Barcelona City Hall to fine Airbnb for advertising illegal holiday-rental flats after locals cite tourism as main concern

Barcelona to punish Airbnb and tourist rental apartments as a priority
Tourists already overwhelm Barcelona’s Rambla, where locals fear to tread.

In light of news that tourism is the biggest concern of Barcelona’s residents, City Hall has gone on the war path with a €600,000 fine against Airbnb – the biggest and most prominent of the holiday-rental and home sharing platforms.

Every six months Barcelona City Hall, known locally as the Ajuntament (in Catalan) or Ayuntamiento (in Spanish), surveys residents on their main concerns for the city. The latest survey reveals that tourism is the number one concern for the first time ever, knocking unemployment off the top spot. Concern about housing affordability in the Barcelona property market, which some argue is related to tourism, has doubled in six months, and is now in fifth place.

The survey doesn’t give us any insight into what Barcelona’s residents think should be done about tourism, but it does show that they are worried about it, and the impact it is having on the city.

The impact of tourism on Barcelona

As a resident I share that concern. Too much tourism, especially mass tourism, can overwhelm a smallish city like Barcelona, hollowing out neighbourhoods, driving up the cost of accommodation, and undermining the city’s unique identity. Just look at Venice, which has become a theme park from which most residents have fled, with just 55,000 residents left in the historic centre overwhelmed by 60,000 tourist a day. I don’t want that to happen to Barcelona, and I definitely don’t want a tourist rental apartment anywhere near me.

The question is, what’s to be done about it, bearing in mind that many people make a living from tourism, and it creates wealth for the city? That’s a separate question that I’ll leave for another day. But Barcelona City Hall, run by Ada Colau and her leftwing BComú party, have decided the answer involves going after Airbnb as a priority.

Barcelona to punish Airbnb and tourist rental apartments as a priority

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

The first step Colau took after the survey results came out was to announce plans to slap a fine of €600,000 on Airbnb for not complying with local regulations by allowing homeowners to advertise holiday-rentals without a licence. “Airbnb is crossing all the legal limits,” she said, adding she will continue “issuing fines until they abide by the law.”

Airbnb have responded with a statement saying it will appeal against the fine, claiming to be “profoundly saddened by the false declarations made by the Ayuntamiento”. Airbnb swear they want to collaborate with Barcelona to reduce problems, as they have done with more than 300 other local authorities, but say that Barcelona have rejected all their proposals. Airbnb claim Barcelona City Hall is more interested in conflict than agreement.

Since she won power two years ago Colau has been trying to limit the impact of tourism on the city by reducing the number of hotel licences issued, and by clamping down on short-stay rentals in the city, with limited success.

This week another problem has emerged – that of illegal sub-letting. It turns out that people are renting apartments in Barcelona on a long-term basis, and then sub-letting them whole or by the room to tourists, and using platforms like Airbnb to advertise them. City Hall has identified 316 cases of such illegal sublets so far.

Barcelona’s uphill struggle against holiday rentals

Sign protesting against tourist apartments in Barcelona
Sign protesting against tourist apartments in Barcelona

I suspect Barcelona City Hall is fighting an uphill battle against tourist rentals, albeit one that needs to be fought. Tourist rentals in Barcelona are just too lucrative, whilst City Hall has limited resources to control the problem. Which explains why Colau and her team are going after Airbnb as the main marketing platform for illegal tourist rentals in the city, and an easy target to make noise about.

But unless I’ve got it wrong, there’s little City Hall can do to stop Airbnb listing adverts for holiday-rentals in Barcelona that don’t comply with local regulations. And, I presume, there’s no chance that Airbnb will ever pay the fines.

I imagine that other cities around the world where growing tourist numbers are putting pressure on accommodation and worrying local voters will be watching Barcelona carefully.

SPI Member Comments

Thoughts on “Barcelona City Hall to fine Airbnb for advertising illegal holiday-rental flats after locals cite tourism as main concern

  • San Francisco, the corporate headquarters of AirBnB, forced AirBnB to register EVERY host and every client in an city database so the city can ensure that the rental units have city permits.

    After several court rulings against AirBnB, “Airbnb says it is ready to provide the city of San Francisco with details of its hosts, lodgings, and guests, as part of a registration system it would set up with its hometown — despite earlier claims that such a system would be unworkable.

