Apartment owners in Barcelona are discovering that people posing as long-term tenants are renting their properties with the sole intention of illegally sub-letting them to tourists through vacation accommodation sites such as Airbnb, in some cases earning triple the cost of the rent.
Airbnb recognises that around a third of its users have more than one advertisement on the site. “The platform is directed at people who let out part or all of their home,” says a spokesman. “The site requires anybody letting out a property to have an individual profile.”
Anybody letting a property through Airbnb is also required to register their activity with the local authorities, who then undertake safety and security checks. They are also required to declare all earnings to the taxman.
But this hasn’t proved a problem for Oscar and Diego, who have 77 properties listed on the site, according to Inside Airbnb, which describes itself as “an independent, non-commercial set of tools and data that allows you to explore how Airbnb is being used in cities around the world.”
Laia & Mohamed, meanwhile, have around a dozen properties advertised for rent in Barcelona, although only four are registered with the local tourism authorities. Similarly, only three of the 14 properties being offered by Cristina and Onix are registered, while Luciana hasn’t bothered registering any of the 12 she is letting out. The law requires that a registration number be shown next to properties, subject to a fine of €3,000.
But so far, Barcelona City Hall admits that only the owners of properties being illegally let have been fined, not the people renting them out. “The priority has been to locate unlicensed properties, although from now on we’re going to be focusing on internet sites, and we’ll be looking for advertisements of unregistered properties,” say sources at Barcelona City Hall.
But the decision comes too late for María Sánchez, who spent €1,400 on legal fees after a tenant put her property on Airbnb and Wimdu, along with four others. She only found out when she received a fine of €3,000 after municipal inspectors visited her apartment in the Barceloneta area of the city, close to the beach. “The most annoying thing about it all was that even after I proved to the authorities that I wasn’t renting the apartment out through Airbnb, but my tenant was, I continued to receive fines because I am the owner,” says Sánchez, who eventually faced a bill of €15,000 thanks to her tenant, Natalia, who continued to let the property out for €75 a night, while paying a rent of €700 per month.
José Pablo received an even nastier surprise: he was fined €90,000 after the same Natalia let his property without permission. “I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about the fine. I went into depression and even considered selling the apartment to pay it off,” he says.
Eventually, after repeated visits to City Hall, both owners were able to have the apartments closed and the fines frozen. They can’t enter the properties either, but have been assured by the local authorities that they will track down Natalia and present her with the sanctions. Within six hours of María and José Pablo’s apartments being taken off the market, Natalia had two new apartments on Airbnb.
Albert Arias, an academic who has researched the Airbnb phenomenon, says that the only way to tackle the problem is to make it illegal to post apartments without a registration number issued by City Hall, which requires an inspection of the premises, as well as the owner’s permission. “There have always been apartments let out illegally, but the scale of something like Airbnb has made the problem much worse,” he says.