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Can I Legally Stay in an NYC Airbnb? Here’s How the New Registration System Will Work

Visitors don’t have to worry about getting fined — but there are some pitfalls to watch out for.

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NYC visitors’ lodging options will change next month when a new Airbnb enforcement law takes effect.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The era of unregulated Airbnb-ing in New York is coming to a close. What’s a visitor in the city to do?

City lawmakers passed legislation in January 2022 to register and rein in short-term rentals like the ones listed on the booking giant Airbnb and other sites like it. The company and some hosts sued to stop the policy, but a judge threw out those cases in early August. That means, come Sept. 5, the landscape of who can rent out a room will change.

Meanwhile, THE CITY has found that at least one New York company peddling “medium-term” rentals — designed for people staying in the city between three and six months — has been leasing apartments that were recently rent-stabilized and questionably deregulated. Several tenants told THE CITY that the advertised amenities did not match the reality they encountered. 

So, where are you supposed to stay? What’s allowed, and will you end up with hassles for staying in a not-kosher spot?

Finding a safe, affordable place to stay in the five boroughs is a very NYC predicament — and harder if you’re doing it from afar, especially if you want to steer clear of illegal offerings. Here’s a guide on how to navigate the accommodation landscape.

Can I legally book a place in New York through Airbnb?

Yes, you can, but there are a few things to watch for as you’re looking at listings.

The situation on sites like Airbnb is in flux with the Sept. 5 start of enforcement of New York’s new short-term rental registration system under Local Law 18.

First, you should know that property owners are barred from renting out a whole apartment to short-term guests staying for fewer than 30 days. They are supposed to rent only to people sharing their space, while the owner is there. And rentals can only house one or two guests, no more than that.

“Entire apartments are illegal unless it says, ‘the host lives here and you have access and you’re sharing,’” said Reena Rani, partner at Singh & Rani, LLP, a Manhattan law firm that has represented hundreds of clients in short-term rental cases. “It’s really sharing your apartment which is permitted — and with only two guests.”

A notable exception is buildings classified as hotels and other short-term residences, including furnished apartments run by companies such as Sonder

Rentals of 30 days or more are aboveboard, and not affected by Local Law 18.

The new law requires property owners to register with the city Office of Special Enforcement (OSE) before renting out rooms or whole apartments on a platform such as Airbnb or VRBO for under 30 days.

As of Sept. 5, such listings must include a registration number from OSE. However, it will take some time for the new system to be fully implemented — and for property owners to apply for and receive those numbers from OSE. As of late July, Crain’s reported, OSE had approved only 141 registration applicants out of tens of thousands of short-term rental units in the city.

Could I be penalized for staying in an illegal short-term rental?

No, you shouldn’t be punished for that, according to the Office of Special Enforcement. Property owners and the listing sites themselves will be the targets, said Christian Klossner, executive director of OSE. 

“We’ve never issued penalties to a guest,” Klossner told THE CITY. “In general, we view the guests as deceived consumers.”

His office has only ever had to remove a guest from an apartment on rare occasions when an inspection determines a property is unsafe, he said.

Tenants, too, do not have to worry about fines or punishment for illegal activity related to Local Law 18 that may happen in their buildings, lawyer Rani said. “It’s not the tenant that’s liable for the violations that are issued, it’s the landlord,” she said.

However, any tenants who rent out their apartment without the landlord’s permission could be violating their lease and subject to eviction.

If you want to report an apartment you think is incorrectly or illegally listed, do so through the city’s 311 complaint system here.

The new law is “more something that a building owner should be focused on, rather than a traveler,” said Vijay Dandapani, president of the Hotel Association of New York City.

Is there a catch to staying with family or friends?

Local Law 18 does not bar visitors from staying with family or friends in their New York City homes. The law only regulates short-term rentals — places being rented out for a fee, for less than 30 days. If you are staying with a friend free of charge, the law does not apply.

Is staying at a traditional hotel a better option?

That depends on what you want. Hotels, by and large, are located in the densest, busiest parts of the city, like in Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn and western Queens. They tend to be pricier than the average apartment rental, but come with perks like 24-hour security, daily cleaning and concierge services.

You’ll also get a bit more space from an apartment-based, short-term rental, said Dandapani from the Hotel Association, as the square footage of those listings is larger on average than hotel rooms. But there are “a variety of issues” with Airbnb-like places, he said.

“You’re getting your key from sometimes just a box, with non-human contact. So, if something is amiss, who do you go to? Who do you call?”

Be warned: You may think hotels in New York are easy to come by since the pandemic wrecked the hospitality sector in the city. But that’s not the case in 2023. Many hotels closed, and among those that have reopened, thousands of rooms are in use as housing for migrants. 

According to THE CITY’s economic recovery tracker, as of June demand for hotel rooms was about 89% of what it was before COVID.

Are hostels a good alternative in New York City?

Unlike in many global cities, New York does not have a big network of hostels. In fact, the city outlawed the creation of newly built hostels in 2010 and there are just a handful left, including the large Hostelling International residence on the Upper West Side.

Two City Council members sponsored a new bill to legalize hostels again in 2019, but the legislation has not moved forward.

When booking, what are the red flags to look out for?

Experts say to watch out for:

  • Separate locks on individual rooms within an apartment, individually named or numbered rooms, or separate access codes. Those usually indicate an illegal short-term rental.
  • If your host will not meet you, or if they say “This is my building, I’m just in the other unit.” That’s a clue that it won’t be an owner-occupied place to stay, which is illegal. 
  • If your host warns you not to talk to neighbors, to lie, or tells you how to speak to inspectors.
  • If your rental is in a basement with no windows. This means it is probably not up to code and therefore not legal.
  • If your host sends you a different address than the one listed in the reservation confirmation. This could be evidence they are trying to hide illegal listings from law enforcement or a listing site.

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