For $90 a night, it was one of the cheapest Airbnbs in Chelsea, an affluent neighborhood bustling with art galleries and night life in the heart of Manhattan.
But when Rachel Valerio and her mother retrieved the apartment keys from a lockbox outside and opened the door to the seventh-floor apartment, something seemed off. Despite the listing’s near-five star rating on Airbnb, it smelled like gas, and Ms. Valerio was alarmed by the roach trap next to the bed.
“Then I saw the letters N-Y-C-H-A in the lobby,” said Ms. Valerio, who was visiting from Boston.
After a quick Google search, she learned it was the acronym for the New York City Housing Authority, the nation’s largest public housing system, which houses 400,000 low-income residents.
They had checked into a public housing apartment.
The listing was an unlikely entangling of two of the most publicly debated housing issues in New York City: the future of the city’s 176,000 crumbling public housing apartments and the proliferation of Airbnb, which has 50,000 listings in the city.
Subletting government-subsidized apartments is illegal. In New York City, it is also illegal for someone to rent an apartment for fewer than 30 days unless the host is present during the stay, making many listings on Airbnb illegal.
Ms. Valerio said she sympathized with the host’s side hustle, but felt compelled to report the apartment to Airbnb, which refunded their five-day stay last week.
“It feels very awful,” Ms. Valerio, 29, said of knowing she stayed in an apartment meant for people struggling to make ends meet. “I grew up poor, and I know how hard it is to get housing.”
There are about 177,000 people on the waiting list for a NYCHA apartment; many have waited for years.
Airbnb doesn’t have any specific safeguards to prevent listings in public housing. Instead, it is a host’s responsibility to comply with their lease and any regulations when they list their home on Airbnb. And it is the city’s job to enforce short-term rental laws.
Josh Meltzer, the head of northeast policy at Airbnb, said the company supported a stalled bill in the State Legislature that would prohibit short-term rentals in public housing and rent-regulated buildings.
“We believe we have some cases, but it’s not a widespread issue,” Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for NYCHA, said of public housing apartments listed on Airbnb. “NYCHA is aware of this situation and is investigating the matter,” she said of the Chelsea apartment.
Mr. Brancaccio said lodging and subletting was against federal housing regulations that govern public housing and the housing authority’s lease agreements. While rent-stabilized tenants can sublet, tenants who receive Section 8 subsidies and most rent-controlled apartments do not have a right to do so.
It is unclear whether the host, who went only by the name Rachel on her Airbnb profile, is a NYCHA resident. “I don’t know what you’re speaking about,” she said when reached by phone on Wednesday before hanging up.
The listing had disappeared from the platform’s website by Oct. 29, but not before joining the ranks of other noteworthy Airbnb experiences.
One listing in Brooklyn went viral earlier this year after a tourist shared a video of her $27 per night rental: a tiny closet beneath a staircase crammed with only a camping mattress and sheets. In the most egregious of cases, escort services used Airbnb to book Manhattan apartments for days at a time, turning them into temporary brothels.
Reports of illegally rented subsidized apartments on home-sharing platforms appear to be rare, but not unheard-of. Last year, a man in Boston was accused of listing an apartment at a public housing development for $36 a night, promising “an authentic urban living situation.”
Last week, there appeared to be one Airbnb listing for a “Charming, Private Apartment ONLY MINS!! From City” for $89 a night at the Queensbridge Houses, the nation’s largest public housing development, in Queens.
Guests who have stayed at that apartment praised the host’s hospitality and left generally positive reviews, despite deteriorating living conditions at NYCHA’s 325 complexes, where residents are often subject to leaks, pests and heat outages.
But one guest did leave a mixed review.
“I had no idea when I booked that this was a public-housing project,” she wrote. “Until we opened the door to the building and in the tiny 5×5 landing of a lobby there was a mouse going to town with whatever it just found on the floor.”
Ray Normandeau, who has lived at the Queensbridge complex since 1973, said that Airbnb listings there were not prevalent, but that some have surfaced over the years.
“The housing authority really has no idea who is living in these apartments,” he said. “People can’t, on the side, run a real estate business.”
NYCHA’s official population is about 400,000, but that number doesn’t account for residents who are not on the lease. Unofficial estimates, based on trash volume and anecdotal evidence, have pegged the number closer to 600,000.
The average income of a public housing family is $25,007. Residents are supposed to pay no more than 30 percent of their reported income in rent, while the federal government subsidizes the rest.
To a resident in need of extra cash, the Chelsea development might have seemed like a prime location for an Airbnb listing: The Fulton Houses, an 11-building red brick complex, is one of only a handful of Manhattan public housing developments in an area popular with tourists.
The listing highlighted the kind of attractions, like the Chelsea Market and the High Line, that have helped fuel a whirling economic transformation in the neighborhood, displacing mom-and-pop shops and burdening public housing residents with higher living costs.
“There are many restaurants and entertainment in the area,” the Airbnb host wrote. “Guests will have the apartment to themselves and I will only visit with advance notice to check up on their stay.”
Other Airbnb listings in Chelsea are listed for as low as $105 and as high as $549 per night.
The city, after allowing its public housing stock to endure years of neglect and underfunding, is considering a contentious plan to demolish two buildings at the Fulton Houses and replace them with three mixed-income developments run by private landlords.
At the same time, city officials have escalated their crackdown on Airbnb, suing large-scale illegal hotel operators and pursuing tougher regulations, amid growing concerns that it was taking apartments off the market for full-time residents.
In Chelsea, the listing had garnered a 4.83 out of 5 rating and six reviews since it went up in September, including two from French-speaking travelers.
“The space was very clean and spacious and the shower had great pressure,” read one review.
“The building might look old but the room is well maintained,” wrote another guest of the 54-year-old building on 420 West 19th St. “Very convenient for traveler.”