When Nick Cumming moved into his flat in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket area 16 years ago, he was delighted to find himself in the midst of a close-knit community.
“It was great, we knew everyone in the block and we were all quite friendly,” he remembers. “It was so central, we could walk everywhere and had everything on our doorstep. It was an ideal situation.”
But over the past few years, Cumming has found his community has been gradually eroded. As properties came up for sale, they were snapped up, not by ordinary people hoping to make a home in the area, but by investors planning to let out the flats to holidaymakers.
Now, in his block of 12 flats, ten are short-term let properties, with residents staying just two or three nights on a short break in the centre of Scotland’s capital – many of them through hosting site Airbnb.
“There is no sense of community any more,” says Cumming. “We don’t know who is where. People keep saying, ‘If you don’t like it, just move,’ but I was here long before this kicked off and I like living here. There is no consideration for residents.”
What may appear to be small actions to holidaymakers, Cumming says, can have a major impact on permanent residents.
“People keep leaving the street door open and that means anyone can come in,” he says. “Twice, I have come home to find people shooting up in my stairwell. Everyone who lives here long term knows we need to keep the door shut for security, but the people who come here on holiday, understandably perhaps, don’t think.”
Airbnb was originally set up as a way for people to rent out their space on a temporary basis, appealing to people who wanted to make a few pounds while they were away on holiday for a few weeks, temporarily living abroad for work, or even offering a space in their spare room while they were present in the property.
However, as the service has grown, more and more landlords have set up their properties as a full-time letting agency – but without being subjected to the restrictions which are in place for full-time holiday lets.
Of the ten flats rented out in Cumming’s stairwell, seven are now owned by the same person, who has gradually bought them up over the past two years.
“This is not letting out a room in your flat while you are away,” he says. “This is business.”
In response to a sea change in the letting sector, and other “collaborative economy” businesses such as Uber, the Scottish Government set up an expert panel last April to examine the future of the sector. The Scottish Expert Advisory Panel on the Collaborative Economy, which includes representatives from Airbnb and Uber, as well as from VisitScotland and digital skills body ScotlandIS, has now completed its consultation and is due to publish a report containing its recommendations this week.
Campaigners hope the document will recommend that the government follows in the footsteps of cities such as New York and London, which have introduced 90-day restrictions to ensure that anyone renting out their properties on short-term letting sites without officially becoming holiday let landlords are just that – short term.
At First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood on Thursday, however, Nicola Sturgeon hinted that she was likely to pass the responsibility on to councils, saying that she would “not rule out” giving new powers to local authorities to utilise planning laws to ensure that Airbnb hosts are not using their properties in the same way as professional landlords.
The issue has been taken up by Green MSP Andy Wightman, who says he has been “inundated” by complaints from residents who have had their domestic peace blighted by the unregulated short-term letting sector. The party has drawn up documents suggesting that a separate planning “class” is introduced for short-term let flats, making the sector easier for councils to regulate.
Meanwhile, one property developer, Dunedin House Properties, which is converting a former office block into ten flats in Edinburgh’s West End, is including a “no holiday lets” clause in the title deeds; owners will be able to rent in the long term but not for holidays in the short term on sites such as Airbnb or booking.com.
Wightman says: “The rapid rise in short-term lets undermines the basic human right to housing. Since I first raised this issue in Parliament in January 2017, I have been inundated by people throughout Scotland who have serious concerns about the impact of this form of letting in their communities.
He adds: “There is now a staggering number of residential homes that are now effectively being marketed as “hotels” with no planning permission, no safety regulations and no regard to families living in close proximity to them. It’s clear that a modern-day clearance is under way, as long-established communities are torn asunder in the face of global market forces.”
Glasgow Council has already published its own guidelines, stating that flats should require planning consent for a “material change of use” if being used as holiday lets due to their communal facilities, adding that short-term rentals have “the potential to result in conflict with mainstream residential flats in a block”.
While the phenomenon has become increasingly popular for those looking for a convenient place to stay when on holiday, tales abound from neighbours of short-term rental properties in Scotland, particularly those living in flats, of anti-social behaviour.
