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Squatting as an Art Form: An AirBnB Cautionary Tale

By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

Airbnb seemed like a win/win for everyone at first. Hotels were expensive and restrictive, so why not rent a room in someone's house or stay in someone's apartment while they were out of town? Just people helping people get a little extra cash in exchange for some homey lodging. What could go wrong?

Plenty of things can go wrong nowadays. Homeowners have given way to real estate ventures with fat portfolios of short-term rental properties. Low prices have crept upwards. Guests are expected to clean and maintain the property or else face hundreds of dollars in fees from the owners ("cleaning fees" are a big complaint from Airbnb users). Airbnb owners exacerbate housing shortages by buying up desirable properties and turning them into short-term rentals. Forget the win/win proposition. Airbnb owners win. But before you jump on the Airbnb train and start renting your home or a guest house, be forewarned that there can be some unexpected hazards.

The Actual Story

This story isn't about Airbnb. Not directly, anyway. The previous paragraphs are there to provide context. To make sure you don't judge the subject of this story prematurely – because she might just be a hero to some.

Okay, "hero" might be a bit strong. But she may have some supporters who have a problem with Airbnb and California's housing crisis.

The Tenant from Hell

Sascha Jovanovic is a periodontist who lives in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. While the median home value in Brentwood is around $775k, the more exclusive Crestwood Hills neighborhood in which Jovanovic lives is significantly pricier, with the median home value above $3 million. At some point Jovanovic decided to make some upgrades to the guest house attached to his actual house and start renting it out on Airbnb.

In 2021, Jovanovic agreed to rent his guest house to a woman named Elizabeth Hirschhorn. She would stay at his guest house from September 2021 to March 2022 – about a six-month stay – for which she would pay $105 per night. For the non-numerically inclined, that's a total of about $18,900, or about $3,150 per month, slightly higher than the average rent for the area.

The arrangement was fine … for a while. The first cracks started showing in February 2022, when Hirschhorn called to inform Jovanovic of a problem with the electric blinds in the unit (which apparently exist, for those of us who don't live in a smart home). Jovanovic noticed a leak in the guest house which was causing mold, so he told Hirschhorn that he'd be sending contractors in to fix it. He even offered to pay for Hirschhorn to stay at a hotel for five nights as the contractors completed their work.

Hirschhorn said no. She refused to let the contractors into the unit, citing COVID-19 safety and an old doctor's note that essentially said that she was too sensitive for anyone to do any construction around her. She also claimed that she would have to be relocated if there were any construction, which just so happens to be the solution that Jovanovic had suggested in the first place. Hirschhorn called the police on the contractors and her landlord and took videos of the so-called "intrusions" when Jovanovic let himself into his own property.

And then it got worse.

Hirschhorn's prepaid stay ended on the day she and Jovanovic had agreed on, but she didn't leave. Jovanovic even offered to let her stay for 24 nights for free so she'd have time to find somewhere else to stay. In exchange Hirschhorn sent him messages claiming she felt harassed by Jovanovic's attempts to make what he considered necessary repairs.

By the time the 24 free nights were up, Hirschhorn had found a loophole to make it almost impossible for Jovanovic to make her leave.

First, Hirschhorn called city housing inspectors, who informed her that Jovanovic had added a shower to the guesthouse without a permit and had been renting it out without getting the approval of the city. This made it much harder for Jovanovic to claim that she was illegally occupying his property, as technically there wasn't a proper residence to occupy.

Next, Hirschhorn either realized or made sure that her stay on Jovanovic's property lasted more than six months. See, LA's COVID protections ended in March 2022, right around the time Hirschhorn's Airbnb contract ended – and also right around the time LA's new Just Cause Ordinance went into effect. Because she'd been there for more than six months, the Ordinance required Jovanovic to pay relocation assistance if he wanted her to leave.

Hirschhorn then listed a litany of "defective and hazardous conditions in the Unit, including, but not limited to, a defective and improperly installed sink, which caused water leaks" (as in the leaks she wouldn't let Jovanovic repair) in her counter-complaint.

And here's the really ironic part: Because the unit wasn't registered with the city, Hirschhorn is demanding her money back plus a whole $100,000 in relocation fees if Jovanovic wants her to leave.

Hirschhorn has now been living rent-free for over 540 days. Jovanovic is somewhat less than thrilled about the arrangement.

It's worth noting that this isn't the first time Hirschhorn has used the legal system to her advantage – it isn't even the first time she's squatted on a luxury property for months.

It's not clear how Hirschhorn makes her money. She's a Harvard graduate in her mid-50s with writing credits on shows like "The Osbornes" and … not a whole lot else. It seems like she may be a professional legal troll.

So calling Hirschhorn a hero may not be accurate. A reasonable person would probably remove her from their group chats and leave her name off any and all guest lists in perpetuity. But at the same time, there's a certain grudging respect you have to give this educated squatter for taking advantage of the situation. Particularly if you've just had to complete all of the household chores for your Airbnb rental to avoid a cleaning fee.

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