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


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.”

Letter to MTA Re Air BNB 5.13.14-PUB