It feels ironic now, but as I was setting out clean towels for the friend who was going to be cat sitting for me in Brooklyn, I tweeted about how I missed being an AirBnB host.
I’d rented out my apartment on AirBnB a few times while I was in-between roommates, but once the court decided that AirBnB is illegal in New York, I took the listing down. It didn’t seem worth the risk.
Earlier this year, my wife and I were all set to move from Brooklyn to Toronto when our plans changed and we had to stay in Brooklyn. We opted to get a roommate in Toronto to cover some of the expenses of temporarily having two apartments. It worked out perfectly, since a friend from Brooklyn was moving to Toronto at the same time.
At least, it seemed to have worked out perfectly until I walked into my apartment in Toronto that morning. I was a little surprised to see a guy I didn’t know in the apartment, but I assumed he was there with my roommates. He seemed relieved to see me and said he didn’t want to just leave the door unlocked, so was he supposed to leave the keys with me?
I was even more surprised to open my bedroom door and see someone else’s things all over the bed and floor. When I asked him who he was and why he was in my apartment, he said he was there through AirBnB. Once I explained that apparently my roommates were secretly renting out my apartment, he was clearly very uncomfortable, apologized, and left.
AirBnB’s website clearly states that hosts needed permission from everyone in a household to rent out a space, so I figured it’d be easy to get the listing taken down. Their customer service rep apologized and assured me their Trust and Safety team would take care of it ASAP.
I didn’t want to stay in the apartment and steam until my roommates got home, so we went for a walk and a beer. By the time I got back, they had cleaned everything up, canceled upcoming reservations, and removed the listing.
We had the first of several long, uncomfortable discussions about boundaries, partially mediated by a mutual friend back in Brooklyn. We agreed that they’d be moving out in 30 days, the minimum amount of time I could give them to move out.
But then I didn’t hear back from AirBnB. I already had commitments that had me on the road for most of May and I didn’t like knowing my roommates could put the listing back at any time. I emailed the customer service rep I’d previously spoken with to let him know I hadn’t heard from the Safety team and provided documents showing that I both own and live in the apartment. No response.
I remembered reading about AirBnB opening an office at the MaRS center a few blocks away, so I tweeted at the head of their Canadian office. AirBnB help reassured me over Twitter that the case was “in good hands,” which seemed questionable, since there would have been an AirBnB guest at my apartment that very moment if my roommate hadn’t voluntarily canceled the reservation.
As long as the listing was up, the condo board could sue me and evict all of us -- and my insurance company could cancel my policy.
AirBnB finally got back to me five days later, saying they wouldn’t deal with me directly, since I was a third party, but they could pass the complaint along to my roommate. It seemed weird for them to offer to contact someone I shared a bathroom with.
I asked them if that was really their policy for this particular situation, thinking they’d misunderstood and thought I was an angry absentee landlord. Trust and Safety got back to me right away, making it very clear that this was not their problem and they were done talking to me.
As far as they were concerned, my roommates were free to continue renting out our apartment without my consent.
If you haven’t used AirBnB, you might be confused about why I expected them to get involved. AirBnB isn’t an online newspaper. They handle bookings, collect payments and hotel taxes, hold security deposits, insure your apartment against damages, verify your identity and manage reviews, generate income tax forms, provide smoke detectors and first aid kits, send professional photographers, and promise 24/7 support.
They’ve even provided concierge services. AirBnB is an international corporation with billions of dollars in investments. AirBnB is the poster child of the sharing economy and their marketing is all about building a community based on trust. But when things go wrong, suddenly it’s not about community anymore.
Since I couldn’t trust my roommates, I had two options: I could go before a judge and ask for an emergency restraining order or I could check AirBnB every day to see if the listing for my apartment was back up, guess when they had a booking, and have the police remove any guests.
Those both sounded terrible for everyone involved, mostly me, so I went a third route. I published my story on BuzzFeed.
Two days later there was a TV news reporter in my apartment. AirBnB’s Canadian manager told reporters the listing and account had been removed, but it was still active until one of the reporters pointed out the inconsistency.
Once the Canadian AirBnB manager started hearing from reporters, he managed to find my cellphone number. I didn’t take his call, since they’d already made their position clear -- they only provide help if you go to the media.
That’s when I discovered what might be the funniest part -- the guy who’d been there when I got home left a positive review. So keep that in mind the next time you book an AirBnB.
Using someone’s keys to scam people is nothing new. We’ve all heard stories of someone who went to move into the great place they found, only to discover the person who they gave their deposit and first month’s rent to didn’t own the place. The only difference is that AirBnB is willing to facilitate it. As long as someone has access to your home, they’re free to rent it on AirBnB.
Think about this the next time you go away for a few days: Who has a copy of your keys? Who knows when you’ll be out of town? I know an easy way for them to make some quick money. AirBnB will even send someone over to photograph your place.
As an AirBnB guest, I would have a hard time sleeping in an apartment knowing I might be kicked out by an angry owner or the police, but that’s just me.