EU blocking cities' efforts to curb Airbnb, say campaigners

Commission is hypnotised by ‘sharing economy’ and not seeing its downside, says researcher

The explosive rise of short-stay Airbnb holiday rentals may be shutting locals out of housing and changing neighbourhoods across Europe, but cities’ efforts to halt it are being stymied by EU policies to promote the “sharing economy”, campaigners say.

“It’s pretty clear,” said Kenneth Haar, author of UnfairBnB, a study published this month by the Brussels-based campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory. “Airbnb is under a lot of pressure locally across Europe, and they’re trying to use the top-down power of the EU institutions to fight back.”

While it might have started as a “community” of amateur hosts offering spare rooms or temporarily vacant homes to travellers, Airbnb had seen three-digit growth in several European cities since 2014 and was now a big, powerful corporation with the lobbying clout to match, Haar said.

The platform lists around 20,500 addresses in in Berlin, 18,500 in Barcelona, 61,000 in Paris and nearly 19,000 in Amsterdam. Data scraped by the campaign group InsideAirbnb suggests that in these and other tourist hotspots, more than half – sometimes as many as 85% – of listings are whole apartments.

Many of the properties are also rented out year-round, removing tens of thousands of homes from the residential rental market. Even in cities where short-term lets are now restricted, about 30% of Airbnb listings are available for three or more months a year, the data indicates. In those where they are not, such as Rome and Venice, the figure exceeds 90%.

“You can still find the pensioner renting out her spare room for a bit of extra cash,” Haar said. “But a very substantial proportion are commercial operators, often with multiple listings, making big bucks. It’s clearly having an impact on locals’ access to affordable housing, and it’s pretty hard to see it as a sharing economy.”

Airbnb denies its activities have a significant impact on residential rents, and speculation and poor social housing provision certainly play a part. But cities are increasingly taking action: after a 50% increase in unregulated tourist lets was accompanied by by a 40% hike in residential rents, Palma de Mallorca last month voted to ban almost all listings by Airbnb and similar platforms such as HomeAway.

In Paris, registration for short-term lettings is now mandatory; Barcelona has suspended all new short-term rental permits; Amsterdam has cut its permitted short-term lettings limit from two months a year to one; and Berlin has brought back old laws and adapted them to new circumstances.

But local attempts to protect residents’ access to affordable housing and preserve the face of city-centre neighbourhoods are being undermined, campaigners say, by the EU’s determination to see the “collaborative economy” as a key future driver of innovation and job creation across the bloc.

“The commission seems almost hypnotised by the prospect of a strong sharing economy, and not really interested in its negative consequences,” said Haar. “Commissioners talk about ‘opportunities, not threats’. The parliament, too, recently condemned cities’ attempts to restrict lettings on online platforms.”

Since 50-odd platforms, led by Airbnb, urged the commission two years ago to ensure “local laws do not unnecessarily limit the development of the collaborative economy to the detriment of Europeans”, two key EU directives, on e-commerce and services, had been clarified – largely in the industry’s favour, Haar said.

Airbnb has welcomed the guidance, saying the commission is trying to provide “clear, simple and consistent” rules that “remove barriers to regular people benefiting from innovations like Airbnb”.

Most worryingly for campaigners such as Haar, a formal complaint against Barcelona, Berlin, Paris and Brussels filed by the European Holiday Home Association, of which Airbnb and HomeAway are leading members, alleges “overzealous rules and restrictions/bans” in violation of EU laws. If not resolved by the commission and member states, the complaint could end up at the European court of justice.

“Cities have to respond to local pressures, and they need to somehow recapture the legal space to do that,” said Haar. “Decision-makers in Brussels seem far removed from local realities. If we want to defend our right to affordable housing, this battle has to be fought now.”


Jon Henley European affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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