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 latest move to limit vacation rentals could come in handy for other cities trying out their own regulations.
Barcelona’s efforts to rid itself of illegal vacation apartments could be the most effective crackdown on Airbnb yet. Last month, the city told the site to remove 2,577 listings that it found to be operating without a city-approved license, or face a court case potentially leading to a substantial fine. Then on June 1, Airbnb and the city launched a new agreement that gives Barcelona officials access to data about what’s being listed around town.
For the first time, city officials will be able to refer to host data that details specifically where apartments are located and who their registered hosts are, something that could previously require substantial investigation. They will be able to track these hosts ID numbers to verify that their linked apartments do indeed have permission—and it will be far easier to pursue rule-breakers and, if necessary, fine them.
Taken together, these measures have global significance for cities managing their own fights against out-of-control vacation rentals. Firstly, they provide a ready-to-go model that makes enforcing local rules not just feasible, but relatively easy. Secondly, they show that concerted pressure from local governments can indeed push Airbnb and other home-sharing sites to take real action. Because while Airbnb deserves credit for working with Barcelona, it has done so after a clampdown on its activities that’s arguably the most rigorous Europe has yet seen.
That clampdown has been a long time coming. Barcelona’s huge popularity with visitors has proved something of a poisoned chalice in recent years. Vacation apartments have spread across central neighborhoods, many of them from hosts who list more than one apartment. Meanwhile, the number of affordable long-term rentals available to locals has shrunk.
Parts of the old city have become tourist ghettos, where residents that remain are kept awake by badly behaved visitors, and increasingly find their local shops and bars taken over by souvenir emporia and coffee chains. The city has hit back, partly by halting approval for new hotels, but mainly by requiring all vacation apartment hosts to apply for a license—applications for which are rejected in areas too saturated with tourist accommodations.
Other cities have tried similar measures, but Barcelona stands out in its commitment to enforcement. In 2016, Airbnb was hit with a (still unpaid and contested) €600,000 fine for listing unlicensed apartments, following a more modest €30,000 fine the year before (that same fine was also levied against the website HomeAway).
Last year, the city’s new tourism plan stipulated that vacation apartments must pay the highest rate of property tax. And since last summer, investigations by the city have already led to 1,500 unlicensed apartments being de-listed.
This hasn’t made Barcelona a vacation-rental desert: The city still has 9,600 licensed listings available. But the push does seem to have spurred Airbnb toward a cooperative attitude, where the city now has meaningful tools for enforcing its own rules. And in the future, proposed changes to Airbnb’s Barcelona listings template may make enforcement even easier. One option being considered would have all hosts in the city submit their rental permit number to Airbnb before a listing goes live. If the box were left blank or filled in with a false number (instantly detectable by the system), the listing would not appear on the site.
Barcelona’s successes with enforcement are striking partly because other cities have struggled to implement their own measures. In 2016, Berlin introduced a blanket ban on renting entire apartments through Airbnb or other short-term rental sites, though individual rooms were still allowed. The ban had some success—2,500 apartments were released back to the long-term rental market in 2016—but due to the scale of the problem, so many apartments remained listed on the site that it seemed hard to believe there was any ban at all. Berlin ended up revoking the ban in March, replacing it with a license system and heavier maximum fines for rule-breakers. It’s too early to say how successful Berlin will be in policing the new rules, but it seems likely that they would seek some kind of data access in the vein of Barcelona.
It’s hard to think of a good reason why other cities couldn’t follow Barcelona’s example. While the city’s heavy fines against Airbnb may be unique, the company’s agreement to share host data is not. Airbnb has done so to some extent in other cities and regions, including San Francisco and Andalucía. A license system implemented through data integration seems like a great way of preventing saturation in certain areas. It could help vacation rental websites evolve into what they were originally meant to be: home-sharing hubs whose listings are not populated by multiple-property professional hosts but by people renting out spare space in real homes. Cities’ overall health would likely benefit from this—but it seems they won’t get it if they don’t push.