Why your Philly Airbnb might be in danger of collapsing

The online rental site doesn’t check for code violations — and has no plans to start.

A notice deems the property at 1365 Palmer St. 'imminently dangerous'

A notice deems the property at 1365 Palmer St. 'imminently dangerous'

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn
michaelawinberg-square-crop-feb2018

Updated May 3

Next time you’re looking to rent an Airbnb, you might want to check out the property for dangerous code violations.

That’s not always an easy task, but it might save you from a sketchy situation. Turns out the short-term rental platform doesn’t monitor for violations — including those that could present an immediate danger to guests.

Even if alerted to them, the site might not shut down the questionable listing. According to Airbnb spokesperson Liz DeBold Fusco, that’s just not their job. “In the U.S., the responsibility for code enforcement lies with cities,” she said.

That seems to be a risky policy, especially in places like Philadelphia, which is experiencing an uptick in building collapses and has a shortage of inspectors.

This isn’t just a theoretical problem. It’s been almost a month and a half since Philly’s Department of Licenses and Inspections declared 1365 East Palmer St. imminently dangerous — a designation reserved for buildings that could collapse without a moment’s notice — and ordered the owner to vacate the premises.

Yet as of May 1, the rowhouse at the Fishtown corner of Belgrade and Palmer maintained at least four active listings on the rental site — one, two, three, four. Update: After Airbnb was contacted by Billy Penn about this topic, two of those listings were deactivated.

“Airbnb has a number of tools in place to build trust and address safety concerns — from our 24/7 customer service team and reviews which allow guests to report reviews to our Neighbors tool that allows local residents to submit complaints,” DeBold Fusco said via emailed statement.

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Airbnb Screenshot

Airbnb’s official policy seems to be to wait for complaints from guests, the logic being that if a listing has a code violation, a guest is going to say something about it.

L&I spokesperson Karen Guss isn’t so sure about that logic, since most code violations aren’t visible to the naked eye. And the department certainly doesn’t have a mechanism in place to alert Airbnb every single time an inspector finds a dangerous property, she said.

“I am just blown away,” Guss said. “We do not have a program for using taxpayer dollars to do due diligence for Airbnb.”

Philly does not require permits to list a property on Airbnb — although there is a an 8.5 percent tax on the profits. Regulations the city has in place for what’s called “limited lodging” rentals include requiring smoke alarms and carbon monoxide alarms throughout the property.

Around the country, a few places have implemented policies that can catch code violations. Both Brookhaven, Georgia, and Buffalo, New York, require hosts to register their short-term rentals with the city before listing them, which triggers an inspection.

The Airbnb property at Belgrade and Palmer

The Airbnb property at Belgrade and Palmer

Michaela Winberg / Billy Penn

‘You can literally bring the house down’

The dangerous house at at Belgrade and Palmer streets was eventually flagged thanks to neighbors who’ve formed a volunteer group that “actively assist[s] the L&I in keeping tabs on shady construction,” Guss said.

After several concerned calls and postings, police rolled up to the rental property on March 20. They found the owner carrying buckets of dirt from the basement out into his truck, which raised an immediate red flag.

A property owner often does that kind of work to extend the height of their basement and create more living space. In Philly, where many buildings are grounded in nothing but tightly packed dirt, digging like this has the potential to destabilize the whole structure.

“We’ve seen [properties] drop, we’ve seen them crumble,” Guss said. “You can literally bring the house down.”

After their March visit, police looped in L&I officials, who failed the property’s inspection and slapped the owner with five consecutive orders to stop work on the house immediately.

The deed for the Palmer Street house lists a Fishtown real estate company called Rivera & Rivera Corporation as owner. Records show the company has had 25 code violations on its properties in the last decade. It also maintains at least 10 active listings on Airbnb.

Contacted via Airbnb’s messaging service, the owners declined to provide their full names. Airbnb identifies them as Alberto & Xavier.

Alberto & Xavier told Billy Penn that they stopped renting out the imminently dangerous property as soon as it was cited by the city. The listings have remained active on the Airbnb site, though any pending rentals were cancelled, as evidenced by auto-posted comments from users who’d had reservations.

Contrary to the owners’ response above, the property had already failed a safety inspection

Contrary to the owners’ response above, the property had already failed a safety inspection

Airbnb screenshot

On Tuesday, the owners were granted a make safe permit from the city, allowing them to employ contractors to stabilize the building.

But they’re angry at the city for creating such a fuss in the first place.

“I’m certain that no one from L&I who issued the collapse danger had the credentials to make that call,” Alberto & Xavier wrote via the Airbnb messaging system. “The violations issued were contrary to fact.” They added that they expect to rent out the building again as soon as this Friday.

“That’s an ambitious timetable,” Guss said in response. “They’re not just getting the work done, they also need to have it inspected.”

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