Judging by recent media coverage, short-term apartment rentals throughout Spain are responsible for everything from hordes of drunken partiers roaming neighborhoods to threats against the safety of thousands of naive tourists.
Don’t believe the hype. The current crusade against homeowners renting to tourists has little to do with community complaints or concern for the well-being of tourists.
That’s all a smokescreen. This new movement to restrict homeowners from renting their apartments is all about one thing – money. And while that may sound obvious, it is getting lost in the mounting hysteria.
On a basic level, the new zeal to regulate rentals is simply a well-orchestrated effort by the powerful hotel lobby in Spain. Hoteliers don’t like the competition from the holiday rentals, which are now organised and easily accessible thanks to Internet sites like Airbnb and Homeaway.
For politicians, a campaign against short-term rentals is a no-brainer. They can appease the hotel interests and raise local tax money, while couching the entire campaign in the cloak of “responding to complaints.”
We’ve all seen this before. Politicians latch on to a populist cause as a front, while they are actually representing the interests of powerful forces.
Of course, many complaints against short term rentals are legitimate. But the real problem has been clearly blown out of proportion, fuelled by this anti-rental movement. And the drastic proposals under consideration will hurt homeowners without really solving the problem.
Barceloneta, Ground Zero
In Barcelona, the anti-rental campaign has turned into a witch hunt, with crowds marching in the streets demanding action against landlords. According to media reports, the beachfront neighbourhood of Barceloneta is suddenly a teeming cesspool of drunk and naked vandals, due to the scourge of holiday apartments. The mayor ordered a sweep and assured the masses that he will take swift action to crack down on illegal apartments.
Of course, there is no direct evidence that tenants in short-term rentals are causing all the problems in Barceloneta, unless someone has been secretly surveying the drunken naked guys about their favourite accommodation choices. Some of them were probably staying at hotels.
Barcelona is bursting at the seams with tourists and Barceloneta has always been known for attracting a rowdy crowd. Cracking down on short-term rentals won’t end the party atmosphere along the beach, unless they also want to cut beer sales.
Even the city’s own data suggests the issue with short term rentals may be overblown. The city claims to have received 109 formal complaints from Barceloneta in 2014, through August, according to coverage in El Mundo. But 50 of those complaints were received in August, after the start of the anti-rentals campaign.
In 2013, before the hype, the city received only 54 complaints for the entire year, slightly more than one a week.
The city’s much-publicised sweep in Barceloneta initially resulted in shutting down 30 illegal apartments, with politicians promising more would be closed in the days ahead.
“We’re going to make things tough for people who cheat with apartments,” Barcelona mayor Xavier Trias dramatically told the media.
But here’s the thing – those apartments that were shut down were, in fact, illegal. They should be shut down. By definition, they have nothing to do with the homeowners in Barceloneta who are following the regulations.
The scene in Barceloneta is an extreme example, but similar campaigns are on-going throughout Spain, including neighborhoods where there have been few complaints.
In some cases, hoteliers are arguing that homes should meet the same standards as hotels, which is simply silly. Homes already need to maintain the healthy and safety requirements for residences, which are good enough for the people living there. And if apartments were such hell holes, tourists would be avoiding them for the luxury of the nearby hotels.
Instead, tourists are voting with their money. They love the home rental option. Airbnb wouldn’t be such a threat to the hotel industry if people weren’t willing to put up with the quirks of a private home. And if a rental is not living up to expectations, tourists control a weapon far more powerful than any city inspector – a negative TripAdvisor review.
Organizations representing homeowners in Spain have made it clear they are willing to accept reasonable regulations. A strong licensing program and strong standards create system that works for both the neighborhoods and customers. It also provides a method for municipalities to enforce regulations, since the homes are in the system.
But the hotel groups are pushing for more. They want to put the small homeowners out of business.
In Barcelona, the politicians are considering legislation that would limit short term rentals to buildings that are predominantly focused on short term rentals. That would leave the business to wealthy building owners, while preventing homeowners from using their assets.
That’s not fair. In many cases, families are using their home as a source of income in tough times. In other cases, investors bought property with the understanding that they would be able to generate revenue through rentals.
Perhaps most importantly, the measures won’t work. They will simply drive landlords underground, where they will operate free of regulations and taxes.
From a property market standpoint, the last thing Spain needs right now is more uncertainty. Any measure that restricts an owner’s use of their home will only serve to cut valuations at a time when the market is showing signs of stabilising, especially among the foreign buyers propping up the market.
Now that that the media frenzy is starting to fade, it’s time for landlords in Spain to step up and make it clear that if the hotel industry wins, both homeowners and tourists lose.