The Landlord Game
September 1, 2019 5:40 AM   Subscribe

“Klossner said the techniques allegedly used by Tominovic and his network to evade Airbnb and city agencies are common among those operating illegal short-term rental empires. “People are engaging in anti-detection techniques like establishing fake host accounts, so it doesn't look like it is all one person, and using multiple phone numbers, even though it is one person operating multiple units,” said Klossner. “And in this case, clearly there was coaching going on.” How 9 People Built an Illegal $5M Airbnb Empire in New York (Wired)
posted by The Whelk (31 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
so the best-case scenario is doing electoral politics to get someone in office who will seize illegal hotels under eminent domain or whatever and then convert them into public housing.

but since the use of the state apparatus is not available to us in the foreseeable future, are there viable strategies for:
  1. identifying illegal hotel operators, then
  2. squatting their units?
like say you're not just some marginalized crustypunk. say you're a relatively privileged person with some free time, a bunch of money from a book advance, a remarkably weird sense of humor... and also access to movement lawyers. is it possible for someone in that situation to exploit the illegality of these hotels in order to uhh disrupt their business to uhh creatively destroy it?
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 7:42 AM on September 1, 2019 [11 favorites]


A person could rent units; especially in neighbourhoods where short term rentals are illegal. Then look for the signs warning about inspectors. Those signs are only going to be in illegal units. Be indignant when the next guest shows up. Be shocked the owner is asking you to leave after two days. Play up being the foolish idiot who assumes the rate listed was for a full month because anything shorter would be illegal. You could then claim that you have a verbal lease on the unit for the nightly rate you were already charged and considering 30 days is the minimum lease duration refuse to leave and dare them to evict you. Tell them they have to call your lawyer for legal matters. Request their legal mailing address so you can have your lawyer write a cease and desist letter. Call the housing authority if the try to get you to leave before your 30 days are up. Call the police if they trespass in your unit without the required notice.
posted by Mitheral at 8:44 AM on September 1, 2019 [27 favorites]


If you are still there after 30 days send them a cheque for another "months" rent. Hope they get greedy and cash it.

If you've been ejected before the month is up have a friend rent the unit via AirBnB and rinse, lather, repeat.
posted by Mitheral at 8:48 AM on September 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


this seems like something that people on good terms with the anarchist wing of a major democratic socialist organization might be interested in looking into
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:49 AM on September 1, 2019


$5 million dollars in revenue over 5 years for 9-14 people doesn't sound like the most lucrative scam.
posted by 3j0hn at 8:57 AM on September 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


No but it's very low effort and can be pursued while doing other rentier class bullshit like selling drugs or runaways or financial instruments.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:29 AM on September 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


Well it would be tax free wouldn't it? The fact that AirBnB doesn't know whether "Bloz Rajkovic" is even a real person implies they aren't reporting income to the IRS.

Besides most of those 9-13 people probably aren't actively working on the scam. They are just acting as conduits for money and probably are getting a pretty minor cut if anything. Even if Elvis Tominovic was working full time at it and had one other person working full time at it a million a year tax free split two ways is pretty healthy income. However most of the revenue will be eaten up by expenses but the revenue is also letting him speculate in real estate with other people's money. I'd be surprised if Elvis Tominovic at least wasn't clearing at least a 100 grand a year tax free.
posted by Mitheral at 9:32 AM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


Here's how it's going down in Canada...

Who's behind the smiling faces of some Airbnb hosts? Multimillion-dollar corporations [CBC News - Apr 30th, 2019]
"While Airbnb promotes itself as a darling of the sharing economy, touting stays in real people's homes and relationships with personable hosts, its biggest players in Canada are actually — and sometimes secretly — multimillion-dollar for-profit corporations, a CBC News data analysis found."
Four months later, here's what happened with "Aj", who was #4 on the CBC's list of Canada's most prolific AirBnB hosts:

Airbnb quietly shut down a top host amid scathing reviews, but hundreds of guests were left to stay with him [CBC News - Aug 20th, 2019]
"Airbnb has taken dramatic action against one of its biggest hosts in Canada, shutting down his account last week and others linked to it following a CBC investigation that found they were listing the same properties under different names, boosting each others' ratings and — according to hundreds of reviews — misleading guests about the state of the accommodations.

But the popular short-term rental company won't say why it didn't warn travellers who had already reserved with Montreal-based "AJ" that he was under investigation and that his listings were suspended as of two months ago, or give them the chance to cancel. Hundreds of people stayed at his places even after he was blocked from booking new guests."
...
"There were dozens of complaints about vermin-ridden apartments, foul smells, garbage on the floors, broken windows and glass.

