Barcelona threatens Airbnb and others with fines of up to €600,000

Barcelona City Hall (Ayuntamiento)
Barcelona City Hall (Ayuntamiento)

Barcelona City Hall has announced a new action plan to get tough with illegal tourist rentals, including fines of up to €600,000 for accommodation-sharing platforms like Airbnb.

Like other big tourist destinations around the world (for example Berlin and San Francisco), Barcelona is struggling to cope with the influx of millions of tourists each year, many of them staying in short-term rental accommodation, which the local authorities say causes community strife, encourages speculation, and prices locals out of the city by driving up housing costs and limiting the supply of homes for rent.

Ada Colau, Mayoress of Barcelona, warns of a speculative housing bubble in Barcelona
Ada Colau, Mayoress of Barcelona

Reducing the supply of holiday lets in the city, and stamping out illegal rentals, is a flagship policy of City Hall under the current Mayor Ada Colau, who recently extended a moratorium on holiday-rental licences in Barcelona. So it is no longer possible to get a licence for short-term rentals to tourists, as City Hall starts introducing new measures to stamp out illegal rentals.

First in the sights of the city authorities are the accommodation-sharing platforms like Airbnb and Homeaway. Last week, City Hall unveiled a new “action plan to fight them forcefully,” including fines up to €600,000 if they continue allowing owners to list properties for short-term rental without a licence (reports the Spanish press).

Tougher measures and higher fines will also be introduced against landlords and short-term rental management companies. The plan is to use the Tourism Law of the Generalitat (regional Government of Catalonia), rather than the national law on the right to housing. The Tourism law envisages fines of between €30,000 and €600,000 for serious infractions.

top manta in Barcelona
Top Manta in Barcelona. Photo credit: Fotomovimiento via Interior Design / CC BY-NC-ND

In a press conference attended by the councillors from town planning, tourism, and the Ciutat Vella (Old Town), they pledged “zero tolerance towards an illegal activity in the city that is stopping the use of flats as housing.” Fair enough, but I notice they don’t lift a finger to stop the illegal practise of Top Manta in the City, which is also an illegal activity, and is blighting all the main tourist zones. There is now barely room to walk in some areas like the Port, and local shopkeepers who pay their taxes are furious.

The action plan will reinforce the team of inspectors with eight more, plus 20 “spotters” charged with identifying illegal rentals. Locals will be asked in the street if they are aware of any tourist rentals in their area, and will be sent letters inviting them to collaborate against this “fraud”. Tourists in the street will be asked for information on where they are staying, and may be required to produce a rental contract. There will be more cooperation with the tax authorities to identify income with no justification.

Feeble results

The results so far from City Hall’s high-profile drive to clamp down on illegal tourist rentals have been underwhelming. Since 2015, and after 6,000 inspections, they have only managed to shut down 38 illegal rentals (with 29 more in process), though reportedly there are another 604 open cases where owners have been issued a warning to stop. City Hall has not provided figures on the number of fines that have been collected to date, but has said that some owners are happy to pay the fine and keep renting, as the business or renting flats to tourists in Barcelona is so lucrative.

Some locals I have spoken to are relaxed about the risks of renting property in Barcelona to tourists without a licence. They say there is an easy way around the restrictions, by simply offering a 30-day contract and cancelling after a few days when the tourists leave. This obviously breaks the spirit of the law, but I don’t know if it breaks the letter too.

On the portals front, six have stopped allowing illegal rentals to advertise, another has supplied a list of addresses but continues advertising them all, and has been issued with a fine of €30,000 (as of yet unpaid). Nine have ignored all warnings and continue as before, including Airbnb and Homeaway, and all will be issued with a fine, reports the Spanish press.

The tax authorities say they have issued 800 fines and are inspecting 3,000 taxpayers suspected of engaging in illegal tourist rentals in Barcelona.

Other tourist destinations in Spain like Ibiza, Madrid, and the Canaries will be watching what happens. They are all trying to find the right formula to balance the competing interests for accommodation of locals and tourists, though in some instances the drive against holiday-rentals is more about local hotel lobby interests, whilst paying lip service to the needs of local residents. That would not be a fair criticism of Barcelona City Hall under Ada Colau, however, where the local hotel lobby is up in arms against moves to limit the number of new hotels in the City.

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