It seems Flat Chat has a reach way beyond the shores of Australia, if news coming out of the Scottish capital Edinburgh is anything to go by.
This time last year we were quoted extensively in the Sunday Times newspaper in the UK, warning that Edinburgh faced major problems if they didn’t act quickly to curb short-term rentals of residential homes.
Councillor Kate Campbell, the city’s Housing and Economy Convener, was also quoted in the article saying that she was aware of the growing issues and they would be looking at some sort of licensing system (the kind that Airbnb say can’t work when it’s suggested but then say they love it when it’s imposed).
OK, that was a year ago. Lo and behold, last week Councillor Campbell, issued the city’s submission to a Scottish government inquiry into short-term holiday letting (STHL).
In it she called for pretty strict licensing for properties that were being rented out for more than 28 days a year citing complaints about
- impacts on housing availability and affordability
- erosion of sense of community in tourist hotspots
- unsuitability for traditional tenements (flats and apartments)
- poor safety standards
- guest noise and antisocial behaviour
- commercial short term lets not paying rates or other council charges
The threshold of 28 days may puzzle some, but then think about the annual Edinburgh Festival. For a month every year Edinburgh is swamped with tourists, artists, performers and culture vultures (and a lot of Australia comedians).
There is simply not enough hotel and boarding house accommodation to house them all so, traditionally, Edinburgh’s residents have rented out rooms or their whole homes and headed off somewhere warm to let the arty types get on with it.
Previously, at the end of the festival, everything would return to normal. However, while the advent of Airbnb and its ilk made it easier to let their rooms and homes, the global upsurge in international tourism has made it an all-year issue.
Last year, Edinburgh City Council created a working group to look at the issues short term lets were creating in Edinburgh and it has has been working with the Scottish Government in this, outlining its preference for a licensing regime.
“The impact of short-term lets on the city is well documented,” says Councillor Campbell. ‘From the hollowing out of communities, anti-social behaviour, rising rents and increased pressure on housing supply making homes in Edinburgh unaffordable for too many people.
“Our response to the consultation demonstrates these challenges. We’ve used case studies of some of the most difficult situations that we’ve dealt with, and explained how we’ve used existing powers alongside highlighting their limitations – most significantly that they are slow and resource intensive. And we’ve set out why we believe a licensing regime would be a game-changer.
“We are absolutely clear that we need a licensing regime because it would mean that we can set local policies that address the particular challenges we face in Edinburgh, and react quickly when rules are breached. So it’s very positive that the Scottish Government are consulting on proposals for a licensing regime.”
Now, it has to be said that almost everywhere else on the planet that has introduced a licensing or registration scheme, the number of STHL listings has plummeted. That might explain why Airbnb is involved in a number of legal fights to prevent cities from introducing them
And there’s a lesson in all of this for us here in Australia. For a start, you don’t need to have a one-size-fits-all, all-or-nothing approach to short-term holiday letting.
What works for cash-starved rural communities may not be valid for apartment blocks in the inner city. What’s appropriate in Byron Bay might be a disaster for Bondi Beach, and vice versa.
The key is whether or not the government is listening to local voices, rather than only the spin doctors of the short-term holiday letting industry.
And we don’t have to look as far as Scotland to see how much damage uncontrolled short-term letting does to communities. The disastrous effects of the laissez faire, free-for-all in Melbourne are all too evident, and that list of issues in Edinburgh could have been lifted directly from Victorian residents’ largely ignored pleas.
If the Edinburgh proposals are accepted, licensing would mean the same rules and regulations would apply to short-term lets that currently apply to other types of visitor accommodation, making it safer for residents as well as for visitors.
The city’s submission says recent analysis (using Airbnb data) published by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre (SPICe) reveals that there were over 12,000 registered Airbnb properties in Edinburgh in 2018, in a city with a population of about 500,000 and 250,000 homes .
The council’s submission says Airbnb reports that more than 20 per cent of the 9,000 properties registered in 2017, operated in excess of 90 days, “which would indicate they are no longer being used on a residential basis.”
It goes on to say that the loss of residential rental homes is more prevalent in the city centre and in the north of the city, with the loss of stock “running at up to 30% in some northern parts of Edinburgh.”
This is the “hollowing out” of cities that has been experienced all over the world as residential tenancies have been turned over to holiday lets.
It will be interesting to see what has happened to the centre of Melbourne by the time in two years when the Andrews government deigns to check on the havoc they have created, chasing the tourist dollar.
Anyone interested in the full Edinburgh submission can download a copy here.