Millions of dollars are flowing into Jersey City ahead of the upcoming election on November 5th. But that money isn’t going towards boosting a political candidate. Instead, it’s an attempt to sway public opinion on the city’s recently-passed restrictions for short-term rentals listed on services like Airbnb.

If Jersey City residents vote “yes” on the ballot question, they’ll vote to uphold a host of regulations set to go into effect next year (with a year-long phase-in period), the most significant of which will cap many short-term rentals in the city at 60 days a year. 

Homeowners can still rent up to two units in multi-family buildings they live in on a short-term basis all year long, while co-op and condo boards are allowed to set their own rules regarding vacation rentals.

Airbnb has allotted $3.3 million to encourage residents to vote no and overturn the regulations through a campaign called Keep Our Homes. The company has spent over a million dollars since the summer, including $80,000 to collect the thousands of signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot, according to filings with New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Keep Our Homes has inundated the airwaves with television ads, and plastered doorsteps with flyers. Edgar Rivera Colon, 55, a lifelong Jersey City resident, counted 13 flyers mailed to his apartment building over a recent two-week span. Eleven came from Keep Our Homes. 

“I think the more they advertise...the more people are gonna get angry and go vote,” Rivera Colon said. 

Jersey City has become an increasingly popular destination for tourists to the area, and has seen a 500 percent spike in short-term rental listings since 2015, according to the site Inside Airbnb. The city of 265,000 is just one stop away from Lower Manhattan on the PATH train, and the explosion of Airbnb there has coincided with New York City’s crackdown on short-term rentals, which was passed in 2016.

The new rules are an about-face from a 2015 law, that effectively legalized short-term rentals in the city and imposed a 6 percent hotel tax.

Jersey City Council members who crafted the new regulations say they’re trying to rein in bad actors, like a developer that received tax abatements to build housing, but converted the entire 83-unit building into a hotel, or investors who rent apartments en masse and turn them into Airbnbs. Supporters of the regulations say this drives up housing costs for residents of the rapidly-growing city.

Airbnb in Jersey

Some of the flyers

Some of the flyers
Gwynne Hogan / WNYC

“We’re not asking to take things away from people. We’re just asking for sensible regulations to maintain the safety of our neighborhoods and the safety of our residents,” said Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey, who co-sponsored the legislation. “The legislation is not a ban.”

But Liz deBold Fusco, an Airbnb representative in charge of the Keep Our Homes campaign, disagreed with that characterization.

“Yes, this is a ban absolutely and it is going to ban our hosts and prevent them [from] responsibly shar[ing] their homes,” deBold Fusco said. She said Airbnb supports some restrictions on short-term rentals, but the company takes issue with several elements of Jersey City’s law, like forbidding renters from renting their apartments or rooms in their apartments for less than 28 days. 

This is by no means the first time Airbnb has intervened in local politics to protect the company’s interests. It’s battled with local officials in San Diego, Boston and Nashville, and in 2015, the company spent more than $8 million to quash a ballot measure that would have restricted short-term rentals in San Francisco and won.

The other big dog in Jersey City’s referendum fight is the Hotel Trades Council - the union for hotel workers and a major player in local politics. The HTC has spent $900,000 on an opposing campaign to get residents to vote “yes” and uphold Jersey City’s regulations to curtail short-term rentals in the city.

The Vote Yes campaign has garnered backers from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, the Working Families Party, local police and fire unions, and neighborhood associations. 

Airbnb is attempting to push back on  the local political establishment by elevating the stories of a handful of hosts who stand to be impacted by the city’s new rules. One of them is Nathan Taylor, whose face has appeared in a slew of the campaign’s glossy pamphlets and television ads. Taylor is a renter who leases two different apartments - a studio and a three-bedroom. He said he lives between them, depending on which one he’s renting out. Since he’s a renter he’s prohibited from subletting his units.

“It’s something I’ve been doing since 2012,” Taylor said. “I love to host people, I meet people from all over the world.” 

He’s also an artist, and he uses the apartments to display his paintings, which he often sells to guests of his de facto art boutique. While Taylor estimates about 75 percent of his guests are tourists, he said 25 percent of them are Jersey City residents in need of housing on a short-term basis for a myriad of reasons.

“People are moving into town, they’re moving out of town. People are in emergency situations and they need immediate affordable goes on and on,” Taylor said. “Short-term rentals [are] a safety net. It’s necessary, we need it.”

Airbnb has also rolled out some local political supporters of their own including Rev. Nathaniel B. Legay, president of the city’s chapter of the NAACP. Legay, cited the prohibition on renters like Nathan Taylor from using short-term sublets as “economic discrimination.”

Airbnb in Jersey City

Nathan Taylor has been featured in Airbnb's flyers

Nathan Taylor has been featured in Airbnb's flyers
Gwynne Hogan / WNYC

Jersey City residents, particularly those who live within walking distance of the PATH train, have noticed the surge in tourists in the last few years.

“I'm seeing so many Airbnb people. We see luggage in and out of the area they really crowd up the PATH train as well,’ said 53-year-old Weihung Lee, who has owned his downtown home for 20 years. Two doors down, he said. “It's a mess.”

“The whole building is an Airbnb so I sometimes just see the garbage pails out there because people don't live there,” Lee said.

But some residents said they were on the fence about about the referendum. Carol Greenberg wouldn't say which way she would vote, but she said she sympathized with people looking to supplement their income in the increasingly expensive city.

“I do understand taxes have really gone up,” Greenberg said. “They’re making the best decisions that they know how.”

Update: We have added clarification that homeowners can still rent up to two units in multi-family buildings they live in on a short-term basis all year long, while co-op and condo boards are allowed to set their own rules regarding vacation rentals.

Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.