It’s been more than a year and a half since 18-year-old Elias Elhania was fatally shot at a house party in Sunnyvale, but his parents still see him in their lives.
“He is with us, around us all the time. We see him around when we go shopping, we see somebody who looks like him, or looks like his hair, wearing his sweater or shirt,” Zahra Elmenjaoui, Elias’ mother, told San José Spotlight. “It is really painful.”
Elhania was shot on Aug. 7, 2021 during a crowded and boisterous house party hosted at a home near the southern edge of Sunnyvale, rented through Airbnb.
Elmenjaoui and Abdallah Elhania, Elias’s father, are suing the massive online home rental platform and the owner of the home, alleging they both failed to follow local laws that would have prevented their son’s death.
The suit, filed in San Francisco County Superior Court on March 22, seeks an unspecified amount of damages for the family and for the company to change its practices. For now, the case has been moved to federal court on request from Airbnb.
Teresa Li, an attorney representing the family, told San José Spotlight the owner of the home, Ke Zhou, was violating city rules in place since 2015 that require a homeowner to live on-site during all short-term rentals, and to register their home with the city for a short-term rental permit. Li said the city’s rules were designed to prevent these kinds of large parties from happening at local homes.
“People only rent entire houses to throw a wild party. Nobody is going to rent one room with the homeowner living on-site to throw a wild party,” Li said. “This was not the first time this has happened, and it’s not going to be the last time until Airbnb stops the practice of completely disregarding the law.”
Airbnb allowed the house to be listed on its platform as an “entire home” despite violating both city policies, the lawsuit alleges.
Airbnb did not respond to a request for comment. Zhou couldn’t be reached for comment.
A preventable tragedy
Roughly 150-200 people flocked to the house at 1447 Navarro Dr. for the party on Aug. 7, 2021, which was advertised on social media. Li said there was a cover charge for some guests, alcohol was being served and most people who attended were under the age of 21.
A neighbor called police to complain about excessive noise, Li said. While responding officers were at the front of the home, Elias Elhania was shot in the back of the home by a 17-year-old he did not know, according to Li. He was taken to a hospital and later died. It’s unclear what led to the shooting. Another person was shot, but survived their injuries. A 17-year-old was arrested on suspicion of the shooting, and his case is pending in juvenile court, Li said.
Sunnyvale has since added further requirements, including that Airbnb hosts list their city-issued permit number on their listing and that Airbnb and other platforms inform hosts of the city rules, hoping to make it easier for city staff to investigate violations and ensure that all hosts register with the city.
Sunnyvale Mayor Larry Klein didn’t respond to a request for comment.
This is not the first lawsuit stemming from the Sunnyvale house party. Both the city and the state jointly sued the homeowner last year, and the case is still pending, Li said. Airbnb also said it would consider legal action against the person who rented out the Sunnyvale home, but Li said she is not aware of a case that has been filed by the company.
Airbnb was well aware of the dangers of allowing massive house parties to occur at its rentals, the lawsuit from the family alleges, as five people were killed in a shooting at an Airbnb rental “mansion party” in Orinda in 2019. A lawsuit stemming from that incident was settled, Li said.
There were dozens of shooting incidents at short-term rentals across the country in the six months leading up to the Orinda shooting, the lawsuit said, citing reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle.
Elias Elhania left behind two younger sisters, who his parents said he loved and cared for, and taught one of them how to swim. His father said his son was a “beautiful soul,” compassionate and bright. He enjoyed playing basketball and soccer, and helping his family, neighbors and friends. After a trip to Elhania’s homeland of Morocco in 2019, where his son saw young people struggling to access books, the younger Elhania was inspired to change their circumstances.
“He was thinking very deep at such a young age,” the elder Elhania said. “He told me, ‘Baba, I can open a charity or a nonprofit and raise money to go back and open a library for these poor kids.’”
His parents said they hope their lawsuit can help prevent other families from experiencing the grief they have endured.
“My son is a piece of me,” his mother said. “And he is gone.”