Mayor’s Office sues Airbnb ring that took in $5 million in revenue from 60 illegal units

Max Parrott/QNS

The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement (OSE) cracked down on a ring of illegal Airbnb listings on Wednesday with a lawsuit targeting operators in Queens.

The OSE filed a lawsuit in Queens County Supreme Court Civil Term against 13 individuals — 10 from Queens — for using Airbnb and other platforms to turn housing units in 36 different buildings in Queens, Manhattan and the Bronx into illegal short-term rentals, or de facto hotels.

“Across the city, communities are threatened by an industry that allows illegal operators to mislead visitors and turn housing into profit,” said Christian Klossner, executive director of the OSE.

The agency estimates the massive illegal short-term rental operation took more than more than 60 units of housing from the market. From 2015-2019 the defendants are alleged to have accepted over 20,000 illegal short-term rental reservations, misleading over 59,000 guests while generating over $5 million in revenue.

Illegal short-term renal operators often attempt to skirt under the radar of government agencies by creating multiple listings and host accounts. The complaint alleges the defendants created approximately 211 Airbnb listings through 28 separate Airbnb host accounts.

For example, 3,250 illegal short-term rental transactions totaling almost $890,000 were processed through Airbnb host accounts bearing names such as “Julie Sanchez,” “Bloz Rajkovic” and “Sonia Colik” but this illegal hotel revenue was made directly payable to Defendant Elvis Tominovic from Astoria.

OSE found evidence of illegal short-term rentals in a wide variety of housing stock, including two single-family homes in Astoria, nine two-family homes in Astoria and Washington Heights and six three- and four-family homes in Astoria, Ridgewood and Hamilton Heights.

The defendants conspired with each other and misled thousands of transient guests into booking such unlawful and unsafe accommodations, the complaint alleges. It goes on to claim that the defendants coached the guests on how to lie about their stays and deny housing inspections with the goal of keeping “Airbnb alive.”

The result of this practice, those dwellings never received stringent fire and safety features to protect transient guests.

The bulk of the complaint stems from housing in Astoria, which has gone through steep hike sin rent over the past decade after it brought together a large number of immigrant communities for its central location and  affordability.

The OSE recently launched a public education campaign to teach guests and neighbors about their rights and how to take action when they suspect illegal short-term rental activity. For more information, visit nyc.gov/stayintheknow.

Update: Airbnb responded to this story with the following comment.

“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. After working with the City and providing data in response to valid legal process, we 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.”

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