Amid the red-hot Manhattan rental market, one West Sider has found himself in hot water. He stands accused of illegally subletting his $8,000-a-month Hell’s Kitchen penthouse for as much as $1,500 a night on Airbnb and VRBO while not paying his own rent.

The VRBO listing for Mercedes House penthouse allegedly being illegally sublet
Jude Onicha is accused of putting his Mercedes House penthouse on VRBO for $1,500 a month, and on Airbnb. Photo: New York State Supreme Court

Jude Onicha, who currently rents the penthouse unit at the Mercedes House, a luxury skyrise located at 550 W54th Street, is being sued by the building’s management company MH 770-54th Street LLC for breach of contract. They allege that Onicha violated his lease by subletting his apartment through Airbnb and VRBO. In the listings he called the two-bed, two-bathroom unit “paradise on Earth”. 

According to court documents filed in New York’s Supreme Court last week, “since at least February 2020,” Onicha has been “renting and/or subletting the premises on a continuous basis to tourists and other transient visitors for stays of less than thirty (30) days, brazenly, openly and notoriously advertising the premises for profit, and well in excess” of Onicha’s $8,000 per month rent.

A VRBO listing for a Mercedes House penthouse which was allegedly illegally sublet
Court documents show what Jude Onicha’s landlords say is evidence he was illegally subletting his penthouse apartment for as much as $1,500 a month on VRBO and Airbnb. Photo: New York State Supreme Court

The landlords allege that by renting out his property, Onicha is in violation of the state’s Multiple Dwelling Law, New York City Housing Maintenance Code, New York City Building Code, Real Property Law and the Building’s Certificate of Occupancy.

The filings go on to declare that Onicha “has provided these transient guests, i.e. complete strangers to plaintiff and the building’s residents, with unfettered/unsupervised access to the building and premises, and in exchange, charges these transient guests nightly rental rates. While it is uncertain the exact number of occasions this has occurred, these acts, taken together, constitute a clear and present danger to the building’s residents.” 

Additionally, the lawsuit alleges that despite raking in rental profits, Onicha has not paid his own bill to the building, and owes “a staggering $246,699.88 in rental arrears to date.” Onicha has countered that the back rent should be paid by the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), to which he claims he filed an application for financial assistance. W42ST has reached out to ERAP representatives for confirmation of the application and we will update if we hear back. 

“I worked tirelessly for the past one year with NYS ERAP to get my application approved,” wrote Onicha to Scott Lofredo, the Mercedes House landlord’s attorney. “At this time, the building just need to complete their own part as indicated in the email from NYS ERAP so that payment can be made directly to the landlord,” he added. Official documents showed Onicha having received a PPP SBA loan of $126,383 in 2021. W42ST reached out to Onicha for comment on the case and we will update if we hear back. 

Lofredo told W42ST: “Mr Onicha is a rent-regulated tenant in a luxury penthouse apartment in New York City. Having seen an opportunity to take advantage of and exploit certain provisions of New York law, he decided to simultaneously withhold rent payments, apply for New York State Emergency Rental Assistance Program monies, and illegally sublet his apartment on for considerable profit—all while refusing to execute a rent-stabilized lease renewal. As a result of Mr Onicha’s conduct, the landlord has been compelled to seek a court order enjoining this illegal operation.”

The landlords filed screenshots of both the Airbnb and VRBO listings. They show that the property was being let for as much as $1,500 a night in February 2020, just before the start of the pandemic, and for $1,005 a night earlier this month. Reviews were positive: one Airbnb guest praised the penthouse views, another called it “perfection” and a Spanish-speaking guest called it “ESPECTACULAR.” The Airbnb host was named as “Carolina,” not Onicha.

Regardless of the Onicha case outcome, prospective short-term renters will soon face new barriers to profiting off their pads. In addition to federal officials prosecuting W42nd Street’s own short-term rental scammer, the infamous “Wolf of Airbnb”, the City Council has passed Local Law 18, determining that those who wish to sublet their apartment for less than 30 days must obtain an official registration with the Mayor’s Office of Special Enforcement.

Mercedes House, in Hell's Kitchen
“Paradise on Earth.” Jude Onicha is accused of illegally subletting his penthouse, and of failing to pay his rent, at Mercedes House on W54th Street between 10th and 11lth Avenues. Photo: Phil O’Brien

Speaking about the legislation that will go into effect in January 2023, Housing Conservation Coordinator Executive Director Leslie Thorpe said: “The enforcement of laws regulating the short-term rental scheme could not be more important than at this critical time when there is a housing crisis and tenants across the city are suffering. Let’s bring an end to the practice of bad actors making a profit at the expense of tenants who need affordable places to live.” 

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  1. Re “Onicha has countered that the back rent should be paid by the state’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP), to which he claims he filed an application for financial assistance,” in what world could this person/apartment ever be eligible for any assistance? Total lunacy.

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