Airbnb may have started out as part of the sharing economy but it is now having a pernicious effect on our cities, writes David Rudlin

David Rudlin_index

Moss Side in Manchester is not much of a tourist destination. I suppose you could visit the site of Man City’s old Maine Road ground, or maybe Anthony Burgess’s childhood home, but there is not much to attract visitors. It therefore came as a surprise to learn from Isaac Rose of the Greater Manchester Tenants Union that in one Moss Side street five of the last eight house sales have been for short-term lets. Four are already on Airbnb, the fifth is still being refurbished.

Isaac, together with others from the tenants’ federation and academics from Manchester and Sheffield, have co-authored a report published last month on the impact of Airbnb and other STR (short-term rental) platforms in Manchester. Back in the summer I wrote in this column about the impact of Airbnb on tourist hotspots such as Edinburgh and Barcelona, but this report suggests that it is a much wider problem.

I confess I have never used Airbnb. I like the anonymity of a hotel, even a cheap one, when travelling. However within the Academy of Urbanism many people use the platform. My impression was that they were staying in someone’s spare room, gaining valuable insights from a local person over breakfast while participating in the sharing economy.

This is an image that Airbnb is keen to project; allowing travellers to “live like locals” and putting money into the local economy rather than corporate hotels. However, as the Manchester report points out, the reality is very different.

The “home sharing” market now makes up just 8% of the seven million listings on Airbnb. The balance is made up of “whole-home listings”, “ghost hotels” or multiple room listings in single properties. They are run by professional landlords who often create multiple profiles so it is difficult to track what’s going on.

The properties are managed through a growing industry of letting agents who handle all the bookings and deal with keys, cleaning, repairs etc… They also advise on how to extend the property to increase occupancy, so that a three-bed Moss Side house will, on average, accommodate up to 8.2 guests and are often used for hen and stag parties.

Data is difficult to come by but the pressure group Inside Airbnb estimates that London has 87,000 listings, followed by Paris with 60,000. Manchester is not quite on that scale with around 3,000 (of which 1,409 are whole-house lettings) but the trend has seen threefold growth since 2016. Projecting these figures forward the tenants’ union suggests that within 10 years Airbnb could be depriving 4,000 Manchester households of a home. That’s 30% of the social housing waiting list.

But the problems don’t stop there. STR properties put pressure on local services while not paying business rates. In addition to depriving the city of housing they undermine stable communities and artificially inflate house prices, putting them beyond the reach of local people.

The report tells the story of one of those Moss Side listings being used as a party flat last new year’s eve while the city was under tier 4 covid restrictions. The party spilled out on to the street and was eventually closed down by the police, leaving the house trashed and the street littered with laughing gas canisters, broken furniture and a knife blade.

There are various things that can be done. Elsewhere governments have legislated for licensing systems (including Scotland). Barcelona has managed to reduce the number of lets by 70% by investing in a team of 30 inspectors and a further 40 people to trawl online sites. Elsewhere the experience has been that, without this level of enforcement, operators will find ways around the rules.

In England all we have is the planning system and the problem is that whole-house STRs, outside London, are in the same use class as a family home. Nine councils have nevertheless used planning powers to close them down, citing the harm they cause, and in every case they have been backed up on appeal. In London any property let for more than 90 days a year does need planning permission but it is difficult to enforce and there are 1,500 breaches being investigated in Westminster alone.

For me the report was a real eye opener. It is a problem that will never be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but is surely the sort of problem for which planning was invented. New powers for local councils are needed but unfortunately, as the report points out, the government is yet to see a need for new legislation.