Other complainants said their reservations were cancelled last-minute for a variety of reasons (flooding, water shut-off, double-booked, door code unavailable) or none at all, and then they would be switched or "upgraded" to another apartment that was dirty and lacking essentials.

A few showed up to check in but say they were left stranded on the street when no one replied to their text messages about how to get in."
In Toronto and Ottawa people have reported renting to tenants who never moved in and instead added their condos to a stable of AirBnB rentals.

Condo owner furious after tenant rents out unit on Airbnb [CBC News - March 13th, 2018]
"Rasaee was first notified about the problem by his building's security team. They notified him something unusual was going on after watching a stranger use Rasaee's fob to get into the building.

He did a quick search online and within five minutes discovered his unit had been listed on Airbnb."
...
"It's one of a number of listings put online by an anonymous, verified Airbnb user called "Stay."

The user — who has uploaded a modified City of Ottawa logo instead of a profile photo — was renting out at least 20 units, mostly in Ottawa and Montreal."

Toronto condo owner discovers unit listed on Airbnb behind her back — with more than 70 reviews [CBC News - March 5th, 2018]
"Jovasevic told her tenant she was going to inspect the unit. But she said Banker didn't show up at the inspection on Nov. 7. Instead, a woman who said she was a representative for Zahra Properties — the same company listed as the tenant's employer — came in his place. In emails provided by Jovasevic, the same woman identified herself as a property manager with Zahra Properties and referred to Banker as her "client."

During the inspection, Jovasevic took photos of the unit's empty closets and fridge, and the dated checklists she believes were left by cleaning staff. Jovasevic said it was "obvious" the unit was being used for a home-sharing business, but the woman denied it.

Later that month, Jovasevic entered the unit again for another inspection, and instead of Banker, she found a woman from the U.S. who said she was renting the unit through Airbnb for $266.17 US for a two-night stay."
posted by Secret Sparrow at 9:39 AM on September 1, 2019 [7 favorites]


If Airbnb gave the slightest shit, they'd require some sort of documentation of ownership before allowing a listing.
posted by Ickster at 10:11 AM on September 1, 2019 [9 favorites]


"...uhh creatively destroy it?"

Near me is an apartment building which clearly has an awful lot of airbnbing going on. There are an awful lot of those key lockboxes locked to the window grates and every time I pass by I fantasize about coming by one night with some bolt cutters and disrupting their business model.
posted by Admiral Viceroy at 10:34 AM on September 1, 2019 [5 favorites]


What are the lock boxes for?
posted by Mitheral at 10:51 AM on September 1, 2019


Lockboxes hold keys. They can be keys for your leasing agent (such as on a house for sale), for your guest in an AirBnB/vrbo or for the dog walker/maintenance person at your home. (I have a lockbox on my door for the cat sitter and for my kid who forgets her key at her other house on the regular.)
posted by vespabelle at 11:01 AM on September 1, 2019


But how does that work for guests? Wouldn't they need a key to get the key out of the lock box?
posted by Mitheral at 11:02 AM on September 1, 2019


...If you've been ejected before the month is up have a friend rent the unit via AirBnB and rinse, lather, repeat.

I mean no personal offense, but this is an incredibly “white person who doesn’t even feel the need to lock their doors at night” thing to say. Criminals operating businesses outside the legal system tend to also solve their problems outside the legal system. Credible threats of extreme violence are about the best case scenario. Actual violence is more likely.
posted by sideshow at 11:05 AM on September 1, 2019 [8 favorites]


But how does that work for guests? Wouldn't they need a key to get the key out of the lock box?

They're usually code-driven (for other-than-real-estate-agents) or provided by the agent who has a master key.
posted by restless_nomad at 11:08 AM on September 1, 2019


The original setup postulated a privileged person.
posted by Mitheral at 11:09 AM on September 1, 2019 [9 favorites]


The lock boxes usually have codes of some sort, electronic or even a combination lock, so you don't need a key.
posted by jeather at 11:09 AM on September 1, 2019


Ah. The short term rental management company I worked for here required owners to change out the locks themselves for keypad style.
posted by Mitheral at 11:25 AM on September 1, 2019


> Criminals operating businesses outside the legal system tend to also solve their problems outside the legal system. Credible threats of extreme violence are about the best case scenario. Actual violence is more likely.

yeah this is a saul alinsky stunt and should only be done by someone with resources who knows what they’re doing. you’d only do it if
  1. you have a movement lawyer advising you at every step
  2. you know someone in local media who’d be interested in covering the resultant shirtshow
  3. (ideally) you have comrades willing to do the same thing at the same time
this is something you do if you have privilege and want to lend that privilege by being one of the first ones over the parapet.

i would leave out mitheral’s “call the cops” part, since city enforcement is in de facto cahoots with the illegal hoteliers. don’t call the cops. call the press.

