Home as hotel: NYC sues over apartment building inspectors says was used as illegal hotel

Industries Associated Press

The online listing boasted apartments with the amenities of a midtown Manhattan hotel: coffee in the lobby, luggage storage, a 15-minute walk to Times Square.

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But the arrangement was illegal, the city said in a lawsuit this week accusing the building's owners and operators of turning an apartment house into a hotel. The suit — one of three the city has filed amid a short-term rental boom in recent years — was filed Wednesday, a day after a City Council hearing spotlighted concerns about homes being rented out like hotel rooms.

"Where the health and safety of New Yorkers and people visiting our city are put in jeopardy, we vigorously pursue enforcement," Elan Parra, the acting director of the Mayor's Office of Special Enforcement, said in a statement Thursday. The office fields illegal-hotel complaints, which rose 62 percent last year to 1,150.

The building's management company, identified in the suit as U.S. Suite Management LLC and also known as Metro Apartments, said no one was immediately available Thursday to comment. A call to a man identified in court papers as a principal in the company wasn't immediately returned.

On Metro Apartments' website, units in the West 41st Street building were listed Thursday for about $130 a night for a studio or $220 for a one bedroom, with "hotel services and facilities" including a concierge and an airport shuttle. Inspectors say at least half and perhaps 80 percent of the 96 apartments are being rented as hotel rooms through Metro Apartments and various travel booking sites, according to the special enforcement office.

The suit said the building lacks a sprinkler system and other fire safety features required of hotels and that the flow of guests has posed a security risk and nuisance for permanent residents.

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State law makes it generally illegal to rent an apartment for less than 30 days unless the apartment's resident also stays there.

Inspectors visited the building in September 2013 and cited fire code and other violations, and the owner was fined and ordered to stop the short-term rentals, the suit said. But inspections in May and three weeks ago found the problem continuing, and $26,000 in fines have gone unpaid, city officials said.

The suit seeks a court order halting the short-term rentals, plus more than $500,000 in damages and fines.

During a City Council hearing Tuesday, scores of proponents and critics held dueling demonstrations over short-term rentals on websites like Airbnb, which was not mentioned in the lawsuit.

Tenants complained their buildings have been overrun by tourists, but homeowners and others said the rentals are a financial lifeline in a city where a studio apartment can cost $2,000 a month.

San Francisco-based Airbnb says it has removed thousands of listings that violated New York laws and urges hosts everywhere to abide by local regulations.

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Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.