Europe: Barcelona takes over Airbnb

Tourists stroll along Las Ramblas, the popular street in the heart of Barcelona, ​​on September 17, 2021. A new rule banning short-term private room rentals is removing a significant chunk of room-sharing options from the market. Image: Samuel Aranda / The New York Times

IIt’s been a busy summer for Lucas Ezequiel Hernández, a 29-year-old designer who lives with his brother in central Barcelona. In June, he listed the extra bedroom in their apartment on Airbnb and, for over two months, hosted a steady stream of tourists at a rate of 40 euros (about $ 47) per night. But at the end of August, a few weeks after a new ban on short-term private room rentals took effect, he was reconsidering his options.
“I think I’ll cancel the reservations I have,” said Hernández, who added that he had used his rental income to help fund the launch of his fashion brand. “I may have problems renting on Airbnb, so I don’t think I’ll do that anymore.” The ban, which went into effect on August 6, distinguishes Barcelona as the only major city in Europe to ban short-term private room rentals, even as it continues to allow the rental of entire apartments – as long as the property owner holds the appropriate license. The new rule has fueled the already heated debate in Barcelona over how to support the local economy and protect the quality of life for residents following the rapid growth in tourism in the decade leading up to the pandemic. Critics argue that the crackdown on accommodation has resulted in excessively heavy fines for hosts and reduced a major source of income for many residents. But the city government says restricting private tourist accommodation is one of the few effective tools it can deploy to curb excessive tourism and solve the city’s housing problems. “We are very happy that people come to Barcelona and appreciate Barcelona because we love our city and we want to share it – but we need rules and we need balance,” said Janet Sanz, deputy mayor of Barcelona and the driving force of repression. “The people of Barcelona can still rent a room for a year to a student coming from abroad,” she added. “But for less than 31 days, it has been such a delicate market to regulate that it must now be stopped.” Airbnb has claimed that its rentals do not harm the city and that half of its hosts in Barcelona depend on their income to pay their bills and stay in their homes. “In Barcelona, ​​the lack of clear rules for guests who share a room in their house has no impact on our business, but we are concerned about the negative impacts of the city council’s proposals on local families,” said Patrick Robinson, Airbnb Policy Officer. for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “We are confident that we can work with the authorities on a better way forward. ”

The beginnings of a problem

When Airbnb arrived in 2009, Barcelona did not have specific regulations governing private rentals to tourists, but the interest in the service was evident: by mid-2016, there were some 20,000 listings for private rooms and accommodations. entire apartments in the Barcelona section of Airbnb, according to data from Inside Airbnb, which tracks listings in cities around the world. The Barcelona hosts operated in a sort of ‘gray market’ during those early years of growth: it was not explicitly legal, nor clearly prohibited.
But as the number of tourists increased, many Barcelona residents also felt the city was approaching its visitor capacity. In the summer of 2014, anti-tourism protests erupted in the Barceloneta neighborhood, where locals had become frustrated with the noise and loud behavior of visitors coming to party. Anti-tourism graffiti grew, sometimes in popular tourist spots, and in 2017 a group of left-wing activists vandalized an open-top bus full of tourists. Many residents – as well as some at City Hall – have pointed to Airbnb.

Airbnb maintains that private room rentals have little to no effect on local accommodation availability, as people who rent private rooms live on the same property. But a study published last year in the Journal of Urban Economics found that Airbnb activity in Barcelona increased rents by 7% and house prices by 17% in neighborhoods with the highest levels of activity. raised on the platform. In the middle district, the effects were a 1.9% increase in rent and a 4.6% increase in house prices.

Enforce the rules

Robinson of Airbnb said the company has worked with the city to regulate activity on its platform. He added that Airbnb requires hosts to agree to allow certain personal information – including their name, address and national ID number – to be shared with authorities, and said more than 7,000 rule breakers. had been deleted due to Airbnb’s collaboration with the town hall. “Airbnb has always reminded hosts to follow local rules before registering on the platform,” said Robinson. “We also provide guests with clear information about the latest regulations in Spain. As for the ban on short-term private room rentals, Airbnb questioned whether the new regulations affect rentals to business travelers or other types of non-tourist visitors, and said it it was impossible for the company to distinguish between these types of customers. But a company spokesperson said Airbnb would remove all private room listings from the platform if city hall officially asked it to do so. Sanz insisted that there are no exceptions to the law, including for business travelers. She added that the city is gathering the information it needs to make its official withdrawal request for short-term private room rentals. More broadly, Sanz said, one of city hall’s biggest complaints against Airbnb is that the company continues to allow new apartment hosts to declare themselves “exempt” from the law that requires them. to have a tourist license, without asking them to provide proof. for this purpose. She said Airbnb removed the illegal ads that reappeared on the platform, sometimes days later. She fears the same will happen with room rentals. “This is a major problem that we have now, and we have had it with Airbnb for several years,” Sanz said. She added that such issues have put enormous pressure on City Hall, which now spends € 2m (around $ 2.3m) per year to inspect Airbnb listings and enforce city rules. colocation and rental of tourist apartments. Sanz said the city has found that many hosts are professionals who “speculate” in the housing market, not individuals seeking to meet their basic needs.

Hosts respond

Manel Casals, managing director of the Barcelona Hotel Association, welcomed the ban, saying Airbnb is “of concern to cities around the world” because it deprives local governments of taxes, disrupts residential areas and does not not guarantee adequate health and safety standards for customers. “This will help Barcelona ban this,” he said, adding that the city’s hotels don’t see Airbnb as a competitor because they serve a different clientele. But Airbnb hosts like Martha Ruiz were disappointed with the ban. Ruiz, who lives near Barcelona’s Collserola Park, stopped taking reservations for short-term guests after the ban was imposed in August. “I don’t know what they’re doing, why they want to ban it,” said Ruiz, an Airbnb host since 2017. “They can regulate, yes – but not ban something that doesn’t hurt anyone.”

Hosts who break city rules risk attracting the attention of inspectors, and penalties start at 6,000 euros (approximately $ 7,017). Many fines have already been imposed: since 2016, the town hall has initiated more than 9,000 legal proceedings against hosts who broke the rules. Sanz said a crackdown on renting private rooms will begin soon.
Policymakers across Europe will undoubtedly observe how things unfold in Barcelona, ​​which is a member of an association of nearly two dozen European cities – including Amsterdam, Paris and Prague – which are putting pressure on European leaders. to support their efforts to regulate tourist rentals.

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