Many tell of drunken visitors crashing through a stairwell at 3am, 15 or 20 revellers on a stag or hen party packed into a two-bedroom apartment and holidaymakers heading for early flights dragging suitcases along cobbled streets every morning while a taxi revs its engine outside.
Yet Airbnb says Scottish rentals have hosted about one million people over the past year alone with “few” negative incidents, adding that the business generated £499 million for the Scottish economy last year.
And for some local families, it is a way of making extra money to support themselves.
Daniela Nolte, who has let out her property through Airbnb for the past seven years – initially renting her bedroom to visitors while she and her partner slept in the other room, and eventually as an entire flat – says she has had no complaints from neighbours.
“I lived in the property for a long time before I let it out, so I knew my neighbours very well,” she says. “I asked them before I started and they were quite happy for me to do this. There’s another neighbour who does it too, when she is away on weekends. Everyone who has stayed has generally been very considerate.”
For Nolte, who now has two young children, renting out the one-bedroom flat she owns in Leith, Edinburgh, on a short-term let basis has been a way to allow the family to rent the larger flat they need close by.
“It initially helped me to afford my mortgage and then pay for luxuries like holidays,” she says. “But after we had the children, it has been the only way that I can afford not to have to work full-time and to look after them. I go to Airbnb meet-ups and a lot of people are the same – it gives us the chance to have a different, more flexible lifestyle.”
In Edinburgh, where around half of Airbnb’s Scottish guests opt to stay, residents say that the council is failing to police the sector.
Edinburgh Council’s guidelines say that whether anyone can rent out their property as “short-term commercial visitor accommodation” depends on the frequency of use, issues of noise, disturbance and parking demand.
Catherine Stewart had lived peacefully in her Morningside flat for 14 years before a family living in the property above moved out – and began to rent out their property through Airbnb.
The constant arrivals and departures of tourists keep Stewart awake all night, while she feels vulnerable that she does not know who is coming and going in her stairwell. Living around three miles away from the well-worn tourist routes of the Old Town, she had previously not regarded her quiet district as a place where holidaymakers would want to stay – but she says the trend is evident throughout the area.
“This landlord has recently installed a keybox outside the front door so that guests can let themselves in and out easily,” she says. “And when I started to look I noticed that a lot of the blocks in my area now have the same, so it is clearly becoming more and more widespread.”
She adds: “The issue is that people just don’t know the etiquette of flat living.”
Stewart complained to the council but was told that she would have to prove that the flat was regularly occupied if she was to have any chance of a case to force the landlord into applying for a change of use. She sent screen shots of the Airbnb online reservations system, which showed that the property was regularly booked out – and eventually received a letter telling her that a council official had conducted a one-off site visit but was unable to tell yet whether the property was regularly occupied.
“That was in September,” says Stewart. “And I haven’t heard from them since.”
An application for a “Certificate of Lawfulness” for a property at Bridge House in South Queensferry to be allowed to continue operating as a short-term let following complaints from neighbours was rejected by council chiefs earlier this month on the grounds that it would “constitute a material change of use”. However, it is believed that city planners do not have the resources to proactively tackle the issue.
A council spokeswoman said that properties are not investigated until complaints are made by neighbours or other local residents.
“If a member of the public thinks that a property is not being used appropriately and requires permission for a change of use then that should be reported to our Planning Department online or in writing. We would investigate this, and where appropriate, enforcement action would be taken,” she said.
Pensioner Bruce Borthwick, who lives in a flat development in Holyrood, says four neighbouring families have been forced to move out as a result of disturbance from the six short-term let properties nearby.
“It is horrendous,” he says. “It is a nightmare. People ring the bells in the middle of the night because they go to the wrong flat when they come home, they put on music when they come back at three o’clock in the morning. You live under a cloud. The psychological effect destroys your quality of life.”
Borthwick, who put in his own request to the council relating to the flats nearby his property a year ago, but has not yet had a decision, believes that the council should introduce a tourist tax to create a “fighting fund” for the planning authorities to police short-term lets.
“It feels like there is nothing we can do,” he says.
“If this was a real B&B, then fine. There would be someone there, a guardian or custodian, to control things. But we have no power.”