The ‘Airbnb Alternative’ Black Market

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Craiglist

A few weeks ago, a message went around one of the parenting listserves I’m on: Where were people’s parents staying these days, the poster wanted to know, “now that Airbnbs are few and far between??” They weren’t the only ones looking for places for visiting grandparents and other family members to stay: Posts with dates, apartment type, and neighborhood preferences now pop up on a regular basis.

It’s as if, a decade after Airbnb’s rise and recent diminishment, people no longer remember what visitors to the city did back in 2010. Of course, hotels, at least nice hotels, can be pricey. Even as Airbnb rates crept up over time to rival hotel rates, hotels became considerably more expensive in the past few years, between rooms being diverted to house migrants and tourism rebounding after COVID. Hotels also have a reputation as being places for business travelers, high-rollers (if they’re nice), and tourists (if they’re not), and in Brooklyn, many aren’t in the most desirable locations. Because who has the space to host visiting family in their New York apartment? Unless, that is, they have a townhouse with a garden unit they Airbnb the rest of the time.

As it turns out, anyone looking for some of the many thousands of recently removed Airbnb listings can still find a good number on neighborhood WhatsApp, Signal, and Facebook groups or the site’s marketplace — garden units are the dominant variety here, as are the primary apartments of families with second homes, using the $200-a-night fees to afford a lifestyle that might otherwise be out of reach. (There are, also, of course, plenty of old-fashioned sublets for people who’ll be traveling for the next two weeks to three months, but those have always existed.)

On Craigslist, the “Airbnb type” and “Airbnb alternative” short-term listings, as posters have taken to calling them, hew more to a traditional Airbnb aesthetic — furnished with a gray or navy couch, strenuously bland framed prints, single-use toiletries lined up on the sink, and a dearth of personal clutter. There, you’ll find Airbnb superhosts (or at least, people claiming to be Airbnb superhosts), daily and weekly rates, and the ever-present $120 cleaning fee. There is Roku, there is free Wi-Fi, there is usually the phrase “flexible stay” in the listing somewhere. Some even go so far as to provide a snapshot of their Airbnb rating. This being New York, there are of course a few listings that take more care to appeal to travelers who want a more New York experience — like an artist’s loft packaged as a “Fashion Week rental.”

The world made by Airbnb still exists, after all, even if many of the listings are no longer on the site. In the first few weeks of the ban, which was intended to reduce the number of illegal short-term sublets, around 80 percent of the units were taken off the platform.

But the ghost Airbnb market comes with significant drawbacks. As one person on a listserve noted, Venmoing a stranger money takes a lot of trust, a virtue that travelers could mostly outsource to Airbnb in the past. There are no reviews on a Craigslist post, few ways of finding out if that family in Carroll Gardens is a good host (or really a family in Carroll Gardens at all), and most important, no recourse if a host fails to deliver what they promised. (Also nothing to protect hosts if a guest trashes their apartment.) There are a few work-arounds: Some Craigslist posts include a Houfy link, a direct-booking vacation-rental site that has some of the features of Airbnb, like reviews, but doesn’t have a verified payment method. To many looking for short-term stays, the difference seems minimal. “Great Airbnb!” commented one guest on a Nolita Houfy listing.

Many former hosts seem to have given in to the inevitability of renting their units for long-term stays, as the legislation intended. While short-term listings in New York are down by a third from a year ago, according to AirDNA, a third-party site that tracks short-term rentals, it says long-term listings (for more than 28 days) are up 37 percent. Overall, total listings were down only 4 percent. And more will presumably come back on legally, as the city’s Office of Special Enforcement works through the applications submitted after it was clear the new regulations really would pass (the office says it has fully reviewed 60 percent of applications so far), as well as applications with outstanding issues. Shadow listings will also continue to exist. The point of the regulation wasn’t to wipe out every last illegal sublet in New York City but to shrink the scale of the problem enabled by short-term rental platforms. Only last year, after all, there were more Airbnb listings than apartments for rent.

But at the moment, Craigslist has fewer than 25 “Airbnb alternative” apartments, and the sublets seem, by and large, to be actual sublets with plants, defined availability dates, and packed closets the tenants promise to make room in before leaving.

Some new rental listings also show signs of having recently been culled from the ranks of Airbnb — a South Slope garden-level one-bedroom on one listserve, available for 30-day stays or a long-term lease at $3,500 a month, had been recently renovated, the listing said, but in lieu of a kitchen only offered a mini-fridge, microwave, and hot plate. Another, a one-bedroom in Crown Heights, made a point of letting potential tenants know that the “gorgeous 1 bed Apartment Fully Furnished” was “out of Airbnb” and “available for immediate occupancy.”

The ‘Airbnb Alternative’ Black Market