Advertisement

Hijacked: A renter turned L.A. home into an illegal Airbnb from 5,000 miles away, lawsuit says

A couple sitting on a couch
Nikeeta Sriram, left, and Peter Banachowski rented their home to a man named Nicholas Jarzabek, who then immediately started renting it on Airbnb, which was not allowed in the lease.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Share

Nikeeta Sriram would love to live in her Mid-Wilshire home.

But she can’t because, for the last two years, a steady stream of guests have been able to live there. They just had to click an online link.

Caught in an Airbnb ordeal, Sriram has seen property damage racking up while she fights to win back her home, her lawsuit alleges.

Social media shows that the man accused of taking over the rental, Nicholas Jarzabek, currently lives 5,000 miles away in England. Neither Jarzabek nor his attorney responded to multiple requests for comment.

Advertisement

Fans know him as Nick Diver, a touring musician who recently released his latest album, “Black Liquorice.” Sriram knows him as the tenant who turned his two-year rental into a money-making Airbnb operation.

“He seemed like the perfect tenant,” she said. “Until he turned into a nightmare.”

::

Sriram, 31, wrapped up grad school and moved to L.A. in 2021, signing a yearlong lease with a friend in Los Feliz. As the housing market raged at the height of the pandemic, and interest rates dropped, she bought a home in the Mid-Wilshire area for $1.675 million in March 2022.

Sriram and Banachowski have been fighting Airbnb to stop guests from entering the home.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Not wanting to break her current lease, she decided to stay in her place and rent out the new home. She received a handful of applications — including one from Jarzabek — but instead rented it out to a pair of men in their 20s who were starting an underwear company, Peppermint.

The company failed, and they moved out in August three months after signing. Sriram put the place back on the market, and a familiar applicant popped up: Jarzabek.

“I didn’t think anything of it at the time. I figured he just really liked the house,” she said. “But it’s obviously suspicious in hindsight. Most renters are trying to move on a specific timeline, and you don’t see people applying for the same house three months apart.”

Advertisement

Jarzabek’s plan for the property eventually became clear. The Mid-Wilshire estate holds two homes: a two-story main house with three bedrooms, and a one-bedroom back house with a loft.

Double the homes, double the earning potential on Airbnb.

Jarzabek, 36, seemed like a stellar tenant. He had more than $1 million in the bank, according to bank statements reviewed by The Times, and made a great impression on the walk-through, driving up in a white Tesla and sporting a Rolex.

“He talked about the house nicely and offered to put rugs down so he wouldn’t scratch the floors,” Sriram said. “He said he’d treat it like it was his own.”

Real estate records show that Jarzabek grew up in Idaho and lived in L.A. in recent years, but his Instagram suggests that he’s currently playing shows at London pubs under the name Nick Diver and with his band, The Sprits.

The walk-through was the last time Sriram ever saw him in person.

In retrospect, Sriram said, the only red flag that popped up that day was when Jarzabek asked to move in on Aug. 26, a few days before the lease started on Sept. 1. She said yes, assuming he was simply excited to have his new place.

In reality, he already had the house listed on Airbnb, and guests were on their way.

The first year of Jarzabek’s tenancy was quiet. He always paid the $8,500 rent on time or early and never asked for repairs. Whenever the home’s ADT alarm was tripped — Sriram had installed it after an intruder broke into the house when it was vacant — he was quick to respond with texts such as “Sorry my mistake,” or “Messed up the code.”

Advertisement

“He seemed like a very responsible tenant, but now I know it’s because he wanted me to never come to the property,” Sriram said.

Jarzabek’s Airbnb listings of the property came to light 16 months into his lease on Dec. 29, 2023, when the ADT alarm was triggered so many times in a row that the company automatically called the police, who sent an officer to the home the next day.

When Sriram called ADT, the company said the police reported that Airbnb guests had triggered the alarm.

Sriram and her boyfriend, Peter Banachowski, assumed there was some type of mistake. They’d rented the house to Jarzabek, and the lease banned subletting, including on any short-term rental sites such as Airbnb.

