The Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement (OSE) filed the lawsuit last Wednesday in Queens County Supreme Court, accusing the group of renting to nearly 60,000 guests between 2015 and 2019.
Astoria resident Elvis Tominovic, along with a network of his friends and family members, made more than $5 million in revenue from the illegal rentals, according to city officials.
“Across the city, communities are threatened by an industry that allows illegal operators to mislead visitors and turn housing into profit,” Christian Klossner, OSE’s executive director, said in a statement. “OSE will continue to hold illegal operators accountable and work to keep neighborhoods and visitors safe.”
According to the lawsuit, Tominovic and his network advertised the rentals through 211 Airbnb listings, creating 28 separate host accounts and accepting more than 20,000 reservations.
Guests were misled into booking “unlawful and unsafe accommodations,” the lawsuit alleges.
In addition to creating dangerous fire and safety conditions, the rentals also removed 60 units from the housing market for residents seeking permanent homes.
The defendants operated in at least 36 residential properties in Astoria, Ridgewood, Washington Heights, Midtown and the Bronx. Twenty-four of the 36 properties are in Astoria, including nine of the 16 buildings at the Acropolis Gardens, a formerly rent-stabilized co-op complex.
The rentals were found in single-family homes, two-family homes, multi-family dwellings and even 10 predominately rent-stabilized buildings.
“New Yorkers deserve to have their housing protected,” Klossner said, “and visitors deserve safe, legal accommodations when they visit our city.”
The illegal rentals generated hundreds of negative reviews from Airbnb guests, including complaints about a lack of windows, heat and hot water. Users also shared that the rooms were dirty, smelly and were often overcrowded.
“You open the door, the stench of mold hits you in the face. Sofa bed did not work,” wrote one guest last August about a rental at 47-15 28th Avenue. “Bathroom lock did not work. It’s disgusting to have listings like this available.”
Since November 2016, the city has issued 59 transient occupancy-related building and fire-related violations in 12 of the 36 buildings, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit also states that Tominovic and his ring of operators “coached” guests to lie about their stays. They instructed guests to deny access to building inspectors and refuse to answer questions.
“Once you’ve booked, he warns you to not open the door or talk to any police or city inspectors that come to the door,” another guest wrote in a review in June 2018. “He warns you because NYC has been cracking down on this type of Airbnb.”
OSE’s investigation began with a 311 complaint from a concerned neighbor, which led to further probing from the office’s research and field teams.
In February 2019, the city issued an administrative subpoena to obtain Airbnb data, which helped investigators link the operators, who were using the same phone numbers and bank account information.
According to OSE, the oldest host account goes back to 2012, which suggests the illegal ring began much earlier.
This is the office’s first illegal hotel lawsuit filed in Queens. Most of the other actions have been filed for illegal operations in Manhattan.
By filing the lawsuit, the city is seeking an immediate temporary restraining order to stop the operators from continuing to rent through the website.
It’s also seeking to compel Tominovic and his network to pay restitution to the “aggrieved consumers,” as well as civil penalties and damages.
“Plaintiff is thus entitled to compensatory and punitive damages because of the knowing and ongoing common law nuisance created, maintained and continued by Defendants,” the lawsuit reads.