Berlin and Barcelona use detectives to flush out illegal vacation rentals | Barcelona

When Eckhard Sagitza and his team of Airbnb detectives roam the fashionable streets of Berlin’s Friedrichshain district, they keep an eye out for pairs of colorful rental bikes locked outside apartment building doors.

The recent explosion of dockless bicycle rental programs in European cities may have been decried by local politicians, but for the Sherlock Holmes of the German capital’s housing authority, they are a useful clue in their crusade. against rogue owners.

“If you see two of them outside for two nights in a row, there’s a good chance someone in your apartment building is renting their apartment to tourists,” said Sagitza, who tracks down those who break the strict rules of Berlin on vacation rentals.

Its enemies are professional landlords who buy property for the sole purpose of making a fortune from vacation rentals, thereby draining the city’s housing supply and excluding retirees and lower income in the neighborhood – an analysis Airbnb says. naturally rejects.

To track down its culprits, Sagitza also relies on residents who suspect their neighbors of illegally renting their apartments. They are encouraged to post anonymous denunciations through a “snitch portal” on the Berlin authorities’ website, a controversial move in a city with a memory of mass Stasi surveillance.

But Berlin’s activist approach to vacation rentals has started to bear fruit. Between April 2016, when the city reinstated an old embezzlement law and made it suitable for those who rent apartments through platforms such as Airbnb, and the end of last year, around 8,000 apartments were reintegrated into the regular rental market – more than double what the city’s construction company managed to build in the same period.

In the trendy Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg district alone, which is particularly popular with young tourists from all over the world, the Sagitza team imposed fines of 1.7 million euros (although collecting the fines was difficult: alone 124,228 euros have been paid to the board so far).

Following a series of court cases and Airbnb lobbying, the Berlin senate and parliament relaxed their law earlier this year: homeowners can now, under certain conditions, rent their own homes. as many as they like and rent second homes for up to 90 days a year.

But fines have also quintupled to € 500,000, and anyone who wants to rent out their primary or secondary property must first obtain a € 250 license – a response to cover-up tactics used by online rental platforms.

Hard data was hard to find. “When we tried to get information about an apartment,” said Sagitza, “we were told to contact Dublin, where Airbnb’s servers are based.” In Dublin, they were told that under Irish law, relevant data could only be obtained with a court order.

The new licensing system, said Katalin Gennburg, Die Linke delegate for Berlin’s Treptow district, could allow the city to monitor Airbnb data on who is renting an apartment where – as long as the roommate giant cooperates and requires that license numbers be displayed on its advertisements. The system is expected to be in place by August 1, but Airbnb says the city has been too vague on what it has in mind.

Those who want to get around the law probably will. Airbnb says its typical Berlin host shares his home for 30 nights a year and earns $ 1,900, but a recent data scraping project showed that 10% of users rent more than one apartment, and some as many as 40.

Berlin’s boroughs are administered as autonomous units, which means that any “powerful host” who spread second homes across the 12 boroughs would have a good chance of escaping the net of Airbnb detectives.

Hopes that the “Airbnb law” will solve the city’s housing crisis may be unrealistic: a recent study found that Berlin has the highest house prices in the world. “A large part of the Berlin population is excluded from the city,” Sagitza said. “If we do nothing, we are headed for disaster.”

Barcelona

Earlier this year, vacation rental platform Airbnb launched #LoveBarcelona, ​​a video campaign in which local hosts share how much they love people to stay with them and enjoy their city. It felt like visiting a good old uncle in an AirBnB apartment.

But for most of the city’s residents, the image of the company is far from avuncular. It is widely seen as benefiting from tourist demand and pro-speculator legislation that pushes rents up to the point where residents can no longer afford to live in the city.

Banners against tourist apartments hang from balconies as Barcelona‘s new mayor tries to crack down on uncontrolled tourism. Photograph: Albert Gea / Reuters / Reuters

Airbnb claims that 80% of the 18,531 advertised properties in Barcelona are owner-owned. He also says more than half of their hosts are “home sharers,” people who rent out a room or two in their home in order to make ends meet.

This is not the experience of municipal inspectors whose job it is to stamp out illegal vacation rentals. Aided by a hotline where residents can report what they believe to be illegal rentals, the city issued 3,000 fines and 2,200 business termination orders, as well as a € 600,000 fine to Airbnb in 2016 for advertising unlicensed apartments on their website (a fine from the company still has to be paid).

“All we ask is that Airbnb obey the law,” said Janet Sanz, the housing advisor. “Often, when they say they want to negotiate, what they’re really asking is to break the law, but that’s not negotiable.

Sanz says Airbnb is lobbying in Brussels because it wants the EU to introduce laws that take precedence over local law, including housing sharing, currently not covered by any legislation in Spain. No one would object to someone renting a room in their house, she said, but not five or six. “It’s treating your house like a hotel.”

Catalan tourist apartments law basically means that they cannot be rented without a permit. “There are 9,600 licensed apartments,” Sanz said. “We haven’t issued any new ones since 2014, and we have no plans to do so. ”

The city’s problem is particularly acute because its social housing stock represents only 1.5% of the total, compared to around 28% in Berlin and more than 50% in Amsterdam. The national budget for social housing is currently zero.

Speculation and vacation rental platforms go hand in hand, Sanz said. “If you can earn € 3,000 per week by renting to tourists instead of renting it € 800 per month to a resident, the temptation is clearly to do so.

Rents in the city have increased by 29% since 2014, driven by tourist demand but also encouraged by a reform in 2013 of the main law governing long-term residential rentals. Spain’s national statistics office calculates that in Madrid and Barcelona, ​​rents have increased 12 times faster than wages over the past three years.

“Spain has the dubious honor of being the OECD country with the highest proportion of households spending more than 40% of their income on rent,” said Jaime Palomera of the tenants union. “In Barcelona, ​​the rate is 45%. If they encounter financial difficulties, they end up on the streets.

Airbnb says its host “community” attracted more than a billion euros to Barcelona last year, but others see the company as a mere parasite. “The authorities are at war with a platform that takes the city’s value and destroys its fabric, giving nothing in return,” Palomera said.

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