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Gumshoes track customers using sites like Airbnb

Surveillance hired to help evicted tenants back in door by David M. Levitt Bloomberg News | January 1, 2017 at 2:07 a.m.

In a gentrifying neighborhood of San Francisco, a couple exit their cab and head toward an apartment, rolling suitcases behind them. Unbeknownst to them, a private investigator by the name of Michael Joffe sits in his parked car just across the street, discreetly snapping pictures.

This is not a divorce case or an international spy caper -- nothing that salacious or mysterious. It is instead an episode that provides a window into how bitter the feud between struggling tenants and home-sharing websites such as Airbnb has become. Joffe works for a tenant lawyer who in turns represents a family that was evicted from their apartment -- the one that the couple was entering that day.

The goal of the stakeout was to uncover and document smoking-gun proof that the landlord is violating city ordinances limiting the use of private homes for short-term rentals. It's very lucrative work nowadays in San Francisco, the city that has come to represent America's shortage of affordable housing.

"Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, it's a decent living in San Francisco right now being an investigator doing these kind of jobs, because here are so many of them," Joffe, 48, said.

Airbnb disputes that home sharing has significantly reduced housing for the poor and moderate-income, pointing the finger instead at rising demand and restrictions on building new units. But in recent weeks it has taken steps to comfort alarmed officials, a sign perhaps that these sorts of aggressive steps by tenants are helping sway the debate. Starting in November, for example, Airbnb instituted a "one host, one home" policy in San Francisco and New York as a way to knock out investors who may be collecting apartments to market on the Web for short stays.

"We strongly oppose illegal hotels and bad actors who remove housing from the market," company spokesman Nick Papas said. "We've removed thousands of listings from our platform that aren't right for our community. We are committed to working with cities to address their specific needs."

Still, with municipal governments lacking the staffing to enforce housing ordinances, there's no shortage of work for private eyes like Joffe. When he's not taking pictures of people coming and going, he sometimes poses as a prospective tenant to see whether landlords allow short-term rentals.

One case he looked into involved Brian Grzybowski, who claimed in court papers that he and his wife were forced to leave their $2,950-a-month Potrero Hill apartment in 2015 after the landlord falsely claimed they needed the apartment as a permanent residence for a family member.

The unit soon popped up on Airbnb, Craigslist, FlipKey, Zeus Living and, according to the complaint in California Superior Court. Now the Grzybowskis are paying $5,500 a month to live a block away. It's against San Francisco law to evict someone for the purpose of leasing their apartment for a short term.

Joffe's job involved inspecting the unit, in the presence of attorneys from both sides, to determine that it was set up for short stays. One finding: It had small soaps and shampoo bottles, as would be found in a hotel room.

The suit was settled in a way that didn't require an admission of liability, said John Brydon, whose law firm represented the landlord.

In many cities, people on the wrong side of the median income are feeling the pinch. In New York, a June study by two nonprofits that advocate for affordable housing found that the top 20 neighborhoods for Airbnb listings in Manhattan and Brooklyn had average rent increases almost twice those found in the city as a whole between 2011 and 2015.

In the Soho/Greenwich Village area of Manhattan, for example, a short-term rental can make close to $10,000 a year, according to the study. Local elected officials picked up on the report as proof that the city's shortage of affordable housing has been made worse by home-sharing sites.

A group of New Orleans-based volunteers published a paper that found that the average rent on an entire home on Airbnb in that city was $251 a night, compared with an average of $26 a night for a full-time renter.

A study in San Francisco found that neighborhoods with the highest number of evictions in a one-year period also had the highest number of commercial hosts on Airbnb. While there are many reasons for San Francisco's affordable-housing problem, said Kevin Guy, director of the city's Office of Short-Term Rentals, the growth of such rentals "are taking units off the market that would otherwise be available to people who want to be long-term San Francisco residents."

To be sure, the study noted the benefits the city gets from tourists who otherwise wouldn't have been able to afford its hotels. And for many people, the income from renting couches or extra rooms allows them to afford to remain in San Francisco.

Still, Airbnb decided to cooperate with limits on home sharing implemented in London and Amsterdam, and dropped a lawsuit challenging fines against people who post apartments in New York that were illegally converted to short-term rentals.

It also praised rules adopted in New Orleans that limit room rentals to 90 days per year in homes not occupied by the owners, and allow website registrations to be passed through to city enforcers to ensure they're on the level.

For Rhiannon Enlil, 34, the reforms didn't come soon enough to stop her eviction from an apartment near New Orleans' French Quarter, whose bars, music venues and restaurants attract tourists from across the globe. Her landlord said he wanted her two-bedroom apartment to rent out on the Web. Enlil, a bartender, has been living with her boyfriend since June.

"I'm deeply in love with New Orleans, and I will live in a refrigerator box under the highway in order to stay here," Enlil said. "But there are a lot of people I know who are talking about how they can't afford to live here anymore. They're the very fiber of the city, like people in the service industry and people who are musicians, who don't make a lot of money."

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