Berlin and Barcelona use detectives to root out illegal vacation rentals | Barcelona
Ohen Eckhard Sagitza and his team of Airbnb Detectives roam the fashionable streets of Berlin’s Friedrichshain district, keeping an eye out for pairs of colorful rental bikes locked outside apartment building doors.
The recent blast Dockless bike rental schemes in European cities may have been decried by local politicians, but for the Sherlock Holmes of the German capital’s housing authority, they’re a handy clue in their crusade against landlords thugs.
“If you see two of them outside for two nights in a row, there’s a good chance someone in your building is renting out their apartment to tourists,” said Sagitza, who tracks down those who break strict house rules. Berlin on vacation rentals.
Its enemies are professional landlords who buy property for the sole purpose of making a fortune through vacation rentals, depleting the city’s housing supply and excluding retirees and low-income people from the neighborhood – an analysis that ‘Airbnb naturally rejects.
To hunt down its culprits, Sagitza also relies on residents who suspect their neighbors of illegally renting their apartments. They are encouraged to post anonymous tips through a “snitch portal” on the Berlin authority’s website, a controversial move in a city with memories of Stasi mass surveillance.
But Berlin’s militant approach to vacation rentals has started to pay off. Between April 2016, when the city brought back an old property embezzlement law and adapted it to those who rent apartments through platforms such as Airbnb, and the end of last year, approximately 8,000 apartments have been put back on the regular rental market – more than double what the city’s own construction company has managed to build in the same period.
In the fashionable district of Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg alone, particularly popular with young tourists from all over the world, the Sagitza team imposed fines of 1.7 million euros (although recovering the fines was difficult: only 124 228 euros have been paid to the town hall so far).
Following a series of court cases and lobbying by Airbnb, the senate and the city parliament of Berlin this year relaxed their law: owner-occupiers can now, under certain conditions, rent their own accommodation as much as they wish and rent second homes for up to 90 days per year.
But fines have also increased fivefold to €500,000, and anyone wishing to rent out their primary or secondary property must first obtain a €250 license – a response to the cover-up tactics used by online rental platforms .
Hard data has been difficult to obtain. “When we tried to get information about an apartment,” Sagitza said, “we were told to contact Dublin, where Airbnb’s servers are based.” In Dublin, they were told that under Irish law the relevant data could only be obtained by court order.
The new licensing system, said Katalin Gennburg, Die Linke’s delegate for Berlin’s Treptow district, could allow the city to hide Airbnb’s data on who rents an apartment where – as long as the home-sharing giant cooperates and requires license numbers to be displayed on its advertisements. The system should be in place by August 1, but Airbnb says the city has been too vague about what it has in mind.
Those who want to get around the law probably will. Airbnb claims its typical Berlin host shares their home for 30 nights a year and earns 1,900 euros, but a recent data scraping project showed that 10% of users rented more than one apartment, and some up to 40.
Berlin’s boroughs are administered as self-contained units, which means any “powerful host” who distributes second homes across the 12 boroughs would have a good chance of escaping the net of Airbnb sleuths.
Hopes that the “Airbnb law” will solve the city’s housing crisis may be unrealistic: a recent study found Berlin has the fastest rising property prices in the world. “Large parts of Berlin’s population are excluded from the city,” Sagitza said. “If we do nothing, we are headed for disaster.”
Earlier this year, vacation rental platform Airbnb launched #LoveBarcelona, a video campaign in which local hosts talk about how much they love people staying with them and enjoying their city. It made staying in an AirBnB apartment feel like visiting a kind old uncle.
But for most city dwellers, the corporate image is far from avuncular. It is widely seen as benefiting from tourist demand and speculator-friendly legislation that is driving up rents to the point where residents can no longer afford to live in the town.
Airbnb claims that 80% of the 18,531 homes advertised in Barcelona are owned solely by the owner. It also says more than half of their hosts are “house sharers”, people who rent out a room or two in their house in order to make ends meet.
That’s not the experience of City Council inspectors whose job it is to root 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 cease-and-desist orders, as well as a €600,000 fine to Airbnb in 2016 for advertising unlicensed apartments on its website (a fine the firm has yet to pay).
“All we ask is that Airbnb follow the law,” said Janet Sanz, the councilor responsible for housing. “A lot of times 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 Brussels because he wants the EU to introduce laws replacing local legislation, including on home 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 home like a hotel.”
Catalan law on tourist apartments basically means that they cannot be rented out without a permit. “There are 9,600 licensed apartments,” Sanz said. “We haven’t issued any new ones since 2014 and have no plans to do so.”
The city’s problem is particularly acute because its social housing stock is 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 make €3,000 a week renting to tourists instead of renting €800 a month to a resident, then there is clearly a temptation to do so.”
Rents in the city have risen 29% since 2014, driven by tourist demand but also encouraged by a 2013 reform of the main law governing long-term residential rentals. Spain’s national statistics office calculates that in Madrid and Barcelona rents have risen 12 times faster than wages over the past three years.
“Spain has the sad 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 have financial difficulties, they end up on the street.
Airbnb claims its “community” of hosts brought more than €1 billion to Barcelona last year, but others see the company as mere pests. “Authorities are at war with a platform that devalues the city and destroys its fabric, giving nothing in return,” Palomera said.