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.
Vacation rentals are still available, but laws in many cities are getting tighter.
Do you remember when Airbnb and other “homestay” websites seemed like an uncomplicatedly great idea? In Europe’s major cities, those days now feel like a long time ago. Lately in Paris, Berlin, and Barcelona, vacation apartments and the agencies that market them are being tagged as the germ behind a range of urban ills. They deprive locals of apartments for permanent rent, the argument goes, and may thus push up prices for the units that do remain on the market. And in areas full of such apartments, locals can feel harassed by the endless stream of rolling suitcases banging up communal staircases, or by drunken idiots screeching and vomiting by night.
Laying all this at the door of a website may seem a little crude. In Barcelona, an Airbnb spokesperson pointed out that its total listings constituted less than two percent of the city’s housing stock, and thus could hardly be blamed alone for affordable housing shortages. It’s still hard to deny that vacation rentals can be an exacerbating factor in inner city housing issues, and that popular resentment against them is increasingly widespread. In Barcelona, such anger has spilled over into street protests, and city halls across Europe are now introducing laws to curb the number of apartments reserved for short-stay tenants.
Not all of Europe’s cities are cracking down, of course. London has remained silent on the issue, while Lisbon has been positively encouraging. Furthermore, the number of vacation apartments available, even in cities where they are supposedly banned, remains fairly high. Nonetheless, the days of vacation rental free-for-all are gradually coming to an end. While landlords are typically held responsible for any law-breaking, here are the places where potential vacation apartment bookers would do well to keep an eye out:
Ireland’s capital has introduced what must be the lightest of all anti-vacation rental rules yet introduced in Europe. Residents of Central Dublin tourist magnet Temple Bar were shocked this year to learn that an apartment in the area earned an incredible €79,000 ($88,000) from short-term rentals on Airbnb last year. After protests, the city council ruled that the owners would now need to apply for planning permission for commercial use if they wanted to keep renting out the flat on a short-term basis. The ruling, however, was “site specific,” so at present there are no plans to roll out the policy across the city.
A new law passed this June means Reykjavik’s 1,600 Airbnb rentals will now operate under much tighter restrictions, as will vacation apartments elsewhere in Iceland. From now on, a special license will be needed for any apartment rented out for more than 90 days, and/or that gains an annual gross income exceeding 1 million Icelandic Krona ($8,082). These licenses will be tightly controlled, while anyone renting out a holiday apartment will now need to register their property annually at a cost of 8,000 Krona ($65). While this could pull some full-time rentals off the market, there should still be a decent pool of non-permanent vacation apartments to choose from.
Catalonia’s capital has one of the toughest official attitudes to vacation rentals in Europe. Landlords require a permit from the city to rent their property out legally, and last December they slapped Airbnb and HomeAway with fines of $65,600 each for listing apartments that lacked this license. The amounts are symbolic considering the companies’ profits, but uncomfortable and embarrassing for them nonetheless. Barcelona has since promised to fine 22 additional property rental companies. There are still plenty of vacation rentals available at time of writing, but visitors would do well to take more than extra-special care to be good guests. Barcelona’s restrictions came after a wave of popular protest against noisy, antisocial tourists and exploitative landlords, so many people’s patience has understandably worn a little thin.
A national law introduced in 2012 allows any French city with a population over 200,000 to demand that any flat rented out short-term for more than 120 days must obtain a special license. Paris is one of the few cities to implement the law, but so far compliance has been quite weak and under-enforced. Across the whole of Paris, only 107 vacation apartments have so far gained the necessary permit. Some illegal landlords have been fined, but most continue to slip through the net, with the total fines levied for 2015 reaching just €182,500 ($205,300). Things may get tougher in the future, however. Currently, Paris City Hall is trying to get the maximum fine for an illegal vacation rental raised from €25,000 to €100,000, which might deter more current law-breakers.
Holland’s biggest tourist destination now bans any vacation apartment from being rented out for more than 60 days per year, or to more than four people at a time. Since April, the city has been “scraping” digital records to see if it can find out which apartments offered for short-term rent no longer have landlords living in them. The number of potential properties to trawl through is huge, but the city has allotted €1 million ($1.125 million) to fund the search. Other Dutch cities, including Rotterdam and The Hague, are now considering following suit.
Nowhere in Europe is currently tougher on vacation rental services than Germany’s three largest cities, where a ban on all unlicensed rentals came into effect May 1. While landlords are officially allowed to apply for a permit, the number of licenses granted will be purposefully small, especially in areas of high housing demand. Berlin landlords have tried to challenge the law (also in effect in the smaller city of Freiburg im Breisgau) in the courts, but their claim was rejected earlier this month. The move, deemed essential to increase the supply of housing available for permanent residents, has already had a significant effect, with 40 percent of Berlin’s Airbnb listings disappearing in the run-up to the law’s introduction. But while some landlords are already being prosecuted (as in this case in Munich), cracking down may still take years. All of the affected cities still have numerous apartments for rent short-term, though some of these may well disappear over the next few months.