Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The city’s ruling party wants to launch a website for anonymously informing on law-breaking landlords.
If your neighbor is illegally renting her home out to tourists, kindly turn her in to the authorities. That’s the message this week in Munich, whose governing Social Democrats want to create a website where residents can inform the city if they think the apartment next door is being used for an illegal vacation rental.
The idea of a snitch site for illegal sub-lets might seem extreme, even divisive, but Munich isn’t acting alone. According to the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, Berlin has also introduced just such a site to help enforce a ban on most vacation apartments. That German city governments are going as far as creating forums for informing on errant landlords reveals just how hot a political topic the issue has become.
The problem Munich faces is clear enough. With 1.9 million visitors every year to a city of just 1.4 million residents, the market for vacation accommodation is huge. Apartment owners can earn two or three times as much renting out their property for short stays compared to what they make renting to permanent residents, and services like Airbnb and Wimdu have only made the process easier. The result is a drain on the number of apartments left for locals to rent, especially in the more photogenic and well-connected neighborhoods, helping to drive up the citywide cost of living. Just as in Berlin, Munich has introduced laws making the rental of apartments for short stays much harder. Still, the city has nonetheless found it difficult to track down apartments that are surreptitiously being rented out. Currently, only four full-time City Hall employees are working on enforcing the rules. In the past year they uncovered 237 law-breaking properties, just one of which received the maximum penalty, a fine of €50,000.
This is where the snitch site would come in, making it easier for City Hall to gain leads. It would be entirely anonymous, and no landlord would be brought to court, or even contacted, without evidence that they were breaking the law. But while the plan may be addressing a valid problem, does it perhaps overstep a line? The idea of turning ordinary residents into a city-wide network of spies seems a little extreme, even if it’s arguably no great reach from the usual expectation that the public will report crimes if they come across them. It’s still easy to be rattled by the reasonable but still faintly authoritarian ring of a comment in Süddeutsche Zeitung by a city spokesperson, who noted that:
“No one who obeys the law should be worried. Just people who harm the common good.”
Munich has in fact already been experimenting with another, less official version of this kind of portal. In April, the Munich Renters’ Association created an email address where people could inform them of another form of illegal short-term rental: apartments for medical tourists. Germany’s good health care system attracts many paying customers from outside the country, who rent apartments for a month or so and are apparently a not infrequent annoyance to their temporary neighbors. According to the newspaper Merkur, many medical tourists in Germany come from Middle Eastern countries:
“Foreign odors in the stairwell due to cooking with the door open or even having a barbecue in the apartment are reported, as are night noise, trash and loutish behavior.”
Neighbors have a right to reasonable cleanliness and order in their surroundings, but there’s no denying that the thought of residents reporting families of sick people because they don’t like the smell of their cooking does make Munich sound like a rather miserable place. The plan to create a special website for informing on your neighbors might ultimately help the city become an easier place for permanent residents to find a home. It might also, in its own modest, quiet way, make Munich a place in which some would shudder to live.