Sriram called Jarzabek, who denied renting it out. But then she looked on Airbnb and found her property up for grabs. The main house was listed for $688 per night, and the back house was listed for $496 per night, according to Airbnb listings in the eviction lawsuit she later filed.

Together, they had more than 100 reviews.

As squatting becomes more of an issue in Southern California, a man named Flash Shelton has taken on the alias of the “Squatter Hunter,” offering to remove squatters with a variety of strategies, even squatting alongside them at times.

March 12, 2024

Jarzabek did not respond to requests for comment. But subpoenaed records and details from the lawsuit to evict him lay out an elaborate, persistent plan to turn Sriram’s home into a cash cow.

Advertisement

The Airbnb was hosted under the name Rich Jacobs. It’s unclear whether that is an alias used by Jarzabek, or someone that Jarzabek contracted to operate the Airbnb.

The host used two strategies to keep the Airbnb listings hidden from Sriram. First, they never included photos of the home’s exterior. According to the lawsuit, each one showed a picture of the Grove shopping center followed by photos of the interiors, which are harder to identify.

The listing also provided a false address, initially telling guests the Airbnb was located at 1830 S. La Brea Ave., which is the address for a motel called the Starlight Inn, located about a mile away from the home. Then, once the house was booked, Jacobs messaged guests telling them the actual address, according to Airbnb reviews of the listing.

The strategy concealed Sriram’s actual address and allowed Jacobs to avoid posting a registration number, which is typically required for Airbnb listings in L.A., but not for hotels or motels. Photos filed in court by Sriram show that the listing claims it’s exempt from displaying a registration number because it’s a hotel or motel, despite it clearly being marketed as a home.

The listing for the larger home had an average rating of 4.76 stars out of 5, and the smaller home averaged 4.46 stars — not terrible marks, but reviews included in the court filings hinted at something shady.

“Easy to find once the correct address was found, Air BNB listed a different address than [was sent] by the Owner,” one said.

Advertisement

“The host adopted a very nasty and aggressive tone with us when we had difficulty learning how to cancel on your website,” said one guest who accused Jacobs of canceling their stay after they said their plane would be arriving late.

When Sriram confronted Jarzabek over the phone, he said to contact his lawyer.

So she got creative. On Feb. 6, she booked the house herself so she could communicate with Jacobs through the chat function on Airbnb and asked him to stop listing it.

“STOP RELISTING THIS PROPERTY. You are not authorized to sublease this property!” she wrote.

The response from Jacobs was either automated or apathetic: “Dear Nikeeta, Welcome and Thank You. You will have a great time here.”

After the back-and-forth, the listings were removed, but new ones were created shortly after. In the meantime, Sriram filed for an eviction through the L.A. Superior Court, and in April she filed a cease and desist to Jarzabek’s attorney.

Sriram considered changing the locks to keep out Jarzabek and the Airbnb guests altogether, but that would’ve been a violation of the lease, opening her up to damages. The only way to legally remove a tenant is through the eviction process.

Advertisement

While Sriram navigated the court system, the properties continued being rented, court documents show. This time, it was under a new owner profile: Monthier.

Monthier, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, appears to be a rental company with listings across the country and multiple accounts on Airbnb. It’s unclear who is running the company, and it’s also unclear whether Monthier’s other listings are connected to Jarzabek. But Airbnb reviews of Monthier’s listings reveal some red flags.

“The access to the apartment is not like the picture. It is another address,” said one review for a studio suite in Austin, Texas.

“Location doesn’t match listing. The photos are accurate but where it’s located is definitely not great. Host is also not great,” said one about a studio in downtown Los Angeles.

Reviews of the listing of Sriram’s home, which has since been deleted, paint a clearer picture of what happened.

“The actual owners showed up with legal documents noting ongoing violations and eviction proceedings and removed us from the property,” one said.

Advertisement

The owner who removed the guest was Sriram, along with Banachowski. After the listings kept popping up, they decided to drive there whenever Airbnb showed that either house was booked and explain the situation to the guests.

Sriram said all the guests she talked to — a lawyer and her son, a family vacationing from Italy — were understanding but obviously frustrated. When the guests called the host’s phone number, there was no answer.

“I felt terrible. I didn’t want to ruin their vacations,” Sriram said. “But this is our only recourse since Airbnb provided no help to us.”

