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Airbnb's Battle for New York

If it can’t make it in New York, can Airbnb make it anywhere?
Airbnb's Battle for New York
Photograph by Getty Images

These days, when Ken Podziba answers his phone and it’s a stranger on the other line, he has a pretty good idea of what they’re calling about before they start talking. The owner of an eight-unit apartment building in Manhattan, Podziba is search-engine famous in New York for how he dealt with a tenant who sublet her apartment via Airbnb, and he frequently hears from other owners, landlords, and building supervisors who suspect they have a tenant doing the same. If something goes wrong—a party breaks out, somebody gets robbed, the cops show up, someone slips and falls—it’s not the tenant, or some sharing-economy guru in Silicon Valley, who’s going to be held responsible. It will be the owner’s problem. That’s why at the first hint of Airbnb usage, Podziba explains, “I tell them to do what I did: Get surveillance cameras. Hire a private investigator. And do the necessary steps to get them out.”

Podziba doesn’t fit the caricature of a ruthless New York landlord. By day, the former New York City sports commissioner runs Bike New York, a nonprofit that provides safety training and organizes citywide bike tours. He also manages the five-story, red-brick building he inherited from his father on Elizabeth Street, a short walk from Katz’s, the famous deli where Meg Ryan faked an orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. It’s in his capacity as a building owner that Podziba has found himself on a collision course with one of the world’s hottest startups.