New York Vet Challenges Room Rental Legislation

Mishelle Farer

Transitioning out of the military can be a challenging step for many, especially if you're trying to obtain a degree without financial support from friends or family. Although the GI Bill offers plenty of monetary assistance for higher education, sometimes a little extra support is necessary. Mishelle Farer is a veteran of the Army Reserve and uses Airbnb, a room renting website somewhat similar to Craigslist, to financially support herself while persuing a degree. However, New York City recently passed a law that will potentially endanger Airbnb's legality in the area, and the lifestlye of many New York City residents who rely on the extra income. had the chance to speak with Mishelle about a petition she launched through the Peers organization to save Airbnb in New York.

Can you tell us about your military service?

I was a Reservist for a long time, since October of 2000. I did six years of service and got out briefly, then came back and did a year in Iraq. All together, I've served about 10 years total. I was a human resources sergeant, so I typically did the 42 Alpha type of admin stuff for different kinds of units. I was in a postal unit back in California and that's what I did during Iraq. When I got to New York, I worked in an information operations facility which is similar to civil affairs.

Did you maintain a profession in your civilian life?

I used to work in banking. I worked at HSBC for a long time in human resources. At one point while I was in California, I became very bored and wanted to get out. I came on an AGR Tour that happened to be located in Queens, New York. When my contract ended, I decided to get out and finish my degree.

Was it difficult to balance your Reserve duties with your civilian job?

At the time it was pretty easy because everything was really close, plus I was young. I didn't really have a serious job and as it became more demanding and I didn't have time for school; it was like I was trying to balance two careers. Once I got on the tour, I knew right away it would be a temporary plan for me to come to New York, try hard to save money, then go back and finish my degree. I knew what I wanted to do at that point.

How did you use Airbnb to fund your stay and education in New York?

When you're in the military, you get a housing allowance every month. New York City is one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Using the rent check from the military was just something I had gotten used to. Once I made the decision to get out, I wasn't going to get that anymore. I had the GI Bill, but I would still have to get a full time job which I did not want to do so I could finish my degree as fast as possible. Someone told me about Airbnb and I used it every so often to supplement my income. Once I was officially out of the military, I started using it full time. My plan became to go to school full time and use Airbnb to supplement the high cost of living in this area. It's been crucial to my existence. I couldn't have gone to school full time without it.

How does Airbnb actually work?

Airbnb is a platform for people to list their spaces. People that are on Airbnb can search for the type of space that they're looking for depending on what they need, and they're matched based on the criteria they input. I get a lot of people here on vacation, a lot of first time New York visitors, a lot of European visitors.  It's a good alternative to hotels which are really expensive. Airbnb promotes a shared economy. It's not just about making money; it's about experiencing culture, promoting travel, and meeting different people. I've been using it since 2011.

So Airbnb and the GI Bill completely fund your living expenses and college education?

It's a temporary fix, but yes. It funds everything and then some. Summer and winter seasons are really busy, but I do have some slow months. Since I live in a popular neighborhood I do have someone here at all times. Having good reviews are important too.

How is New York legislation interfering with the Airbnb system?

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't know the exact problem that the company is facing. There is a law out there that targets people using Airbnb more for illegal hostels and hotels. The law is meant to target people doing that, but the law also groups in people like me who are just renting out their extra space to generate income. I feel like the law should be clarified or rewritten. I'm just one story; there are so many people who use Airbnb just to get by. It lets people with low income create a viable living situation. The law needs to be clearer.

Does the law have an immediate impact, or will it cause problems only if it's passed?

Right now, it's not illegal for people to rent their extra room. It's not affecting me directly right now, but it could if the law outlaws Airbnb completely or the company decides to close its New York market because of the lawsuit. Either way, we can't use it. Right now we can only rent a room. What's specifically illegal is renting the whole apartment without you being there. I'm not affected because I'm only renting a room, but a lot of people do rent their whole space.

What can people do to help the cause aside from adding signatures?

Right now it's still hazy. We don't know what we can do in legal terms, but Airbnb is getting people mobilized in different areas. Other than awareness, other than the petition, at this moment there isn't much else since everything is still relatively new. We're trying to get people to sign the petition and tell their stories since that's what will get the politicians to see what's going on. People can email stories to Airbnb for use in their defense. Some people use it for the military transition, some for medical reasons, it's all evidence.

What prompted you to start the petition?

There was an email from Airbnb about the attorney general requesting signatures, and I think that started a panic throughout the whole Airbnb community. One for privacy reasons, and it really got people scared about whether this was going to be a viable option for them anymore. There was a lot of confusion. Right away I thought, "no one knows what this means or what it might affect. We should try to change what's happening."

What would be your one piece advice for transitioning servicemembers and recent veterans?

Have a financial plan and understand what resources are available to you. Navigating the GI Bill is tedious. Do your homework and start applying before you get out. You get used to the paycheck, but once you get out it takes a while to transition. You need to know what your options are for building a sustainable income.

A lot servicemembers get out and have unemployment for a while, but then that runs out and they're not doing anything to find employment. There are so many opportunities for veterans in every state. They need to get the most information that they can prior to entering the civilian world so they come into it fully equipped with a financial plan, an educational plan, a healthcare option, everything. The resources exist, it's just a pain in the butt to get them.  It's not something that happens overnight.

If you want to sign the petition, join the 200,000 signatures here.

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