau, Thomas Jenson, who also, served as the chair for the Fire Protection Systems Committee of the 2011 New York City Building Code Revision Project, testified about the heightened risk of injury or death due to fires in residential buildings used as illegal hotels or hostels. Jenson stated that one of the major reasons that transient hotels and other non-residential buildings are held to higher standards than residential units is that occupants of commercial hotels (tourists) are not as familiar with the building layouts as are tenants who live there. Not knowing the quickest route to an exit can and often leads to death by smoke inhalation, the main cause of death in a fire situation according to Jenson.

New York State used several tragic cases of hotel fires as an area of focus, during the 1980s in implementing these strict fire code requirements for all commercial buildings. The incident most often cited was a catastrophic fire at a Las Vegas MGM Grand Hotel in 1980. The blaze claimed 85 lives and hundreds of injuries were reported.

The new fire safety requirements include:

  1. All commercial buildings must have portable fire extinguishers.
  2. All of these buildings must have uncapped sprinkler systems.
  3. All commercial hotels must have manual/automatic alarm systems or manual/automatic fire alarm systems.
  4. All buildings must have an evacuation plan which explains clearly any evacuation procedure and must also include a designated a fire safety director, deputy fire safety directors and fire brigade members.
  5. The fire safety director must be able to implement the evacuation plan, call the fire department and alert all occupants of the danger. He or she must have received the FDNY certificate of fitness and be in the hotel or motel at all times.
  6. Every commercial lobby must have a fire command center which shows the status of all alarm devices in the building and is used by the fire safety director and other fire crew connected to the building.
  7. This is the most important one, every floor must have a diagram to the nearest exit, stairwell or a second means to egress. For the rest of the requirements that all commercial stay buildings must meet, see attachment below.

In contrast no residential building must meet any of these or other requirements listed in Jenson’s testimony. Because of this, illegal hotel operations put the lives of tourists at risk.

  1. In residential units, there only needs to be notices posted on the back of individual dwelling doors and down in the common area of the lobbies of the buildings along with the person to contact in case there is a need for assists. The staff must have completed standard safety course for the event of a fire.
  2. Because of this the tourist does not have the same safe guards as he or she would have in a legal hotel motel or hostel. They don’t have the luxury of familiarizing themselves to the buildings. And since the posting is only a notice there would be little to no time to read the information. Because of this the tourist’s life and safety is put at extra risk.

Since these security measures were implemented decades ago, the rate of fatalities in transient dwellings has plummeted from 300 in 1976 to 62 in 2010.

The issue of fire safety is only one of the problems that operations such as Airbnb create, however, especially when compared to the potentially devastating effect it could have on housing. If this hotel, hostel service is allowed to move forward and becomes legalize than there is little doubt that larger land owners, those who own or manage multiple buildings, will undoubtedly use these services, claiming that they are within their legal right to use their buildings for such purposes, rendering the multiple dwelling law useless and allowing some of the New York City’s most insidious landlords to run roughshod over the agencies which are in charge of safe guarding tenants against this practice.

There have already been reports of residents who own or rent 50 plus units using AirBNB. AirBNB does not police its listings. The result would be an even larger housing crunch for working class tenants to face and would allow a convenient back door for landlords to deregulate their buildings and bypass the processes by Housing Preservation & Development (HPD) and the Department Of Buildings.

The cases of those who run or own multiple affordable units and are using Airbnb in order to bring in tourists for extra profit often fly under the radar of the mainstream media who too often want to depict the issue as just some students or other single tenants looking to make earn an honest buck. But the fact is that the problem is leading to the ever growing problem of gentrification, something that the Cheskys of the world are just too happy to over look, as are those law makers willing to take real estate money for their election campaigns.

Until next time.


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