The Airbnb crackdown continues: City accuses individuals, landlords of operating ring of illegal hotels

Lawsuit is latest move in the city’s crackdown on the controversial company
By Eddie Small | June 19, 2019 05:30PM

12-10 31st Drive and 25-54 48th Street in Queens (Credit: Google Maps)

12-10 31st Drive and 25-54 48th Street in Queens (Credit: Google Maps)

The city is suing a total of 13 people and firms for using Airbnb and other platforms to turn housing units in 36 Queens, Manhattan and Bronx buildings into illegal hotels, according to the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement.

Almost 60,000 guests were misled into booking rentals that they thought were safe and legal between 2015 and 2019, and the operation landed more than $5 million from Airbnb overall, according to the complaint, which the city filed in Queens County Supreme Court.

The operation took more than 60 housing units off the market and repurposed them as illegal short-term rentals, according to OSE. These units included two single-family homes in Astoria, nine two-family homes in Astoria and Washington Heights, six three- and four-family homes in Astoria, Ridgewood and Hamilton Heights, 10 largely rent-stabilized buildings in the Bronx and Manhattan, and nine buildings in Astoria’s Acropolis Gardens complex.

In a three-family home at 12-10 31st Drive, for instance, the defendants converted the building into 12 hotel rooms with four rooms on each of the three floors with a total of 24 beds, the lawsuit says.

Guests left hundreds of negative reviews about the sites, complaining about issues like a lack of heat and hot water, misleading advertisements and overcrowded accommodations, according to the city.

“The bedroom STUNK,” one guest wrote in a review of 25-54 48th Street, according to the lawsuit. “There was one bare bulb in the overhead light which did not work, the bathroom STUNK WORSE THAN THE ROOM, and it is 100 percent the smell of sewage…SLEEP ON A BENCH IN CENTRAL PARK INSTEAD, YOU’LL HAVE A BETTER EXPERIENCE!”

The operators used 210 different listings and 28 different host accounts on the platform, the oldest of which dates back to 2012.

The suit says that the defendants also coached the guests to lie about their stays and told them to not let inspectors inside with the explicit goal of keeping Airbnb alive.

In one Astoria property at 11-15 30th Drive, for instance, there was a poster on the wall reading “DO NOT LET ANYONE IN ESPECIALLY: PEOPLE FROM DOB (Department of Building) or FDNY,” the suit says.

The defendants listed in the complaint include Elvis, Romina, Loreta and Franko Tominovic, Sanja and Suzana Colic, Dragan Mavra, Neo Panayiotou and various companies and LLCs.

Romina Tominovic did not respond to a request for comment. The other defendants could not be reached.

The lawsuit is the latest move in the city’s crackdown on Airbnb. Past incidents with the controversial and popular company have included a raid at the swanky Atelier condo in October, where several condo owners were issued violations for allegedly making illegal short-term rentals, and a $21 million lawsuit against Metropolitan Property Group, which the city accused of running an illegal Airbnb network across 130 apartments and 35 buildings.

The city based the investigation for its most recent lawsuit on inspections following public complaints and records it received after subpoenaing Airbnb, according to the complaint.

“We have long said that we want to work with the city on a regulatory framework that will provide for effective enforcement against illegal hotel operators,” an Airbnb spokeswoman said in a statement, adding that the company “will continue to urge the city to come to the table so that we can find a solution that addresses our shared enforcement priorities while still protecting the rights of regular New Yorkers.”