Welcome, Airbnb Guest! Your Neighbors Are the Trumps


“Welcome!! Looking forward to meeting you!” the host, Lena Yelagina, wrote back.

She said she would meet the guest downstairs and show him around. “Can you please do not tell building staff that it’s Airbnb but that you are rather visiting me,” she wrote. “I will really appreciate it!”

But two days later, Ms. Yelagina wrote again to say that she had discovered that the guest was a journalist and that she did not want her apartment to be used to learn anything about Mr. Trump or to be featured in an article.

“I apologize for this request but I have to make sure that we have a precise agreement and will not have any problems,” she wrote.

After the reporter informed her that he planned to write an article, she canceled the reservation and did not answer any questions. Public records indicate that Ms. Yelagina has owned the apartment since 1998 and is listed as an owner of a condominium on the Upper West Side.

How the listing was able to float under the radar in such a high-profile building remains a mystery. It is illegal under state law to advertise and rent most apartments in New York for fewer than 30 days when the host is not present. The Trump Tower listing advertised the entire apartment and said that it could be rented for as few as three nights.

It was also unclear whether the Secret Service had known about the listing.

“We don’t comment on our protective operations,” a spokeswoman for the agency, Catherine Milhoan, said.

The listing did not explicitly advertise that the apartment was in Trump Tower, and Airbnb does not disclose addresses until a stay is reserved. Two guests said they had booked the apartment only to be surprised by the address they received in return: 721 Fifth Avenue.

“The host sent me the address, and then I called her and said, ‘I can’t find it; I only see the Trump Tower,’” said Nico Voigtländer, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who stayed there in November, just before the election. “She said, ‘It’s in the Trump Tower.’”

But those with keen eyes might have been able to pick it out. The listing said the apartment was in “the most secure and unique building.” Photos on the listing showed the building’s jet black exterior and jagged cuts. “Politically neutral please,” the listing said. “It is a specific building, so please — political opinions cannot be shown,” it noted, suggesting that renters not engage in any political displays inside the building.

The apartment attracted rave reviews, getting five out of five stars in Airbnb’s rating system, in which guests assess the accuracy of the rental listing, their communication with the host and the home’s cleanliness, location, value and check-in procedure.


Karsten Moran for The New York Times

One reviewer, a student from Mexico who stayed there in February, extolled the apartment’s great views and location. He wrote that the only inconvenience was the Secret Service check, but that “once you go through it the first time, the Secret Service is something you won’t notice anymore.”

Both he and Mr. Lamb compared the building’s security procedure to an airport’s. Mr. Lamb said it included scans with a metal detector and another “X-ray”-type machine.

In a telephone interview, the student, who requested that his name not be used because he did not want to attract attention, said he had been able to check in without the host being there. She had left instructions and a key on the ground floor. He said that he and his boyfriend had handed over their identification to Secret Service agents and told them they were staying there.

“They didn’t ask any more questions,” he said.

Airbnb said through a spokesman that it had never been contacted by any law enforcement agency about the listing.

The company, which has more than three million listings around the world, said it believed this was the first time a home in a building occupied by a head of state had been available for rent on its site.

The spokesman, Nick Papas, said the company was looking into the matter. “This is obviously a unique situation,” he said, “so we’ve removed this listing from our platform.”

The apartment’s availability on Airbnb before, during and after the election raises questions about how such a listing was permitted given the heavy security inside and outside Trump Tower.

Mark Camillo, who worked three stints at the White House during a 21-year career with the Secret Service, said that it wasn’t the job of security to determine who was or was not allowed into a building — only to screen people for potential threats.

“This is the challenge in a free society,” he said. “If we were in countries that were much more heavy-handed, this would be a nonstory. And every phone in the building would be tapped.”

Airbnb has been challenged by the issue of regulating illegal listings on its site, engaging in a contentious battle with New York City officials last year.

The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement, which is in charge of enforcing local and state laws, said it would investigate the Trump Tower listing. A spokeswoman for the Trump Organization, which runs the building, said that under condominium rules, listing the units on Airbnb was not permitted.

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