AIRBnB - Curse of city housing

AIRBnB - Curse of city housing

Once a whizz idea for democracy now a curse?

AirBnB: wrecking housing in world tourist destinations?

Notice anything strange about your street lately? Lots of coming and going? Wheelie suitcases grinding the pavement? New faces every day? And yet there’s no boarding house in the area let alone a hotel? Lots of people in Cambridge have clocked the tell-tale signs and more are now aware of a new phenomenon -- Airbnb and its copycats are here. 

With a small beginning, the odd back bedroom for rent, Airbnb has extended to more than 1200 flats and houses in the city. Big business has fast found out that this is a real earner. Really big. Entire blocks of flats are now being built for the express purpose of short term – night-at-a-time rent. An example is a development in the city centre. Constructed to replace a large Victorian house, the owner presented his development as an addition to the Cambridge housing stock. The Planning Committee heard out protests about the new building but decided reasonably enough, that Cambridge needed new flats for its expanding population. Today Marino House is almost exclusively Airbnb or Booking.com or Expedia.

Accommodation once open for workers to rent is now the province of a tourist population that changes daily. It’s as if the entire Mill Road area were to be roped off and taken out of commission. The effect is startling. Suddenly rents are rising in competition with the high yields that the Californian entrepreneurial app can produce. There’s no contest. Landlords can make far more out of a constant stream of visitors than letting to anyone with a tenancy.  

It all started so well.

Airbnb wanted to conquer the world – in a good way. Travellers would see the inside of the area, discover how its people really lived. Hosts would form lifelong friendships with grateful customers thrilled to know what the real Spain/Italy /England/San Francisco /East Anglia were really like. 

How could a golden scheme designed to expand small- scale home based economies and bring a boost to individual households go so horribly wrong? 

Airbnb is today credited with sucking the life out of beautiful cities all over Europe and beyond. Florence has lost half of its inner city population. Venice is depopulated to desperation level. Paris hotels are closing whilst flats once occupied by a traditional population are bought up for quick turn around rent to here-today-gone-tomorrow budget tourists. And not just tourists on the cheap. Luxury apartments where visitors can make themselves at home, cost hundreds of pounds a day – cash going straight through the American bank accounts of Airbnb to be processed, stripped of their easy-money fixing fee- and given back to the renter in a seamless move that avoids irksome paperwork. 

What appeared to be a great idea is now strangling the world tourist economy – but more importantly racheting up rents in a time of scarce housing. Why would property owners let to locals when smiling travellers pay four times the money?

One London landlord owns several ex-Council houses in Brixton London. Once they went for a song following the ‘Right to Buy’ legislation Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government introduced. Today Brixton at the end of the Victoria Line seems a hop skip and a jump to London’s famous sights. All the new owner of what was once a large flat for a big family provided by the Council for a modest rent, is to put it on Airbnb. He packs them in. A willing neighbour makes money doing the turn-around cleaning, there’s even a cute cat to feed (saves on kennel fees) and welcome notes festoon the place. The profits are impressive. In one week he can take over a thousand pounds. From his perspective what’s not to like?

Airbnb began as a bright spark. Two young Californians dreamed up a vision of international hospitality – an app-based device to allow travelers to see a world beyond. But like on-line purchases which kill off the High Street, it is slowly strangling the centuries-long economy of many cities. 

What’s it like to be an Airbnb customer? When it goes right, terrific. Some encounters can even come near the vision presented by its smoozy marketing where the hosts are cool, kind and hugely interested in your welfare. Other times it’s not so good. The company holds all the cards. Last year on an Airbnb booked holiday in France, we arrived to find the stench of drains in the air and a slow running sink inside a kitchen last updated in 1972. It took two days for the proprietor to come and fix it.

On leaving we scoured the place clean – and stood by for compliments from our landlady. She arrived with an assistant and went over the place with a fine tooth comb. Eventually she found a small child’s handprint on the window 'Sale.' she barked 'Sale (dirty).' Our redress? Contact California – or pay £80 for a clean from her and her henchwoman. In the Airbnb system we found, points are deducted for troublesome tenants and the idea of a refund is a lengthy battle away. Only after many emails and complaints did the company waive the threatened £80 (naturally it would have been deducted at source – they have your bank details after all.) 

So what’s to be done?

Paris's go-ahead radical mayor Anne Hildago has slapped a £40 billion bill on Airbnb for unpaid taxes, New York has begun to ban the whole outfit, but it’s Cambridge that proposes the most interesting solution to the rash of Airbnb properties mushrooming around the city.

The City Planning  Department has struck. Most of the flats and apartments in Cambridge are only licensed to rent long-term. Anything else is a change of use. This does not affect someone who occasionally lets a room in the house they live in  (although even that is now being monitored by Sadiq Khan’s team in London in cooperation with an increasingly nervous Airbnb). The Cambridge sanction is to enforce the use for which the building is registered. Accordingly several hundred notices have gone out and reached the enforcement level. Landlords have launched appeals with the independent government agency The Planning Inspectorate. 

In several weeks the Inspector’s enquiry will begin. His task is simple in a way. Has there been a change of use in the buildings? Once decided the fate of a whole swathe of Cambridge city life will be determined. 

If as many expect, there will be little choice under Planning Law for any other verdict than guilty as charged – the Airbnb operatives will have a choice. Pack up and rent as before. Or apply for permission. And our City Council will then have the ultimate choice – to take Cambridge back to the days of plain old rentals or back the rights of landlords to do what they like with their property.

Many disgruntled neighbours of Airbnb properties will be waiting to hear whether the wheelie cases will trundle on , the doors bang, the taxis idle outside from early morning until late at night – or not. On Richmond Road residents are battling noisy parties, contant coming and going and rubbish strewn by short term lettees. 

Will their case serve as an example of what can go horribly wrong once a bright idea emerges to display some murky mistakes in it? Or will the multi billionaire team of West coast lawyers make sure their system stays intact and keeps rolling in those high earning fees?

Edward Fox is John Betjeman in a hilarious play

Edward Fox is John Betjeman in a hilarious play

Love from a stranger

Love from a stranger