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Chelsea landlord who converted rent-stabilized units to Airbnb listings hit with lawsuit

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It operated for years despite persistent complaints

156 West 15th Street
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A Chelsea landlord is being sued by the city for using Airbnb to operate an illegal hotel—and taking rent-stabilized apartments away from tenants in the process. Yesterday, the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement (OSE) announced that it brought a lawsuit against the landlord of 156 West 15th Street, a four-story walk-up, for operating the building as an illegal hotel despite numerous complaints, enforcement actions, and fines.

According to a press release, "illegal transient use in the nine-unit Chelsea building … appeared to increase over time." Back in 2014, OSE uncovered two apartments being illegally rented through the popular short-term rental website. Three years later, OSE investigations found illegal hotel use in six of the nine units.

The building has also racked up many complaints and violations, including at least 13 illegal hotel complaints since 2014, 23 building and fire violations, three criminal summonses, and one advertising summons. Currently, more than $11,000 worth of penalties for building and fire violations have been imposed or paid.

The city is trying to crack down on Airbnb use, with Governor Andrew Cuomo passing legislation that imposes fines up to $7,500 on Airbnb users who advertise illegal short-term rentals. This case represents the 11th lawsuit the city has brought against landlords or operators for illegal hotels.

Last month, a landlord paid $1.2 million in the largest ever settlement with the city regarding an illegal hotel nuisance abatement case. In November 2017, another building owner who illegally converted dozens of housing units in two buildings into hotel rooms agreed to pay $1 million, $201,500 of which went to the city plus a $798,500 credit amount for approximately three years of rent forgone.

Still, illegal Airbnb use has been difficult for the city to enforce. By last summer, the city had issued fines over the course of three months on 139 listings found to be in violation of Cuomo's legislation. The problem, however, is that there are more than 23,000 additional listings that are potentially illegal—meaning that the city has barely scratched the surface.