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Is That Suspiciously Nice Rental an Airbnb in Disguise?

How to spot an “Airbrb,” a new league of rentals springing up in coronavirus-era NYC.

I move too much. A series of events — a new job, a hostile roommate, restlessness — led me to live in four apartments in two years. These narrow escapes got me into the habit of looking at Craigslist and Listings Project and Zillow at least a few times a week, just in case I have to pack up again. In my search for the spectacular yet affordable dream apartment, one with 20 years of rent stabilization and a separate kitchen as opposed to a patch of cheap tile in the corner of a living room, I’ve noticed a new league of homes in New York City’s COVID-19-era rental market: “Airbrbs,” what I call the slew of Airbnbs recast as rentals.

Without the usual tourists — and even after the company bailed out its hosts — the city’s Airbnb hosts have taken on the mantle of landlord to attract local renters until the vacation rental market bounces back (Airbrbs, you see). Most listings don’t admit the truth about their recent past, but Airbrbs are like obscenity: You know them when you see them. And their sirenlike promise of free housecleaning and designer furniture is both intriguing and repulsive.

Once I noticed this phenomenon, I couldn’t stop obsessing over it. I found myself with one tab open to Craigslist’s “apts/housing for rent” map and another showing Airbnb’s map view, seeing if I could spot any overlap. Some of these Airbrbs state their origins explicitly, like this place in the East Village that was formerly a “high-end Airbnb.” The overbearingly themed décor also gives it away: It features a “historical European Style of design,” as the listing puts it, which means about ten lamps per room, taper candles everywhere, and a framed print of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring.

Other listings that appear on both rental sites and make it clear that some hosts turned landlords are unprepared for the rental market they’re entering, optimistically asking for rents that would rival the income they’d make hosting a parade of short-term visitors. At a time when landlords are slashing rates and offering perks to pull in new tenants, this East Village one-bedroom, listed on Craigslist and Airbnb, comes equipped with a sofa-daybed, a working claw-foot tub in the entryway, and no kitchen sink (according to its Airbnb reviews), is asking $1,950 a month. Just blocks away, apartments with full kitchens and bathroom amenities where you’d expect them are going for a similar rate or even less.

Unlike many rentals hitting the market, Airbrbs are furnished, albeit sparsely. There are no more than 25 books on the shelves, probably artist monographs or city guides, and the sofa is the second-least-expensive option from Ikea. There are four mugs, four plates, and four bowls in the cupboards. It is uncluttered. It is clean. If you see a dish of cat food next to the fridge, it is not an Airbrb.

Additionally, an apartment with a sense of interior design may very well be a suspect. Think Knoll chairs, pink walls, vintage prints, and Danish mid-century furniture — classics of the Airbnb Plus genre. Neon signs reading “relax” are also a giveaway, as are New York–themed posters and maps, monstera plants, and textile wall hangings, which make it seem as if the owner has spent their entire budget on Etsy.

These Airbrbs will often offer month-to-month rents, sometimes with the option of yearlong leases, but promise nothing beyond that. A typical listing reads: “A 1-3 month arrangement with option to extend month-to-month is preferred, but different agreements are possible for the right tenant.” It’s clear that these places will be converted back into Airbnbs if and when our coronavirus moment passes — once a vaccine appears and Broadway reopens. (One landlord told me exactly that, admitting that she’d been renting through Airbnb until March.)

Perks are another obvious Airbrb giveaway. Monthly cleaning services or free toiletries (one now-expired listing offered Malin+Goetz built-ins) may be important to vacationers but are abnormal offers for longer-term tenants. An emphasis on providing sheets and other textiles should also raise suspicion — rolled bath towels arranged on a comforter give me pause. If I can avoid using a stranger’s pillowcase, I will.

It may also be a sign if the listing parties write that they live downstairs or nearby, or note that they “love to travel.” Airbrbs are offered “by owner,” not by a broker, and the authors’ self-descriptions display some of the chumminess that Airbnb encourages, noting the apartment’s proximity to tourist attractions like Times Square or the Friends house — details that long-term renters typically wouldn’t include. The apartments tend to be in impressive neighborhoods that Airbnb would describe as “bohemian, historic, [and] hip.” Airbrbs are also crammed with beds — pullout sofas, daybeds, bunk beds, and air mattresses — which helped bump them into the “sleeps four” category of the Airbnb website.

I admit to being tempted by some of these Airbrbs. What would it be like to live in someone else’s carefully curated getaway? But even the ones that have style — jewel-green walls or velvet sofas — are someone else’s taste, not my own. I imagine myself gingerly handling the vintage record players and Sonos sound systems, worried about breaking off a knob. Then there’s the question of whether I’d be able to keep the plants alive. But it’s nice, in a way, that so many Airbnb hosts have decided to leave their Le Creuset teakettles and PlayStations behind, because we all really need them right now, and I can’t find a Nintendo Switch anywhere.