You can’t say that Airbnb didn’t see it coming.
Barcelona’s tourism industry has been recognized as out of control for some time, and when Mayor Ada Colau entered office this June, she did so promising to crack down on its excesses. Now, just that is happening. This week the homestay sites Airbnb and HomeAway were slapped with €60,000 ($65,600) fines for advertising apartments that did not possess the permit the city now requires.
This can’t really be said to mark the end of an era for Airbnb and its ilk. For a company of its size, paying out €60,000 doesn’t even register as a tick bite, while with the company being fined €30,000 in Catalonia last year, this isn’t the first time they’ve been in the doghouse. The fines, the first of many to be issued by the city, will nonetheless do little for the company’s reputation. They will also add to the growing perception in Barcelona that short-let vacation apartments are not a boon, but a parasitic menace sucking at the city’s lifeblood.
This perception has been building for a while. Simultaneously blessed and cursed by a major tourism industry, central Barcelona is really feeling the strain of its huge popularity with visitors. Such is the number of holiday lettings in the city’s older neighborhoods that the volume of apartment space available to local residents has shrunk, pushing up rents in turn. Those that remain in situ have to contend with crass party tourists throwing up on their thresholds and playing music at odd hours.
Long-simmering local resentment has boiled over at times. Last summer the waterfront Barceloneta neighborhood saw nightly demonstrations against party tourists with up to 1,000 sleep-starved protestors, a phenomenon that came to be called the Barceloneta Crisis.
For its part, Airbnb rejects the idea that it’s pushing displacement. Talking to Spain’s El Pais this month, a company spokesperson said:
"In Barcelona there are about one million homes. In this city we have 17,000 listings. If every one was on the market, they wouldn’t even reach 2% of the total housing stock, [and are] too small in number to have an impact on prices in the whole city. "
The same article nonetheless cites figures that suggest that if holiday apartments are having an effect, it’s through their intense concentration in certain areas rather than their effect across the city as a whole. In the central Barri Gòtic area, for example, 10 percent of apartments are now vacation lets and the population has fallen by 17.6 percent.
Making owners register their holiday apartments won’t automatically stop this problem, but it has given the city a tool with which to control the numbers. In May 2014, the city suspended the registration of any new holiday apartments for six months, for example. Registration also ensures that the state gets something back, and provides a safer stay for guests. In Spain, if you want to register your apartment, you have to pay a modest fee, prove that it has special rental insurance and safe conditions, and pay tax on any revenue you earn. In a country where in 2014 it was estimated that €2.9 billion of apartment rental revenue went undeclared, enforcing the rules could make a huge difference.
Change can only happen if websites and agencies play along—no easy feat for them given the sheer numbers of apartments they advertise. Now the city is apparently using new software to enforce cooperation, a tool that trawls through all Internet apartment offers and weeds out the unregistered ones. In total, the city has discovered 6,000 unregistered apartments on offer, a massive number when you bear in mind that the number of officially registered vacation apartments is just 9,600.
Over the next few months, 22 companies will be fined for their illegal offerings. That should put the Airbnb and HomeAway fines in context. Airbnb may have the biggest name, but when it comes to the clampdown on illegal lettings, its fine could arguably be just the far-off rumbles of thunder you hear before the storm really breaks.