    San Francisco passed a law in February 2015 that forced all Airbnb hosts to register with the city, but more than a year later, and only around 1,700 of between 8,000 and 10,000 hosts in the area have registered so far. The new system would mean all hosts are automatically entered into the city’s database, allowing it to ensure that Airbnb complies with other laws designed to restrict its activities in a city in the midst of an affordable housing crisis.”

    That AirBnB, like Uber, chooses to disobey laws, chooses to ignore neighbors with legitimate complaints, etc, is why they are in this mess.

  • Chris Nation says:

    What happens if/when a substantial number of properties are registered? The problem will still exist, only on a basis legitimised by City Hall, which the city. Has the S.F. registration scheme made housing affordable?

    If Ayuntamientos take excessively draconian measures they will run up against resistance from businesses other than accommodation which will complain about choking off revenue. They will probably be challenged in court over restrictive and unreasonable regulations.

  • AirBnB has lost many court battles. And they’ve won a few. The issue in San Francisco is that about 70% of all apartments are rent controlled. Rent control in San Francisco means a landlord can charge whatever rent they want when the unit is vacant, but can only increase rents on occupied units based upon a formula controlled by the city. Landlords can also pass along additional expenses to tenants but this too is controlled needs city approval. This has been the law since 1979 and only covers units built before 1980.

    To evict a tenant in these rent controlled units, the landlord must have either have ’cause’ (the tenant did something wrong) or the landlord can do a ‘owner move in’ eviction – saying they need the unit for themselves or their family. But there is one other way – they can declare that they are no longer going to be in the rental business, and the tenants are evicted and the unit cannot be rent out by the owner or anyone even if they sell the unit to for 8 years (I think).

    What was happening in SF was landlords were evicting tenants by saying they no longer are renting the unit and then renting the unit on AirBnB. What’s worse, they were doing so without having proper permits for a tourist rental. In my small neighborhood in SF, there were more than 200 units available on AirBnB. This has contributed to the rents on newly vacant units going up – so much so that the ‘average’ rent for a one bedroom is about $4,100 each month. So when tenants with lower rent controlled rents are evicted, they have to leave the region, unless they are working for one of the high-paying tech companies that have recently located in SF. This also means that SF is now a colony of very wealthy people, not necessarily a bad thing, except there is no economic diversity. Bars, restaurants and many other businesses go without jobs being filled because nobody who lives in SF or the region can afford to work for the lower wages paid. This has also affected the arts community and many immigrant populations, as well as some longtime families and businesses that have been running for more than 100 years but are now forced to close.

    Back to the issue, I support ‘draconian’ measures against lawless landlords. Living in a residential building with a tourist rental is a nightmare for the residents. Those seeking to rent to tourists are looking for money and don’t care about the building or how it affects residents. In Barcelona, the rental company that has a 2 bedroom unit in my building recently showed up to let the tourists in – ten 20-something men, all Brits ready to party. The next door neighbors on that floor had the police there several times.

    City planning and zoning laws exist for a reason. And because AirBnB has done everything they can to ensure that no complaint is ever answered, they are deserving of these big fines. And AirBnB is culpable – one of their executives rented a place in Barcelona and the rental contract specifically prohibited renting to anyone else. That executive never lived there and he immediately listed the unit on AirBnB. I believe that many investors too did this in San Francisco.

    I predict that like Uber, after the initial initial public offering of stocks, investors will cash out and the companies will go bankrupt. I don’t have the latest statistics on AirBnB, but Uber, valued at more than $70 billion, has never recorded a profit and the last time I looked, AirBnB was still in the red. (An aside, I can’t figure out how this is possible. Somehow, money is being siphoned to somewhere else, but that’s another story).

    Cities exist for residents. Residents made Barcelona and San Francisco beautiful. San Francisco is probably lost, but Barcelona is resisting becoming a city only available to the highest bidder. I’m on top of this because I have several friends who have been affected by this, a city I love has been decimated, in part, because of this, and I’ve have neighbors (investors) who rent their units to tourists and it has been a nuisance. In big cities, I think AirBnB is harmful.

    I write this as a resident of San Francisco for more than 36 years and a legal resident (and home owner) in Barcelona for more than 5 years. If AirBnB was a more responsible company, if they bothered to engage city leaders instead of fighting them, if they listened to neighbor complaints, if they allowed for some compromise, we wouldn’t be where we are now. I wince at the city turning against a business. But if I have to choose sides, I’m on the city’s side on this issue.

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