Airbnbs in Los Angeles won’t go away
“I quickly realized [after moving in] that it’s wrong to say anything to Simone. You don’t know what you’re going to say that’s going to get you in trouble. I don’t know what I’m going to tell him that would be misinterpreted.
Now Brett * is worried. He wants to move soon, but he’s worried about what the conversation with his landlord, Simone Shah, will look like when he asks for his security deposit back. He needs to review all correspondence to see if anything he has already said could be used against him.
And that’s the smallest stressor when it comes to living in one of Shah’s buildings. A tenant in a building discovered that she had compromised the privacy and physical security of each tenant because each of their doors had the same lock.
Shah and others take a multi-pronged approach to maximize profits, which means ignoring tenant demands, delaying repairs to maintain uninhabitable conditions, hiring lawyers to send intimidating letters to pressure them and transform this. which was once long-term accommodation in Airbnbs for tourists. These violations will only increase if we do nothing now; the Olympics marked a official partnership with Airbnb which will extend through LA28.
Los Angeles turns a blind eye to the owners who created Airbnbs; this is of particular concern when they go under the radar with illegally operated devices – a practice that is almost guaranteed to increase due to the Airbnb-Olympics deal. Because the city encourages speculative real estate, business and “mom and pop” owners have made it a common practice to turn residential units into short-term rentals. While ‘home sharing’ is often presented as an innocent way for ordinary people to supplement their income by sharing a room in their own living space, in 2015, nearly 90% of Airbnb profits in Los Angeles comes from people renting entire units and from leasing companies renting two or more units. In other words: owners have figured out that the most profitable Airbnbs are the ones that sit completely empty when not in use by tourists. This prompts landlords and rental companies to relocate long-term tenants so that the units are always vacant.
In this quest for easy money, homeowners are making the city’s homeless crisis worse by turning homes into backdoor hotels. There are approximately 66,436 people homeless in LA County, but currently, 39,486 Airbnb rentals seat vacant most of the year.
An organized front against illegal Airbnbs is growing alongside our work to empower tenants. Locks on my block, built by OlympicsLA and the Anti-eviction mapping project, is a tool to help renters report and track illegal short-term vacation rentals and apartment rentals in Los Angeles that are listed with companies like Airbnb, Vrbo, Flipkey, and Tripping.com. As a website, it lists publicly submitted listings and stories of tenants who have spotted these units in their buildings or neighborhoods. The larger campaign serves to empower tenant alliances and unions in their fight to protect against landlord harassment.
As of July 2019, Los Angeles has banned any short-term lease (30 days or less) of a dwelling which is not the principal place of residence of a tenant. This ordinance is sound and necessary, but LA officials lack the will to hold homeowners accountable. In addition, private companies such as Airbnb are able to go faster than local legislation; they are not concerned with meaningful self-regulation. This leaves tenants totally unprotected.
Yvette * is a tenant who also lives in one of Shah’s buildings; their apartment is close to Brett’s in downtown Los Angeles. Before signing, Simone never revealed to them that any of the units in the building were rented as Airbnbs. Yvette finally found out when a friend found out that she was unable to rent available accommodation because Simone told her it was used to accommodate guests.
“I thought it was quite suspicious because there is still a pandemic,” they said.
During their time as a tenant, Yvette recorded numerous cases of Simone employees and Airbnb guests entering and exiting the building without masks to protect those who are immunocompromised or at high risk. At the end of December, when the city imposed a strict stay-at-home mandate to lower COVID-19 by nearly 18% positivity rate, they observed a handful of parties in a nearby unit. The proof was obvious: its owner is not interested in creating a habitable place for the tenants.
The LA ruling class has a lot to gain from Airbnbs. In 2017, the city council rubber stamped a bid to host the Olympics in 2028, which flew under the public’s radar at the time. Then in 2019, the Olympics announced their official partnership with Airbnb. The agreement aims to “support the sustainability objectives of the Olympic movement“By providing” accommodation arrangements which will reduce costs for the organizers and stakeholders of the Olympic Games “while minimizing” the need for the construction of new accommodation infrastructure for the period of the Olympic Games “. This partnership is of no value to anyone other than the powerful; its underlying message ignores the reality that those who benefit from this partnership will accelerate and further push for displacement. Any illegally operated Airbnb listed today sets a precedent for how future for-profit owners will be able to do whatever they want in their buildings.
A crucial part of NOlympics’ Locks On My Block campaign is supporting tenants who can identify Airbnbs in their buildings and then providing information on how people can fight back. It’s a matter of tenant rights as much as it is public health to have Airbnb ads all over town in the midst of a pandemic. And especially in a city where tenant rights are not protected and landlords are pardoned, Locks On My Block is a chance to uplift the prospects of the other side of host families and exploitative vacation rentals.
Shah is a real estate investor. Under his company name Management of stays, she has managed over 25 properties in the city since 2019. Many of Shah’s Airbnb hotels are listed on Locks on the My Block map; from Boyle Heights to East Hollywood, its sprawl extends to neighborhoods shaken by gentrification and developmentalism.
In 2015, NPR Marketplace launched a meeting with Shah about his portfolio of properties and the pressure from “outside money sources” to increase rent to long-term residents. The interview was titled “York & Fig: Confessions of an Ambivalent Landlord”. In it, she takes the reporter to one of her properties in Highland Park, shows one of the units, and then comments that she thinks the tenant doesn’t like her very much.
Several years later, apartments in his buildings appeared on Airbnb listings, as reported by his tenants and crowd reviews of his business. Several of Shah’s tenants anonymously reported different ways in which she harassed them or their neighbors: illegal entry into rental units, verbal intimidation or hijacking tactics to disarm tenants when they presented themselves to her with major complaints and blockages in building maintenance – all while they were vacated. the units are given a makeover for short-term tenants.
“Almost every day a construction or maintenance crew comes to beautify Airbnb tenants,” said Brett. “These were things that had never been discussed before, and all of a sudden they’re painting stuff.”
Meanwhile, Brett is still waiting for things inside his own unit to be fixed. For now, he is one of the last long-term tenants remaining in his building. The other accommodations are either vacant or welcome a constant flow of Airbnb guests. He wonders if he will even do it long enough to voluntarily leave at the end of his lease.
Brett and Yvette are just two of the few tenants who have spoken to NOlympics about how Shah harasses and degrades them. Along with his reliance on a lawyer and slow response to maintenance requests, several tenants shared similar experiences about his tactics to evade obligations to them. Many of them were the subject of long and harassing correspondence from him by e-mail or text. When in a rush, Shah has used language that blames them for the problems in the apartment and suggests that it is harmful to her children for tenants to ask her for basic habitability repairs.
Who benefits from making short stays and apartment hotels a flagship? Speculative real estate and the bloated power of companies like Airbnb is certainly never on the side of LA residents. For every Shah who presents himself as a good “real estate investor,” there are plenty of tenants who have been subjected to anyone’s actions. There is no such thing as an “ambivalent owner” as long as someone scares people away from their home for profit. Anyone who accumulates residential units makes it clear that it is about hurting people and emptying our communities.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of tenants.
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