Airbnb, Which Threw Homeless CUNY Students a Lifeline, Says New Law Banning Short-Term Rentals Could End That
A pilot program funded by the booking giant has provided a handful of community college students vouchers for six months of free housing, but the program is in limbo now.
Over the past year, Airbnb offered a lifeline for about 15 LaGuardia Community College students experiencing homelessness. Vouchers provided to the school by the booking giant helped recent GED graduate and new nursing student Anthony Franco find a steady place to stay and student Kayla Henriques-Dunlap move out of a city shelter.
Despite that success, it’s not clear the program will continue after the school uses up the last of the $100,000 Airbnb committed to the pilot program.
The college has so far spent $80,000 — or 80% of the grant — to cover semester-long stays for 15 students, said LaGuardia CARE program director Rhonda Mouton, who oversees the initiative and other supports for students. Currently, the funding is disbursed directly to rental hosts from Airbnb through its reservation platform as students book apartments or rooms costing up to $1,700 a month.
While the Airbnb vouchers are for semester-long rentals, the booking giant says that the new city law barring almost all short-term rentals accounts for why it may not re-up on a program that’s made a huge difference in students’ lives.
“We are deeply committed to this successful program and would like to continue to provide housing for homeless or under-housed LaGuardia students,” Airbnb’s Northeast U.S. and Canada Lead Nathan Rotman told THE CITY. “However, we need to reevaluate how the new rules could potentially impact the program in its current form.”
Rotman said he is concerned “very few” hosts are eligible to continue operating in the city and new ones may not join since Local Law 18 took effect on September 5, banning most short-term rentals and rentals without the owner or tenant present.
“We would work very closely to make sure that the students that are brought to us are not going to be impacted here, but the long term impact is that this program might not have enough hosts and listings to continue operating,” Rotman said, in a conversation just before the law took effect earlier this month. “These are real people with real lives that need somewhere to stay, and we definitely want to be as helpful as we can for them.”
The latest data available from Inside Airbnb, a site that scrapes Airbnb’s listings, shows that there were 32,612 long-term rentals available across New York City as of Sept. 5, the day the law took effect, up nearly 11,000 from a month earlier. Over the same period of time, the number of short-term rentals fell by nearly 15,000, leaving about 7,000 available.
Only homeless students qualify for the program, Mouton said, with the administration steering only students with the most urgent needs to the vouchers, since there aren’t nearly enough to support its 300 of 23,000 students who said they were homeless at the start of last year.
Asked about the new law, a 19-year-old freshman who joined the program this fall said that “it made it hard finding an Airbnb,” after she had to leave the places she’d been staying with relatives due to physical and sexual abuse. “All these rentals are getting taken down.”
The student, who asked not to be identified by name, said she has spent the first weeks of the semester looking, so far without success.
“I have a good thing going for myself” with going to school and the voucher, she said. “But now, something else on top of something else — it’s kind of like, ‘wow, when am I going to get a clean break?’”
‘It Changed My Life’
LaGuardia president Kenneth Adams said the Airbnb program has been “the best thing we’ve come up to” for homeless students because it allows them to choose where they want to live, which offers a sense of agency as they work to get back on their feet.
“We hope the new regulations don’t reduce the number of hosts that rent rooms to our homeless students,” he added.
But part of the challenge now, said Mouton, is making sure current and prospective hosts are aware that longer-term rentals are still allowed with the new law.
“It’s going to be a little bit of an educational piece that we may have to do if individuals are not familiar with this exemption, because I’m sure that’s probably something they haven’t highlighted,” Mouton told THE CITY.
Adams also said he’s planning to seek other sources of philanthropic support to continue and expand the program, having seen the impact that Airbnb’s initial $100,000 has had on students’ lives.
“I wish we didn’t have to grow the program or to raise more money, but the reality is we do. The need is bigger, and I don’t want LaGuardia students sleeping in their cars, or on the 7 train this winter — I would never want it,” Adams told THE CITY. “We want to get ahead of that, and we want to have solutions in place. And this is the best thing we’ve ever come up to.”
Students who have transitioned out of the Airbnb program into long-term housing accommodations also said they hope the program will continue in spite of the uncertainties that loom ahead.
“It changed my life,” said 19-year-old Henriques-Dunlap, who says she left home and stayed at a shelter for weeks due to a parent’s alcohol dependency. “If they wouldn’t have given me that opportunity, I would have still been there.”
Franco, who also credited the program with giving him a springboard to reinvent himself, said he’d be disappointed to see it discontinued.
“I think it’d suck,” Franco told THE CITY, adding that the program was key to a first semester in which he achieved a 3.8 GPA. “There are a lot of individuals like myself who need help.”