The battle to be able to share your apartment with some of the eight million tourists visiting Barcelona this year is on: the authorities are pursuing some hosts with a 2007 law that sanctions fines of between €9,000 and €90,000, and hosts are uniting to call for transparent and fair legislation. The sharing website, Airbnb, is at the centre of this fight. It lists the Catalan capital as its fourth (sometimes third) most popular city, behind New York, London and Paris. Unregulated, yet widely used; reported as a nuisance by some but seen as an invaluable source of income by others, Airbnb is a focal part of the emerging sharing economy, but just how is it affecting Barcelona?
The benefits to the city seem huge: 4,000 hosts have given bed and board to approximately 170,000 guests, and in just one year the site estimates this activity has generated $175 million and 4,000 jobs. According to the website's research, Airbnb guests tend to stay for longer, spend more money and, perhaps most significantly for the city as a whole, don’t just stay in the centre: they take their tourist euros to neighbourhoods that lie outside the lucrative, overcrowded centre. While Airbnb takes a commission of three percent from hosts, and between six and seven percent from guests, the remaining money goes straight from the guest’s wallet to the host’s pocket. It is this money that is having one of the most interesting impacts on the welfare of the city’s hosts: Airbnb have reported that hosts are using the money they earn to help cover their mortgages and bills, and significantly, to stay in their homes in a region where, according to El País, 13 percent of houses stand empty. Airbnb's research also showed that 75 percent of the people who rented out an apartment had incomes at or below the national Spanish average. This new home sharing economic model is allowing money to go directly into the bank accounts of those struggling from a financial crisis where unemployment still stands over 21 percent.
Airbnb’s growing presence in the city hasn’t been entirely welcomed. On July 7th the Generalitat fined Airbnb €30,000 for a "serious infringement" of local tourism laws. The Generalitat, according to El País, is exploring the possibility of blocking the site and has requested that Airbnb immediately stop displaying listings that either don't have a licence or only rent a room of a private apartment. Since 2007 the renting of apartments to tourists has been strictly regulated in Barcelona and requires a licence.
According to La Vanguardia, the Ajuntament is currently investigating 50 cases where local residents have complained about tourist apartments. If the apartment owners are operating without a licence—which many do—they will be eligible for a fine of between €9,000 and €90,000 under the 2007 law. The newspaper reports that there are between three and five complaints regarding tourist apartments every weekend.The hotel sector and the short-term apartment rental companies—who only work with licensed apartments—have welcomed the actions by the Ajuntament and the Generalitat, on the premise that the majority of Airbnb owners do not pay tax or have to adhere to specific safety regulations, thus creating unfair competition for those who do.
Barcelona is not the first city to clamp down on the home sharing website. New York has been Airbnb’s most notable battleground, where a judge demanded Airbnb give up the details of each host to fast-track prosecutions. Airbnb eventually did hand over data, but without disclosing names or addresses, and went on to remove 2,000 dubiously managed listings. Other cities, mostly European, have welcomed the development of citizens participating in the hospitality sector in a much more positive manner:Amsterdam has established a regulatory framework; Hamburg too; France as a whole has passed legislation to provide licences and collect tax, and even London authorities are reviewing their 1970 law on shared housing.
Following nearly 100 local neighbourhood meetings, 400 of the city's 4,000 hosts squeezed into the Fàbrica Moritz to move their campaign onto the next stage. Those who attended the event were mostly middle-aged, Catalan and owners of the properties. All wanted to remain anonymous due to the lack of regulation and the local council’s recent actions. One person echoed Airbnb’s research saying, “It pays the bills and we get to meet a few nice people…it has really helped us.”
Many local businesses were present too and spoke of how they were also experiencing the benefits brought by more Airbnb guests. The campaigners, Anfitriones en Acción (Hosts in Action) held a rally in Plaça Sant Jaume at the start of July that saw around 600 people attend. After several speeches, attendees delivered over 3,000 postcards signed by owners of small local businesses to Mayor Xavier Trias. They encouraged Trias “to support home sharing in Catalunya.
