Welcome, Airbnb guests, your neighbours are the Trumps

The apartment inside Trump Tower has been described as an uncommonly nice place to crash.
The apartment inside Trump Tower has been described as an uncommonly nice place to crash.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK • The apartment has spacious windows, a sleek kitchen and expansive views of Manhattan. It boasts a prime location close to Central Park and Rockefeller Center and promises all the excitement of a luxury apartment in Midtown Manhattan.

And it was available for a substantial, but not completely unheard-of, price of about US$300 (S$423) to US$450 a night through the home rental website Airbnb.

Renters would just need to go through an extensive Secret Service screening downstairs. The rental was inside Trump Tower.

The listing was taken down last week hours after The New York Times contacted Airbnb for comment. But the apartment had been available to rent since at least last September - long after the building that helped make United States President Donald Trump famous was turned into an operation centre for his campaign. And it remained available, and as its Airbnb listing noted, quite popular, for about 11/2 months after Mr Trump's inauguration.

More than 500 people had viewed the listing in the week before it was removed and the apartment had been booked for much of March, April and May.

The listing represented an extraordinary opportunity in American history, one facilitated by both modern technology and a president with a large real estate portfolio: a chance for travellers to book a room in a building housing the president's family - one of the most secure buildings in New York City, if not the world - with nothing more than the click of a mouse.

"It was surreal to be honest," said Mr Mike Lamb, a software engineer from England who stayed there with his wife in December. "It was certainly an interesting experience."

Three guests who stayed at the apartment described it in interviews as an uncommonly nice place to crash. One, who stayed there before the election, remembered encountering a delay when he returned about the same time as a fleet of vehicles that most likely carried Mr Trump.

Two guests spoke about the presence of protesters outside.

"You can hear them shouting from high up in the building," Mr Lamb said. "I remember sitting in bed, thinking, 'I can hear them, I wonder if he can hear them.'"

He said he caught a glimpse one day of Mr Mike Pence, then the vice-president-elect, heading into Trump Tower from his motorcade.

The apartment was available through the website's "instant book" feature, which allows anyone with an Airbnb account to book a stay without so much as a message to the host.

A New York Times reporter reserved it this way last month for a weekend stay in April.

"Welcome!! Looking forward to meeting you!" the host, Ms 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, she 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.

After the reporter informed her that he planned to write an article, she cancelled the reservation and did not answer any questions.

Public records indicate that Ms Yelagina has owned the apartment since 1998.

How the listing was able to float under the radar in such a highprofile 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 it could be rented for as few as three nights.

Nor was it clear whether the Secret Service knew about the listing. "We don't comment on our protective operations," a spokesman for the agency said.

The listing does not explicitly advertise that the apartment is 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 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 and check-in procedure. One reviewer, a student from Mexico who stayed there in February, extolled the apartment's great views and location.

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 was available for rent on its site.

The spokesman, Mr Nick Papas, said the company was looking into the matter.

"This is a unique situation, so we've removed this listing from our platform."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 08, 2017, with the headline 'Welcome, Airbnb guests, your neighbours are the Trumps'. Print Edition | Subscribe