Something wasn’t quite right. Igor Oberman, the property manager at the massive, 1,144-unit Trump Village West co-op in Coney Island, noticed some unfamiliar characters coming and going from one of the apartments. He became suspicious.
“They looked like hipsters, with big beards and backpacks,” says Oberman. “A Greenpoint/Williamsburg type of look.”
“[Shareholders] were complaining about strange people going into the apartment,” adds board president Felix Khusid. “That’s how we know what’s going on. When people see something, they need to say something.” A little digging revealed that the highly visible visitors had used an Airbnb listing to sublet the apartment owned by shareholder Gene Vilensky. The short-term sublets appeared to violate city and state laws, and also broke the co-op’s sublet policy, which requires, among other things, that subletters pass a board interview. “The purpose of those interviews,” say Khusid, “is to make sure you get someone who’s not a possible threat, whether it’s a buyer or a subletter. We don’t want subletters who are problem children. It’s a matter of honesty.”
The nine-member board ordered Vilensky to take down his Airbnb ad, which contained his picture and pictures of the apartment. Instead, Vilensky replaced his picture with a woman’s picture and left the posting up on the internet.
This was war. The co-op board, which promotes owner occupancy of units, then filed a lawsuit to end Vilensky’s proprietary lease. When Vilensky denied he had sublet the apartment, the board subpoenaed Airbnb’s records. Airbnb and Vilensky fought the subpoena, but on November 29, 2017, State Supreme Court Judge Carl Landicino ordered Airbnb to turn over its records. They showed that Vilensky had repeatedly sublet the apartment for terms less than the 30-day minimum allowed by law.
“[Vilensky’s] own comments with the people he subletted to [were] his undoing,” says Oberman. “People think what’s on the internet is private, but this is the smoking gun. Airbnb is not the bogeyman here. The bogeyman is someone who tries to use the anonymity of the internet to break the rules on subletting. I don’t think [Vilensky] lived here one day. If he’s not living there, he can keep the apartment empty or sell it.” Khusid was delighted by the court ruling. “It was a huge victory for us,” he says, “and hopefully it will help others boards fighting illegal sublets. We’re trying to evict [Vilensky] on the grounds that he came in lying through his teeth that this was going to be his private residence. This is not a hotel or a private house – it’s a cooperative with rules.”
Malvina Lin, the attorney who’s handling the case for the board, says, “The issue a lot of co-op and condo boards are facing is people misrepresenting their planned use for the unit. If applicants are going to lie, they need to understand that there will be repercussions. The board is pursuing more than an eviction. It’s called a rescission – an effort to undo the approval of the purchase.” If successful, the board will have the right to purchase Vilensky’s apartment.
And Vilensky? Despite the evidence, he insists he’s innocent: “I’m being accused of things I’ve never done.”