There is a bill in front of the NYC City Council called Intro 981 that will impose reporting requirements on Airbnb and their hosts in NYC. There will be a public debate on that bill this coming week.
The backdrop here is the growing housing affordability crisis in NYC and the idea that Airbnb is a significant contributor to it.
While I am not an expert in the economics of housing, I have lived in NYC for the past thirty-five years (my entire adult life), and my wife and I are also landlords in several of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn where rents have been rising most quickly. I have a layman’s understanding of the issue and an on the ground feel for it.
It is my view that we have a fundamental supply and demand problem at work in the rapidly gentrifying outer boroughs of NYC (most acutely in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx). NYC has added almost 500,000 residents this decade alone, a 5.5% increase in population from 2010 to 2017. This is driven by multiple factors but there are more people choosing to live in the five boroughs and less people choosing to leave them.
A major change in the last fifteen years is the emergence of the boroughs of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx as the preferred place to live for many young professionals. They moved into these communities in their 20s to escape an increasingly unaffordable Manhattan and have stayed and are now raising their families in them.
This sea change in demand for housing has not yet been met with an equal increase in supply. There are cranes all over Brooklyn and Queens so I am optimistic that we will see the increases in supply that we need, but there is a lag in the supply of housing coming to market. And we need two kinds of supply, market-rate housing for those that can afford it, and subsidized housing for the displaced families that no longer can afford market rate housing.
And so where does Airbnb fit into this picture? It’s a reducer of supply to some extent as landlords take rental units off the market and list them on Airbnb instead. But having looked at multiple studies on this issue, I believe that Airbnb is a marginal player in this story, not the root cause of the problem. If Airbnb decided to stop operating in NYC (a terrible outcome in my view), I do not believe we would see a material change in the affordability issues that plague NYC.
And yet, elected officials in NYC and NY State have chosen to make Airbnb the poster child of the problem and impose restrictions and constraints on their operation. And, of course, the industry that Airbnb most threatens, the hotel industry and its labor unions, have fought back aggressively and effectively. It is hard to know what is good policy and what is good politics. I suspect we are seeing a lot of the latter and not enough of the former.
I am for reporting of listings as required by Intro 981. But I am not for the city using that data to come after hosts and harass them. Similar reporting requirements that have been enacted in SF, Chicago, and Seattle have included those protections for hosts. Intro 981 should too.
But more than that, I am for a comprehensive solution to the issues that short-term rentals raise. I am in favor of requiring a mechanism for neighbors to register complaints. And I am in favor of requiring Airbnb to collect taxes on short-term rentals in NYC and NY State, which is estimated to produce $100mm of incremental revenues for the City and State. A comprehensive bill that would legitimize the short-term rental market in NY State and NYC would unlock those revenues but the forces at work against Airbnb are fighting it. That makes no sense to me.
It is time to accept that Airbnb is here to stay in NYC and NY State. It is time to legitimize the practice of short-term rentals. It is time to put sensible complaint mechanisms and reporting requirements in place. And it is time to start collecting the taxes on this activity and using those revenues to solve other pressing issues like transportation, schools, and most importantly, our ability to house those who can’t afford to pay market rents.
I would encourage our elected officials to do all of that.