Last year, an Airbnb guest at a luxury studio in Brentwood refused to check out after her scheduled stay ended. She hasn’t paid rent in more than 500 days.

Oct. 4, 2023

Airbnb has changed the face of the short-term rental industry since it launched in 2008. Revenues for hosts have steadily climbed, and in 2022, L.A. Airbnb hosts raked in more than $375 million.

It’s also been a boon for the city; Airbnb hosts in L.A. paid more than $275 million in transient occupancy taxes from August 2016 to June 2023.

But during that stretch, the city has failed to crack down on illegal listings.

Data show that as profits soar and hosts charge higher and higher rates for rentals, thousands of listings on Airbnb and other sites such as VRBO are operating without an active registration. The lack of regulation has led to confusion and chaos, causing situations like the one last summer in Brentwood, when The Times chronicled the fight between an Airbnb host and a guest who simply refused to leave the luxury unit for 570 days.

Advertisement

In the Brentwood situation, Airbnb told the host there was nothing they could do because he extended the stay beyond the original lease outlined on the site. But what does it owe to Sriram — a host who isn’t a host at all, but rather a homeowner who says her house has been uploaded to the platform without her consent?

On its website, Airbnb admits that there are limitations to its listing verification process, saying that, “Even with safeguards, no verification process is foolproof and we cannot guarantee a listing’s location or that the Host has access to it.”

It also notes that it doesn’t inspect listings for accuracy. That could explain how Jarzabek claimed his listings were motels and didn’t require a registration number.

In March, as part of the eviction lawsuit, Sriram subpoenaed Airbnb for information on Jarzabek and found out that although he communicated with Sriram using a phone number with a New York area code, the number registered for Jacobs with Airbnb had a +44 code, the country code for the United Kingdom.

For the record:

4:18 p.m. June 7, 2024The $215,954 in payouts referred to below represents the gross amount received for the property from airbnb, not profits.

The subpoena also shed light on the profits: for 16 months between 2022 and 2023, the Airbnb listing generated $215,954 in payouts — an average of roughly $13,500 per month — all from a property that the host didn’t own, wasn’t authorized to sublet and allegedly wasn’t in the country to operate. It’s not clear if he had other similar listings.

“If the city can’t figure out how to crack down on Airbnb, it should err on the side of caution and ban the platform until it can build a task force to manage it,” Sriram said. “The current solution is to let havoc ensue and see what happens.”

During its reporting, The Times reached out to Airbnb to ask about the listings still being active. A few days later, the listings were removed from the site. So far, they haven’t resurfaced, and guests have stopped showing up to the property.

Advertisement

On Tuesday, an Airbnb spokesperson confirmed that the company deleted the Jacobs account and its listings.

“There is no place on Airbnb for hosts who circumvent the City of Los Angeles’ homesharing ordinance or our Terms of Service,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to work closely with city officials to address hosts who try to evade the rules just as we have done in the past.”

::

After months in court, Sriram’s unlawful-detainer lawsuit was recently approved, allowing her to move forward with evicting Jarzabek. She also received a writ of possession, which allows a sheriff to take hold of the property and grant it back to Sriram.

However, this process can only be carried out by a sheriff, and there’s currently a three-month wait, since the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department is backed up with eviction requests after the COVID-19 eviction moratorium expired in March 2023.

Sriram estimates she’s lost $100,000 since the beginning of the year between property damage, legal fees and lost rent, since Jarzabek stopped paying after she filed the eviction notice. She said she hasn’t been able to address the property damage, including water damage to the ceilings and walls, since she can’t get back into the home, according to her lawsuit.

“His Instagram shows that he has tour dates in pubs across the U.K.,” Banachowski said. “I understand why we have eviction protections for people in L.A., but why is it illegal for us to get our house back from a guy who’s not even in the country?”

The pair would love to sue Jarzabek for damages, but the process of suing someone who’s living in another country can be complicated and costly.

Advertisement

For now, Sriram and Banachowski wait. They’re checking the site regularly and holding their breath, hoping no other unwitting Airbnb guests have booked their home.

Advertisement
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news
news