”The organisers said they were “requesting his support to ensure that legislation provides for this type of activity in Catalunya in a fair and balanced manner.” A petition was also launched that asked the mayor “to help the citizens of Barcelona, who have the right to share the home in which they live.”As residents look to share the benefits of Barcelona’s unprecedented rise in tourism, just what will happen next is unclear. The hotel industry has certainly received a good portion of the tourist boom: from June 2012 till June 2013 there was an increase of 100,000 overnight hotel visits. However, the biggest threat to Airbnb seems to also be its most cited advantage: the social aspect. For most Airbnb owners, this means sharing a meal with a traveller in their home and introducing them to the hidden parts of a city a tourist would never be able to see. Yet this is being discredited by the apartments that are rented out continuously without the owner present. The three to five complaints received every weekend in the city seem to originate from loud groups renting apartments that are not supervised. The disturbances caused by those using their flats as a business on a site designed for home sharing and short-term rentals are losing many supporters among those who already feel alienated by the boom in tourism, something the recent documentary, Bye, Bye Barcelona highlighted. Considering what has happened in other cities, it seems the Ajuntament has two options. They could go down the New York route and virtually outlaw Airbnb or they could seek to manage its activity in a reasonable manner. Like recent legislation in Amsterdam, hosts in Barcelona may only be allowed to rent their flat for a maximum of two months and to a maximum of four guests. They would need to acquire a licence and pay tax, but nonetheless they would be permitted to use Airbnb. Among the hosts in Barcelona there is a firm desire to operate above board and pay tax on any money made from the site. As Barcelona begins to decide just how to accommodate Airbnb, one thing is for sure: Barcelona is in need of a new, transparent and fair system for its quickly burgeoning home sharing economy.
Michell is from Holland and has been in Barcelona for 22 years. He runs the Zelig bar at Carrer del Carme 116.
Q. How many Airbnb users come to the bar?A. It’s difficult to say as it's pretty seasonal. Sometimes they need to wait for the hosts to return to collect the key, so they kill a few hours in the bar. Then they get to know you and they tend to come back for the rest of their stay. We give good service and some good advice because we’ll be seeing each other again. We’re neighbours.
Q. Are Airbnb guests different from other guests? A. Yes. They want to live in the city, feel like they’re part of it. You don’t feel like that if you are in the Hilton. They go to the market, get to know small bars like mine—they take an interest. They feel like they live in Barcelona.
Q. Do you think Airbnb is good for Barcelona?A. Definitely. I live from it. The neighbours live from it. They buy their bread from next door. They buy their groceries from just down the road. They live like locals and leave their money.
Candela rented her apartment on Airbnb for a week each month but has stopped since the website was fined by the Ajuntament.
Q. What type of person uses Airbnb?A. The majority were very respectful and wanted to get to know other parts of Barcelona besides the tourist areas. I got to know many guests very well. I only once had a problem with a couple who left the flat very dirty.
Q. Would you continue now the local government is clamping down?A. From the beginning I was concerned about it not being legal. However, from a personal and political perspective it was very clear to me. I needed to earn some money and it was time the tourism cake was shared.
Q. What do you think the solution is?A. I don't believe there's a short-term solution as the situation is part of the general socioeconomic climate that we're living in right now. I don't believe that Airbnb is unfair competition to hotels. I think the platform covers a different demand and allows ordinary people to take part in the city's success.
Nikki Cawood is from Devon in the UK. She's here with her husband John and they're renting a room for a week in an apartment in the Poble Sec.
Q. Why are you using Airbnb?A. We wanted to stay with a local. We know Barcelona well and wanted to meet someone from the city this time.
Q. How has your stay been so far?A. Great! The flat is lovely and the owner, Ana, is friendly and very helpful. She speaks some English but not that much, so we get to practise our Spanish too. We've also got to know a new area of the city.
Q. How do you feel about it being illegal?A. I think it should be regulated somehow so the hosts can pay their taxes and earn some honest money.
AIRBNB AROUND THE WORLD
San Francisco: The West Coast city faced a near-total ban. The local council then proposed to restrict all short-term rentals to commercial neighbourhoods only and require permission from homeowner associations. A new piece of legislation has been recently proposed to fairly regulate the market.• An estimated 75 percent of Airbnb hosts who rent their home in San Francisco said they use the income to help pay their rent.
New York: This messy fight stands as a template for other cities to avoid. The hotel lobby in New York City not only helped pass a law to make home sharing illegal but have lobbied hard to force Airbnb to hand over the details of their hosts to pursue prosecutions. Estimated economic activity generated by Airbnb: $632 million
Paris: The new national housing legislation named “Bill Alur”, clarified the law and declared you can rent out the home in which you live without asking permission from your local City Hall. While most rentals are overwhelmingly in Paris, the law applies to all of France. Estimated economic activity generated by Airbnb: €185 million. Estimated jobs Airbnb has helped create: 1,100
Amsterdam: The Dutch capital was the first city to pass progressive legislation allowing residents to rent out privately-owned homes for up to two months a year and to up to four people at a time. Guests on average spend €792 on their trip. 73 percent of properties are located outside the city centre.
London: Positive steps have been taken. A review was opened to see if the 40-year-old law that governs home sharing is fit for purpose. Estimated economic activity generated by Airbnb in UK: £502 million. Estimated jobs Airbnb has helped create: 11,629.
Hamburg: Germany’s second biggest city has revised its laws to allow occasional renting of a private residence without a licence. Secondary apartments do require a licence.