Berlin had some of the most restrictive rules in the world for Airbnb rentals. Now it loosens up.


BERLIN — For cities looking to take a hard line on Airbnb and other short-term home rentals, the German capital has been a model of determination.

In 2016, Berlin implemented some of the toughest vacation rental laws in the world. With few exceptions, the city has made short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb and Wimdu illegal, with fines of up to 100,000 euros (about $123,000) for hosts who break the law.

But two years later, Berlin is easing restrictions on roommates – a change that Airbnb is celebrating and other city tourism destinations may be watching with concern. As Berlin has learned, cracking down on private home rentals is a daunting task, and the courts aren’t necessarily on your side.

“Cities need to let go of the dream that they have control over these platforms because this is no longer the world we live in,” said Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University.

Berlin has claimed some success since banning most short-term house rentals. Its 2016 law bans home sharing except for people who want to rent extra rooms or who have been given one of the few government permits. Officials report that by the end of 2017, they had put about 4,000 apartments back on the long-term rental market and collected about $3.2 million in fines.

But despite the city’s intentions, the short-term rental market continued to grow.

Airbnb bookings in Berlin in 2016, when the ban went into effect, were up 68% from 2015, according to Jeroen Oskam, research director at The Hague Hotelschool.

That’s slower growth than London (130%) and Amsterdam (125%), so Berlin’s law may have prevented an even bigger explosion.

“You can’t prove the slow growth was due to the law,” Oskam said, “but it may have scared off new market entrants.”

Yet Berlin remains the Airbnb capital of Germany – more apartments and rooms are on offer here than in Hamburg, Munich and Frankfurt combined. There are more than 20,576 listings in Berlin on Airbnb, and around half of them are for entire homes, according to the data-scraping site

“There are people out there who make a lot of money on short-term rentals, and they won’t be deterred so quickly,” said Reiner Braun, a researcher at Empirica, a Berlin-based institute that studies the housing market.

The large number of rentals and the fact that Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms traditionally do not publish addresses make enforcement difficult.

Eckhard Sagitza, 63, is housing manager for Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg, one of Berlin’s most popular areas for tourists. He and his team of six inspectors have various tricks to weed out illicit Airbnbs in their jurisdiction of 146,514 apartments. But they rely heavily on tipsters reporting suitcases making their way down the hall, combination locks on the front door, and road-weary strangers coming and going at odd hours.

“Usually it’s a report from a neighbor that alerts us,” Sagitza said.

He complained that major home-sharing platforms have rejected city requests to share host data, citing privacy laws and erecting bureaucratic hurdles.

This month, a Berlin court ruled at least partially in favor of Airbnb, ruling that the company’s German subsidiary is not required to share data about anonymous listings. City officials should contact the parent company in Dublin for further information.

Airbnb says its Dublin team is cooperating with city authorities and law enforcement across Europe. “Where we see the right kinds of processes, the right actions taken by cities, by police forces, by tax agencies, that data is available to people,” said Patrick Robinson, director of public policy at Airbnb. for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. .

But while the company is generally willing to share aggregate data, it maintains it won’t provide personal data unless there is a “valid legal basis that complies with national and European rules”.

Previous court rulings have also ruled in favor of Airbnb, ruling that a Berlin landlord should be allowed to offer his entire apartment for short-term rental for up to 182 days per year and that guests wishing to rent their second homes should be allowed to do so.

“The administrative courts have basically said, for roommates who rent out their rooms on a short-term basis, there is no public interest in keeping those rooms empty,” said Christian Eckart, a lawyer who has represented dozens of clients seeking to obtain permits from the city. .

Berlin officials, citing a housing shortage and rising rent prices, had argued that apartments were a public resource. “We wanted to make sure the city has affordable living space for residents,” said Iris Spranger, a member of the city legislature who advocated for the original law and its latest revisions.

But Braun, the housing researcher, is skeptical that banning Airbnbs could have much effect on housing availability or rent levels. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” he said. “To solve the housing shortage, Berlin should build 25,000 new apartments every year. But the city is only building about half of them, and they’ve been 15 years behind schedule.

New York University’s Sundararajan, who has studied sharing industries around the world, said an increase in Airbnb options could actually benefit cities by attracting businesses to neighborhoods that typically don’t experience tourism. and helping hosts with the cost of living.

“Maybe it’s different in the long run if everyone is an Airbnb host,” he said. “But I have so far seen no credible evidence that Airbnb is having an impact on long-term housing affordability.” He cited other factors contributing to rising rents, such as an increase in population, limited housing stock and higher incomes brought about by new industries such as technology.

Last week, after growing pressure to rethink its approach, Berlin’s city legislature voted to make key revisions to the law. Owners will be able to apply for permits to rent a primary residence for unlimited periods and secondary residences for up to 90 days per year. The revised law also increases fees for violations to a maximum of $616,000 and requires licensees to list a registration number on their rental listings.

Berlin hopes that with the revisions, which are due to come into force on May 1, it can allow housemates to rent out their apartments while preventing commercial interests from taking over.

“People all over the world are buying apartments in Berlin and renting them out as vacation rentals,” said Katrin Schmidberger, a member of the city legislature who helped draft the new reviews. “We want to protect Berlin’s living space for long-term residents.”

Airbnb welcomed the change.

“We want to continue our good dialogue with the city of Berlin and promote an unbureaucratic and citizen-friendly permit procedure,” Alexander Schwarz, Airbnb’s managing director for Germany, said in a statement.

But holding offenders accountable will likely remain a challenge, according to Housing Director Sagitza. He said he doubted the revisions close loopholes that allow companies to operate illegally.

Many other cities have attempted to regulate sharing economies such as vacation rentals. Paris and Amsterdam have instituted 120-day and 30-day limits on hosts, respectively. Barcelona requires landlords wishing to rent out their apartments to obtain a municipal permit or risk a fine of approximately $74,000.

“No city has succeeded in enforcing the law,” Oskam said. The big problem is the lack of transparency, said the Hotelschool research director. For example, Amsterdam has a tourist tax agreement with Airbnb, but no way to prove host compliance other than by relying on data provided by the company. “So we’re saying it’s basically a donation to the city,” he said.

Sundararajan said rather than fight for more control, cities should delegate responsibility. He offered a Example of London: Last year, Airbnb helped the city enforce its 90-day cap on hosts by making it impossible to rent an entire home for more days.

“There is a new social contract that we are entering into with digital platforms,” Sundararajan said. He suggested that governments need to start forming alliances that are in the public interest – and start to feel comfortable with private companies taking on regulatory responsibilities.

“Of course, there is always a risk that they abuse this privilege,” Sundararajan said. “But honestly, I don’t see an alternative.”

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