i honestly don’t think illegal hoteliers are in the branch of the illegal economy that goes in for leg-breaking. i might be naïve, though. if you are doing this (backed by an organization! backed by lawyers! backed by the press!) and are concerned about personal safety, you can hire the anarchisty types who manage security at protests to hang out with you while you run the operation. those folx tend to be kind of broke and are eager to take paid security jobs when they present themselves.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:53 AM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


(note: i acknowledge that i am not a lawyer and also not your lawyer. i’m just a famous novelist running his mouth on the Internet. This may be the “what if we nuke hurricanes?” of anti-illegal-hotel tactics.)
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:54 AM on September 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


Using the "sharing economy" is unethical, full stop. Mainly because this is how it always shakes out.
posted by maxwelton at 12:38 PM on September 1, 2019 [8 favorites]


This would be easy to stop. Because it is happening, it must either be by design or an acceptable side effect. It is pointless to discuss the problem with acknowledging this.
posted by Nothing at 1:22 PM on September 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


I’d be more worried about a mob enforcer showing up. Mob-busting is not for amateurs.
posted by bq at 1:55 PM on September 1, 2019 [4 favorites]


> This would be easy to stop. Because it is happening, it must either be by design or an acceptable side effect. It is pointless to discuss the problem with acknowledging this.

yeah it's happening worst in cities where the municipal governments are famously corrupt (nyc, sf, etc). that's why i'm arguing for popular action.

if you don't have the time or inclination for serious fuckery, it is perfectly fine to commit the types of petty vandalism discussed upthread. anything that significantly increases the costs of running an illegal hotel makes it less likely that illegal hoteliers will give it up.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:10 PM on September 1, 2019 [1 favorite]


* more likely that the illegal hoteliers will give it up, rather.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:46 PM on September 1, 2019 [2 favorites]


This would be easy to stop. Because it is happening, it must either be by design or an acceptable side effect. It is pointless to discuss the problem with acknowledging this.

Illegal Air-BNBs are hard to stop because middle class travellers actively support them by renting them. My friends and colleagues all use AirBNB, and preferentially rent entire apartments, even in cities like Vancouver which have a severe housing crisis. They think I'm either a moral prude or a sucker for refusing to use AirBNB (or any "sharing" service, with heavy irony stress).
posted by jb at 3:39 PM on September 1, 2019 [18 favorites]


Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon may not be a lawyer, but they are a world famous expert on secretive living arrangements.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:43 PM on September 1, 2019 [6 favorites]


I find it interesting that a principle proponent of “we don’t need no stinkin’ police” is also a proponent of criminal activity ... against criminals. It is possible that Thos. P is secretly Batman or some such shit? As a Midwesterner I always had a hunch that NYNY was Gotham City.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 9:34 AM on September 2, 2019


> I find it interesting that a principle proponent of “we don’t need no stinkin’ police” is also a proponent of criminal activity ... against criminals

broadly speaking the law and especially the law as enforced is about protecting property from people and protecting the privileged against the unprivileged. any just mode of living is on the whole orthogonal to the law. it's not that criminal activity is inherently good, not even criminal activity against criminals. it's that the status of any particular action as a crime as defined under extant law is largely unrelated to whether or not it is a just thing to do.

i admit though that i feel a little bit seen by the lower left quadrant in this image (and also to a lesser extent by the upper left hand quadrant).

> It is possible that Thos. P is secretly Batman or some such shit?

batman, like most superheroes, is a fascist. i'm just a humble ordinary renowned novelist.

nevertheless: i admit that there's a certain jouissance involved in asserting that thomas pynchon is batman. i'm picturing the joker being informed by one of his lackeys that they've discovered batman's secret identity, and then raging when he realizes that finding out that batman is thomas pynchon does him precisely no good.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:24 PM on September 2, 2019


Is it true in NYC that a squatter can stay long enough and prove receipt of mail at an otherwise unoccupied address and avoid (legal) eviction? I met a group in New York that purportedly operated on this principle, moving homeless folks into banker-hoard properties.
posted by in_lieu_of_fiction at 4:22 AM on September 3, 2019


every time I pass by I fantasize about coming by one night with some bolt cutters and disrupting their business model.

Ugh this happened to me (a legal long-term renter in a building with a decent number of illicit airbnbs.) I keep a lockbox outside for the dog walker and some kindly neighbor decided to gum up the mechanism with epoxy or something. I ended up having to pony up $50+ to replace my key fob, since unfortunately it was inside at the time. Whatever you have to do, consider that there may be some legitimate lockbox users mixed in there.
posted by mosst at 1:58 PM on September 3, 2019 [3 favorites]


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