Public Advocate Tish James Is Very Unhappy About the MTA Taking Ads From "Unlawful, Illegal" Airbnb

Image via Public Advocate's office
A scandalous Airbnb ad in Penn Station.
Once again, rental site Airbnb was back in court yesterday with New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's office, fighting allegations that the site is running illegal hotels (and, by extension, not paying its cut to the state in taxes). The company won a mini-victory yesterday, after a federal judge ruled that the AG's subpoena for information on all Airbnb hosts in New York state was overly broad. According to the Washington Post, though, the AG is not to be deterred, and plans to simply rewrite the request in a more legal way.

So Airbnb isn't off the hook by any means, and now, to top things off, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is in a spot of trouble too, merely for running their ads. New York City's Public Advocate Letitia "Tish" James wrote a stern letter on May 12 to Tom Prendergast, who heads the MTA, demanding to know why the authority accepts advertisements for an "unlawful" service. Just to drive the point home, she compared Airbnb to a site that advertises escorts.

- See also: Internet Privacy Groups Say Attorney General's Airbnb Subpoena is an Illegal "Fishing Expedition" for Information on Users

James demanded to know why there are Airbnb ads on digital billboards in Penn Station, calling it "disconcerting" that the MTA would accept such an ad while the investigation into the company is ongoing. She wants a list of where all the Airbnb ads are in the subway system (we've certainly seen them on the 2/3 train a time or two) and to see all the correspondence between the company and the MTA.

She also suggested that the MTA isn't keeping a close enough eye on the content of the ads it runs:

Finally, I wish to have any other policies or rules for permitting content at these locations. Do you allow any firm to utilize your advertisement space? Do you review legal issues or consult with the Attorney General prior to allowing such use? How would the MTA distinguish between AirBnB and an online website that caters to escorts or other activities, where the firm asserts their neutral position, but if as the Attorney General asserts, allows users to overwhelmingly engage in illegal activities? Would the MTA permit such use?

The gross and illegal commercialization by certain firms of New York's
limited housing stock using AirBnb and the promotion of such use on MTA property is detrimental to the City and needs to end. Therefore, until AirBnb reforms its business practices and ceases to allow an overwhelming amount of unlawful/illegal practices from transpiring on their platform, the MTA should stop allowing it from using its advertising space.

The appropriateness of various MTA ads is a hot issue lately; you might remember Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent freak-out over subway ads advertising breast augmentation. In that case, after a bit of back and forth, the MTA said politely it would work on maintaining a "family-friendly" atmosphere on its trains (because nothing is more dangerous or offensive to the eyes of families than breasts).

In the case of Airbnb, though, the MTA isn't budging, because despite James' assertions to the contrary, no one has actually decided that Airbnb is in violation of the law (and perhaps because the public advocate's office has no enforcement power whatsoever to give its complaints any teeth). A spokesman tells the Voice, ""The MTA understands Public Advocate James' concerns about housing affordability in New York. Our advertising standards prohibit us from displaying advertisements that promote unlawful or illegal services, but the Attorney General's investigation is in its early stages and to date there has been no determination that Airbnb's services are illegal."

The full letter from the Public Advocate's office is on the following page.

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New York is losing more and more affordable housing stock, in no small part due to Airbnb. More websites like airbnb and showing up for example there is this site called “lesfrenchy” which is for people from Europe looking for a place in NY. Tons of illegal places in manhanttan brooklyn & queens are listed everyday! I searched this site and got over 400 hits. Many students are risking there lives at many of these places paying outrageous prices for staying and being defrauded by tenants. Here is an example a woman called “Madame V” in Chinatown her real name is “Virginie Sommet” undetected for 15 years created illegal shady SRO Slum Lord Hotels, she had two huge lofts full of beds in Chinatown. These shady lofts according to many sources had rats, bedbugs and loaded with fire hazards. These bedroom partitions housed up to as many 20 people per loft with only one shower and bathroom, the rooms were a disgrace for anyone to live under. Her Gallery was a front for that hotels, she made off with thousands of dollars ripped off from unsuspecting tourist & students who lived in horrible conditions. Rent ranged from $1,700 to $1,100, per month, plus incidentals and cleaning charges. How could the city not know about this for 15 years? She was shut down but still moves to different places doing the same thing getting away with fraud & deceit in Brooklyn now at 137 Decatur St playing with the community there now.

How come the city has problems catching people like this? This city is loosing money then go and catch people like this who are not working honesty and hemorrhaging the city ? 

New York really needs to crack down!!

Matthew Storey
Matthew Storey

100%! Attorney General Schneiderman and Liz Krueger have it completely wrong and so does Tish Taylor. It's remarkable stupidity from people who supposedly stand for making housing more affordable and being FOR progress. Landlord lobby is comprised of inherited wealth that owns property guaranteed to give them profits due to NYC crush of housing need and near 100% occupancy. No landlord loses a DOLLAR to airing since the lease guarantees they receive the rent contracted for and the landlord spends more on lawyers trying to evict paying tenants to circumvent rent control/stabilization guidelines than they do on maintenance or tenant safety. Travelers who stay at airbnb locations would not come to NYC if had to pay hotel rates and that money is lost to the tenant and the city, where airbnb visitors spend millions of dollars. Tenant makes money that keeps them in their home in a brutal housing market and difficult job market. WIN. Landlord gets every dollar owed and suffers no injury. WIN. Neighbors unaffected. NYC tenants are hotel like anyway with visitors, nightlife, delivery staff and turnover. WIN. NYC gets a dynamic flow of international visitors who spend millions of dollars and skew young - meaning, they will be back. WIN. The big losers are the politicians embarrassing themselves on wrong side of the sharing economy arguments and siding with feudal landlords is unconscionable.

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