Economy & Business

De Blasio’s War on Ordinary New Yorkers

New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio speaks to the press in New York City, June 20, 2018. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)
By making Airbnb rentals risky, he deprives residents of income but enriches hotel interests.

One thing (almost) all New Yorkers have in common is an extremely valuable resource: living space. The ability to rent some of it out to one of the 62 million or so who visit the city each year ought to be one of the major perks of residence. Instead, Mayor Bill de Blasio is crushing New Yorkers who wish to do this, in accordance with the desires of two deep-pocketed special interests: the hotel industry and its associated unions.

De Blasio is about to sign a bill, passed unanimously by the city council, that will mark yet another attack in his years-long war on Airbnb, the home-sharing service, and similar companies. The measure will require those services to provide the city with the names and addresses of New Yorkers who share their homes. De Blasio wants the information so he can more accurately deploy the city’s busybody squad of health and safety inspectors looking for trivial violations. The law will also make it easier for the city to sniff out anyone who might be breaking state law by renting out an entire apartment for a term of less than 30 days.

Consider how viciously anti–New Yorker this law is: You’re going to be out of town for two weeks on vacation, or to look after a sick relative, or on business. You could make thousands of dollars renting out your home on Airbnb. But it’s illegal. It would be legal for you to host a guest while you yourself are still living at home for those two weeks — but how is City Hall supposed to monitor whether you lay your head down on your own pillow each night? It would take a Stasi-level surveillance regime to catch all of the violators. The law creates the predicate for massive government intrusion into private home-sharing transactions.

Fear of such snooping might be a reason why Airbnb listings plummeted by 50 percent in San Francisco after the city enacted a restriction like the New York City one. Since 2015, de Blasio and the city council have won a nearly 600 percent increase in funding for the “Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement,” essentially an Airbnb hit squad, while more than quadrupling its staff from 11 to 48 people. You might think that if an apartment is safe enough for a family of New Yorkers to live in it full-time, then it’s probably safe enough to rent out some of it for a few days, but de Blasio is, as usual, rewarding his donors in order to harm ordinary New Yorkers.

New York’s expensive hotels have been feeling the heat from Airbnb: Average prices peaked in 2014 and have drifted down slightly since. In order to stop the profit erosion, they have been spending on politicians. The industry shelled out $460,000 in city-council campaign donations in the 2013 and 2017 seasons. City-council speaker Corey Johnson, a strong supporter of the anti-Airbnb bill, raked in $15,600. He claims his constituents have been making “many, many complaints.” Really? People who already live in New York City are complaining that the market is being distorted because their neighbors are making a buck renting out their homes to out-of-towners? Bill sponsor Carlina Rivera (who received $33,800 from the hotel industry, more than any other city-council member) justified her actions to the Daily News thus: “I’ve seen support for legislation like this even before I became a council member. I would hear horror stories all the time of landlords specifically who were illegally hoarding apartments, who were warehousing affordable units.”

New York’s expensive hotels have been feeling the heat from Airbnb: Average prices peaked in 2014 and have drifted down slightly since. In order to stop the profit erosion, they have been spending on politicians.

This argument is hard to take seriously. Tenants of one apartment have figured out that another apartment is being used as a hotel room, and they’re upset about this not because their short-term neighbors are partying all night but because of the theoretical market distortion that results from an apartment’s removal from the pool of homes available for rent?

Let’s turn this around. Suppose hotel rooms were available to be converted into apartments. New York’s affordable-housing warriors would be all in favor, right? The more residences flood into the market, the more downward pressure on housing prices, right? Funnily enough, though, the city also recently passed a new law that blocks that. Guess who backed it? De Blasio. And city-council speaker Johnson. Oh, and the hotel industry and its unions.

That measure, Local Law 50, a.k.a. the “Hotel Conversion Moratorium of 2015,” originally passed for only a two-year period, but then was renewed again last year. (Many impossible-to-kill New York City regulations are nominally temporary.) It forbids owners of hotels with more than 150 rooms from converting more than 20 percent of them to homes without a waiver from the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals. Johnson was a bit more transparent about his motives when that bill was being passed: Saying his goal was to preserve “union hotel jobs,” he cited the potential loss of “hundreds of union jobs” at hotels that might be partly converted to residences.

Once upon a time, years ago, de Blasio was actually having friendly talks with Airbnb. That didn’t last, and a classic not-the-Onion combination of headline and subhead in TheRealDeal.com told the story: “City cut off talks with Airbnb after receiving donation from startup’s union foe” ran the headline. The subhed: “Officials say the two incidents are unrelated.” De Blasio’s Campaign for One New York had accepted $400,000 from Unite Here, a group linked to the hotel unions. Silicon Valley tech firms may think it’s an obvious good to help connect people who want to share things, but in New York City what’s obvious is that no technology works as reliably as greasing the skids with union dollars.

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