“I realized quickly [after moving in] that it’s bad to say anything to Simone. You don’t know what you’re gonna say that’s going to get you in trouble. I don’t know what I’m going to say to her that would be misconstrued.”
Now, Brett* is worried. He wants to move out soon, but he dreads what the conversation with his landlord, Simone Shah, will be like when he asks for his security deposit back. He has to run back all correspondences to see if anything he’s ever said could be used against him.
And that’s the smallest stressor when it comes to living in one of Shah’s buildings. A renter in one building discovered that she had compromised the privacy and physical safety of each tenant, as every one of their doors had the same lock.
Shah and others take a multipronged approach to maximizing profits, which means ignoring tenant requests, delaying repairs to maintain uninhabitable conditions, hiring lawyers to send intimidating letters as a means of pressuring them out, and turning what used to be long-term housing into Airbnbs for tourists. These violations will only increase if we don’t do something about them now; the Olympics struck up an official partnership with Airbnb that will extend through LA28.
Los Angeles turns a blind eye to landlords who set up Airbnbs; this is particularly concerning when they fly under the radar with illegally-operated ones – a practice that is almost guaranteed to increase because of the Airbnb-Olympics deal. Because the City abets speculative real estate, corporate and “mom and pop” landlords have made it a common practice to flip residential units into short-term rentals. While “home-sharing” is often presented as an innocent means for everyday people to supplement their income by sharing a room in their own living space, as of 2015 nearly 90% of Airbnb profit in Los Angeles comes from people renting out entire units and leasing companies renting out two or more units. In other words: landlords have figured out that the most profitable Airbnbs are the ones that sit completely empty when not used by tourists. This incentivizes landlords and leasing companies to displace long-term tenants so that the units are always vacant.
In this pursuit of easy money, landlords are exacerbating the city’s homelessness crisis by converting homes into backdoor hotels. There are approximately 66,436 people experiencing houselessness, but currently, 39,486 Airbnb rentals sit vacant most of the year.
An organized front against illegal Airbnbs is growing concurrently with our work to build tenant power. Locks On My Block, built by NOlympicsLA and the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project, is a tool to help renters report and track illegal short-term vacation rentals and apartment rentals in Los Angeles that are listed with companies like Airbnb, Vrbo, Flipkey, and Tripping.com. As a website, it maps listings and tenant stories submitted by the public who have spotted these units in their buildings or neighborhoods. The larger campaign serves to empower tenant alliances and unions in their fight for protection from landlord harassment.
Since July 2019, Los Angeles has banned any short-term (30-day or less) leases of a unit that is not a leaser’s primary place of residence. This ordinance is sound and necessary, but there is a lack of will from LA officials to hold landlords accountable. Furthermore, privately owned companies such as Airbnb are able to move faster than local legislation; they are not in the business of any meaningful self-regulation. This leaves tenants wholly unprotected.
Yvette* is a tenant who also lives in one of Shah’s buildings; their apartment is close to Brett’s in Central Los Angeles. Prior to signing, Simone had never disclosed to them that any of the units in the building were being rented out as Airbnbs. Yvette eventually found out when a friend discovered that she was not able to rent an available unit because Simone told her it’s being used to host guests.
“I thought that was pretty suspect because there’s still a pandemic happening,” they said.
During their time as a tenant, Yvette’s logged numerous instances of Simone’s employees and Airbnb guests coming in and out of the building without masks on to protect people who are immunocompromised or at high risk. In late December when the city enforced a strict stay-at-home mandate to lower the near-18% COVID-19 positivity rate, they observed a handful of parties in a neighboring unit. The proof was glaring: her landlord is not interested in creating a habitable place for renters.
LA’s ruling class has a lot to gain from Airbnbs. In 2017, City Council rubber-stamped a bid to host the Olympics in 2028, which flew under the radar of the public at the time. Then in 2019, the Olympics announced their official partnership with Airbnb. The agreement seeks to “support the sustainability objectives of the Olympic Movement” by providing “accommodation provisions that will reduce costs for Olympic Games organizers and stakeholders” while minimizing “the need for construction of new accommodation infrastructure for the Olympic Games period.” This partnership has no value to anyone else but the powerful; its underlying message ignores the reality that those who gain from this partnership will accelerate and further incentivize displacement. Any illegally operated Airbnb that gets listed today sets the precedent for how profit-seeking landlords in the future can do whatever they want in their buildings.
A crucial part of NOlympics’ Locks On My Block campaign is to support renters who can identify Airbnbs in their buildings, then provide input on how people can fight back. It’s a tenants’ rights issue as much as it is a public health one to have Airbnb listings all throughout the city in the middle of a pandemic. And especially in a city where tenants’ rights are not protected and landlords are pardoned, Locks On My Block is a chance to uplift perspectives from the other side of exploitative homestays and vacation rentals.
Shah is a real estate investor. Under her company name Dwell Management, she has managed over 25 properties in the City since 2019. Many of Shah’s Airbnb hotels are listed on Locks On My Block’s map; from Boyle Heights to East Hollywood, her sprawl reaches into neighborhoods that are reeling from gentrification and developmentalism.
In 2015, NPR Marketplace ran an interview with Shah about her portfolio of properties and the pressure of “outside sources of money” to raise rent on long term residents. The interview was titled, “York & Fig: Confessions of an Ambivalent Landlord.” In it, she takes the reporter through one of her properties in Highland Park, points at one of the units, then comments that she thinks the tenant doesn’t like her very much.
Several years later, apartment units in her buildings surfaced on Airbnb listings, as reported by her tenants and crowd-sourced reviews of her business. For Knock, several of Shah’s tenants have anonymously reported different ways that she has harassed them or their neighbors: illegal entry into rental units, verbal intimidation or deflection tactics to disarm tenants when they come to her with complaints, and significant stalls in building maintenance – all while vacated units are being spruced up for short-term renters.
“Pretty much every day, a construction or maintenance crew is coming and beautifying for Airbnb tenants,” Brett said. “These were things that were never addressed before, and suddenly they’re painting stuff.”
Meanwhile Brett is still waiting for things inside his own unit to be fixed. For now, he is one of the last long-term tenants left in his apartment building. The rest of the units either lie vacant or welcome a steady flow of Airbnb guests. He wonders whether he will even make it long enough to leave on his own accord at the end of his lease.
Brett and Yvette are just two of a handful of tenants who have spoken to NOlympics about Shah’s pattern of harassing and degrading them. Alongside her use of a lawyer and slow response to maintenance requests, multiple renters have shared similar experiences about her tactics to get out of obligations to them. Many of them have been subject to long, harassing correspondences from her through email or text. When pressed, Shah has used language that blames them for issues in the apartment and suggests that it is harmful to her children for tenants to ask her for basic habitability repairs.
Who does it benefit to make short-term vacation stays and apartment hotels a hot commodity? Speculative real estate and the bloated power of companies like Airbnb are certainly never on the side of LA residents. For every Shah who paints herself as a good “real estate investor,” there are plenty of renters who have been subject to the actions of anyone but. There is no such thing as an “ambivalent landlord” as long as anyone is scaring people out of their homes to rake in profit. Anyone who is hoarding residential units is making a clear statement that they are in the business of hurting people and gutting our communities.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of tenants.