secret side hustles

The Publicist Who Dreads Getting Caught for Her Illegal Airbnb

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want. In Secret Side Hustles, we talk to people with “normal” jobs who make extra cash on the sly. Here, a publicist explains her side gig as an illegal Airbnb host.

I have a full-time job as a publicist, and I make $40,000 a year. (For what it’s worth, the initial offer was $37,000 but I negotiated up.) My studio apartment is $3,250 a month, which I split down the middle with my sister. Given how much I bring home after taxes, I barely have anything left over after rent.

I moved to New York for an internship right after I graduated from college. I always wanted to live here but I knew money would be tight. At first, I stayed with a friend in the East Village and we shared a room — I was only earning an intern salary, so affording anything was a struggle. Then my sister moved here. One night, we were talking about our friends in Boston who Airbnb an apartment full-time, and I was like, “Could we do that and get some extra cash?” We did our research and discovered that if we moved downtown and got a studio in a luxury building with a doorman, a gym, and a roof terrace, we could list it for a pretty good price.

We Airbnb our apartment whenever we leave town or go home to visit our parents. It’s a studio with two queen beds and a sectional couch. I don’t know why Airbnb approved it because it’s definitely not legal. I guess we got lucky.

The first time we listed our apartment, we got flooded with requests as soon as it went up because we were charging a lot less than other people in our area (about $110 a night). Once we had a bunch of good reviews, we increased the rate. Over Christmas, New Years, and Thanksgiving we charge about $200 a night. Recently we were gone for just over a week and we made $2,000, which helps a lot when you’re spending close to half your salary on rent.

When I’m about to list I always check what other people in the area are offering so I can beat their price. During high seasons (like the holidays or summer), we’ll try to list the apartment as much as possible. Sometimes we’ll just go visit family friends in Boston or D.C. and have a cheap weekend there to maximize our Airbnb earnings.

Our set-up is seamless. We lock all our valuables in a cupboard and put our personal stuff under the bed. My sister also works in PR and she gets a lot of free products so we leave them out for guests. We get even better reviews when we do that. These days we even leave candles.

After we organized our first rental I told a co-worker what we were doing. She told me about people who get fined or thrown out of their apartments, so I started freaking out. What if the doorman reported us? I wondered if we should tell the doorman that we have friends coming to stay, but then I also worried that it would draw more attention to us. In the end, we told our guests to not ever mention Airbnb, and to say they’re family friends if anyone asks. In our listing, we say the building is full of young adults, so we attract that demographic to the apartment. That’s good, because they are less likely to stand out.

We’ve had a few close calls. Our building recently hired a new doorman, and he started asking our guests all these questions — I was sure it was all over. He was demanding to speak to us to check if we were there. We were overseas, so there was a time difference, but I managed to get in touch with him and told him that the guests were our cousins and we were on our way back to the apartment to let them in.

Last year, we had a fussy guest who was complaining that the air conditioning didn’t work properly (it was winter, I have no idea why he wanted it on, but whatever). He got so demanding and I worried I might have to get the super to go and take a look, but luckily, it didn’t come to that. I find that European guests are a lot more laid back and flexible. American guests tend to be more demanding. They really do expect it to be a like a hotel.

I see this money as part of my income, and I depend on it. If we got found out, I’d have trouble paying my bills. I haven’t told my boss, although some of my co-workers know. I feel like everyone I work with has to do something extra to make ends meet because our salaries are so low, especially if they want to live someplace decent.

A Publicist Who Dreads Getting Caught for Her Illegal Airbnb