Philly Officials Will Not Crack Down on Airbnb Rental Hosts

Airbnb.com is a hot, Silicon Valley-based company that’s enjoyed phenomenal growth with a very simple business model: It acts as a market maker for short-term vacation rentals. The company has been in the news lately because an administrative law judge in New York City smacked an Airbnb host, as they’re called, with a $2,400 fine for allegedly running an “illegal hotel.”

Nigel Warren used the Airbnb website as his promotional tool and logistical facilitator to rent out one of the two bedrooms in his East Village apartment. The rental was for three nights at $100 per night, and his roommate was there for all three nights.

Airbnb’s lawyers argued that what Warren did was not in violation of the Illegal Hotel Act, which was passed in New York State in 2010. The judge didn’t buy it.

Thousands of would-be New York City “hosts” continue to advertise their apartments on Airbnb. In fact, the site still has more than a thousand listings for the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn alone.

In the Philadelphia area, there are 699 Airbnb hosts willing to rent out their houses or apartments to people who are looking for alternative accommodations to what conventional hotels might offer.

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While there is no Illegal Hotel Act in Philadelphia, nearly all of Airbnb’s hosts are violating the city’s zoning code. In February, Chief Deputy Solicitor for Housing and Code Enforcement Andrew Ross told Newsworks.org that many Philadelphians who rent their homes out using Airbnb are violating the law:

“Short term rentals like this, which would also include hotels or B&Bs, are permitted under the zoning code in certain areas only,” said Ross.

Those areas include most commercial districts, but, literally, only a handful of residential blocks.

And even if you did live in those zones, Ross says, you’d have to get a license from the city to have a paying guest stay the night.

According to Ross, that’s the legal way to rent your space via Airbnb in Philadelphia.
Which means the hundreds of Philadelphia rooms, houses and apartments listed on Airbnb right now are technically breaking the law.

We spoke to Ross last week and asked him if there had been, or if he anticipated that there would be, any prosecutions of Philadelphia area Airbnb hosts. He said he was not aware any prosecutions by L&I for Airbnb rentals.

“We’re generally not looking for issues where there is not necessarily a problem,” he said, adding that L&I would not initiate an action against an Airbnb host unless they received a complaint. “Issues pertaining to vacant properties are a much higher priority,” he said.

Asked if he thought that New York’s crackdown on Airbnb had anything to do with hotel interests seeing Airbnb cutting into their business, Ross answered, “That’s a possibility, and we may see something like that here. But it hasn’t happened yet.”