Jack Portman writes: 

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevailing public health advice was to “stay at home”. Restrictions on international travel, implemented in order to mitigate viral spread, forced would-be vacationers to reconsider their plans. Enter the 'staycation boom', and the resulting proliferation of Airbnb listings throughout the U.K.’s tourist destinations.

The effects of what housing experts have termed 'airbnbification' have been especially acute in Cornwall, where a recent protest highlighted the worrisome impacts of second homes and Airbnb lets on housing access for local residents. Airbnb listings have increased dramatically throughout the county, sometimes leading landlords to evict long-term tenants in order to convert their properties into more lucrative short term lets. 

Airbnbification -- the process by which short-term Airbnb rentals overtake the housing market - has been linked to the depletion of local housing stocks, increased home prices, gentrification, and exclusionary displacement; the cumulative effects of which can disrupt entire communities and increase precarity among community members. 

As local governments turn their attention to regulating the staycation boom, it may be worth taking cues from cities outside the U.K. that have already dealt with severe airbnbification issues. 

The first Airbnb listings in Barcelona, Spain emerged in 2009. Driven by the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and encouraged by essentially unregulated short-term rental licensure, the number of Airbnb listings in the city exploded in the following years. While the sizable increase in tourism accommodated by the city’s Airbnbification benefited some, many residents -- such as those in the working class neighborhoods of El Born, El Barceloneta, and El Ravel -- were displaced from their homes and priced out of their communities in the process. 

In a stark departure from its liberal approach to unregulated Airbnbification, an enhanced regulatory regime implemented in Barcelona in 2017, which placed strict and enforceable limitations on rental licensing, reduced the number of short-term rental units in the heart of the city by nearly 1,000 by 2021. 

Barcelona’s success in enforcing its licensing limitation is traceable to an agreement between city officials and Airbnb itself: short-term rental listings are connected to an official ID number which the city can use to cross reference with its own registry. Using the host IDs, the city can determine which hosts are in violation of licensing laws and request that Airbnb remove them from its platform.

While Barcelona found success in regulatory enforcement by cross referencing host IDs with information collected by the city, Amsterdam has taken decisive action on its own Airbnbification issues by other means. The city recently cut 80% of its short term lets listed on Airbnb by requiring that owners register their properties with the relevant municipality; beginning in 2022, unregistered lets will risk incurring a substantial fine. Moreover, the city has recently prevented owners from listing units within the city centre on Airbnb, and has limited landlords to renting their short term lets for 30 days per year.

Some cities and counties across the U.K. have recently considered similar proposals in light of the Airbnb abetted housing crises underway in many tourist destinations. Margate Councillor Rob Yates, for example, has recently called for expanded local powers over the number of Margate homes that can be listed as Airbnb lets. However, if London’s experience with Airbnbification tells us anything, it's that regulating short term rentals can be difficult without the appropriate data. 

In 2015, the City of London implemented a policy which limited the number of days a unit can be used as a short term rental to 90. However, Airbnb didn’t incorporate the law into its listing interface until 2017, and according to data compiled by City Hall, nearly 23% of the total AirBnB listings in London were in violation of the 90-day rule in 2019. The city’s difficulties enforcing its 90-day limit are, to an extent, attributable to poor data: Airbnb generally does not publicly share its data with governing bodies, forcing regulators to rely on often insufficient data from other sources. Regulatory efforts, as well as broader policy discussions concerning housing shortages, could benefit significantly from greater data transparency. 

Barcelona and Amsterdam offer frameworks for regulating Airbnbification that combine enforceable licensing quotas with surveillable limitations on how many days owners can rent their units. Similar enforcement mechanisms may be of use as governing bodies across the UK consider how to stymie the spread of short term rentals in highly touristed communities. 

Interested in action on Airbnb?

A recording of our recent event 'Regulating Airbnb: Approaches from Berlin, Amsterdam and Barcelona' is now available on our YouTube channel https://youtu.be/s5ShIf2BU1o 

May 2022 UPDATE:

In the wake of recent UK Government movement on the taxation of so-called 'second homes' in England there are increasing calls for licensing and limits in the UK, with Conservative-led Councils in holiday destinations such as Cornwall and North Norfolk leading the calls as the impact of second homes on local housing supply starts to read across to lost council seats.

The Government's latest moves to allow councils to increase tax on 'second homes' would not result in any action against those let on Airbnb however; and might even increase the race by second home-owners to switch to Business Rates to avoid local taxation altogether 

So-called 'second homes' have become a much-criticised category in local taxation as it can include once-residential property ranging from what are often known as 'furnished empties', through rural holiday homes for wealthy city dwellers with deep enough pockets to out-bid locals, to the rapidly-increasing numbers of lucrative investment properties which can be let on Airbnb and similar platforms, allowing them to be classified as small businesses and often avoid local taxation altogether via Small Business Rates Relief.

During the pandemic scrutiny intensified as it was discovered that so-called 'second homes;' like these were hoovering up hundreds of millions of pounds in Covid support grants from Government.


As the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill makes its progress through parliament, this scrutiny is likely to increase, with Conservative-led councils calling for the so-called 'County Devolution Deals' featured in the Bill to allow councils to limit second home purchases and license Airbnbs.

Responsibility for the Bill's future is now in the Rt Hon Greg Clark MP's hands, for now at least, following the collapse of the Johnson Government and Michael Gove's dismissal by the outgoing Prime Minister.

It remains to be seen how Greg Clark will respond to the disquiet expressed about centralising tendencies in the Bill, as well as the wider issue of a bill which could, for good or ill, be a lasting legacy of a chaotic period in Government, during which house prices rose alongside homelessness, vacancy and underutilisation.