In response to a new law passed by the state legislature this summer that would impose heavy fines on anyone who tries to rent out their apartment for less than thirty days, Airbnb has threatened a lawsuit against the state alleging that its users’ First Amendment rights are being violated.
In a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo, as well as other state leaders, Airbnb general counsel Rob Chestnut wrote that unless Cuomo vetoes the bill, “Airbnb would have no choice but to immediately file suit against the State of New York.”
At the same time that Airbnb is pressuring Cuomo through possible litigation, it’s also ramping up a new ad campaign featuring low-income New Yorkers of color, whom Airbnb claims it helps financially in a rapidly gentrifying New York City (that the home-sharing company has nothing to do with, they promise).
In one of the ads, titled “Meet Diego,” the Spanish-speaking Inwood resident explains how without Airbnb, he wouldn’t be able to afford his apartment and attend school at the same time. In another, “Meet Lee,” a black resident of Ozone Park explains how Airbnb helped him pay his medical bills while undergoing cancer treatments.
These ads echo earlier Airbnb campaigns, where the company positions itself as indispensable to the very survival of New Yorkers. In 2014, it ran a series of ads touting how Airbnb saved New Yorkers during Superstorm Sandy.
The new state law, which would strengthen an amendment of the Multiple Dwelling Law from 2010 banning short-term rentals, would impose a $7,500 fine on anyone who advertises their entire apartment on Airbnb. The company claims that this law is tailored to satisfy the hotel industry and doesn’t keep the interests of low-income and struggling New Yorkers in mind. On top of that, by penalizing the advertisement of services, the company believes that the law stifles your constitutionally enshrined freedom of speech.
“The Bill’s restrictions also conflict with the First Amendment,” the letter says. “The ban on advertising is, at its core, a ban on speech, and such bans – even those on commercial speech – presumptively violate the First Amendment as they are not narrowly tailored to further a substantial governmental interest.”
In a new dump of user data timed to convince Cuomo to veto the bill, Airbnb claims that 96% of users are only listing a single property, and that their service isn’t being used by commercial operators to take formerly affordable properties off the market. However, the law only applies to individuals who would be renting out an entire home — not something many low-income New Yorkers would be in a position to do.
Speaking with the Voice, Airbnb spokesman Peter Schottenfels cited the lifestyle of a traveling musician, who often leaves town for weeks at a time, as someone who would be victimized by this law.
“It’s plain and simple: this bill is an attack on tens of thousands of hardworking, middle class New Yorkers who share their homes to make ends meet,” Schottenfels told the Voice. “It is impossible to take seriously arguments to the contrary when it would have been very easy to draft the bill in a way that differentiated between middle class people sharing their permanent home and the commercial operators who run illegal hotels.”
As it stands under current law, the majority of Airbnb rentals are already illegal. A report by MFY Legal Services, which used data that hadn’t already been vetted by Airbnb, found that more than 55% of Airbnb listings were for entire apartments for less than 30 days, and that instead of 96% of users only renting out a single apartment, as Airbnb claims, that number is much closer to only 70%. The study found that if the more than 8,000 apartments that are being used solely for Airbnb rentals were returned to the rental market, it would increase the number of vacant rentals in the city by 10%.
In its letter, Airbnb expressed that it was writing the governor more “in sadness than in anger,” and that it remains the “right of everyday New Yorkers to share the homes they live in order to help make ends meet.” And if the governor doesn’t see it their way? They’ll sue.
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