Do we need to control the number of Airbnb lets offered in the Capital?
Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia soon turned their idea into a business venture, with a website linking travellers in search of affordable accommodation with people who had a room to spare. Eleven years later, Airbnb has spread around the world, claiming four million listings across 191 countries.
But the boom in short-term holiday letting has also sparked concerns about the long-term impact of the phenomenon.
Edinburgh has 9638 properties listed for short-term lets, according to the latest count.
And critics say that while the city always welcomes visitors, the lack of regulation over short-term accommodation has seen such an explosion in lets through Airbnb and similar platforms – including Booking.com, Homeaway, and Onefinestay – that it risks undermining the very character of the place they are coming to see.
Bill Cowan, spokesman for the Old Town Community Council, says the Airbnb flats are taking over Edinburgh’s historic heart.
“There is a collapse in the population of the Old Town particularly, but the New Town is affected too.
“There other factors involved, but it’s going to become a hollow shell of a city. It will no longer be a living city centre. Visitors will come and there will be no experience for them.”
He has no objection to families letting out a spare bedroom or people who go on holiday and let out their flat. “That’s how you imagine Airbnb is,” he says. “But there are now flats which are rented or bought and sub-let to operators who have dozens of flats and they employ people to clean them between guests.
“I know people who are the only bona fide resident in their stair. All the other flats have key drops – the little boxes people put their key in when they leave.
“For genuine residents it’s like living in a hotel without any of the benefits – there’s no night porter to call if someone’s making a rammy and you have trolley suitcases going up and down the stairs all the time.”
And he complains many of the absentee landlords have no commitment to Edinburgh and no interest in maintenance and repair of the buildings.
“Common repairs are bad enough in Edinburgh when it’s all residents in a stair – there’s always someone who doesn’t want to pay. But this is a hundred times worse because you have nine out of ten people who don’t want to pay.”
John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, says research revealed some operators had up to 54 properties listed on Airbnb.
He says: “Edinburgh has always had a short-term let market, mainly because of the Festival when people would rent their flat out and go on holiday.
“But because of the democratisation of travel through low-cost airlines, people move around the world a lot more easily and that means there has to be more accommodation provided. Short-term lets are a good thing – they just need to be managed.”
Mr Donnelly says Edinburgh can learn from the experience of places like Barcelona and Amsterdam where Airbnb-style accommodation became a big problem.
“A city should be residents first. We’re the ones who are here 365. It’s our city. If tourism is affecting neighbourhoods and quality of life it is getting out of control – it hasn’t done that here yet and it won’t.
“In Barcelona they didn’t nurture the city and the growth of short-term lets went unregulated – there was no cap on the number of days, no tax on it and it just went out of control.
“In Amsterdam, people were building blocks of flats and running them as Airbnbs. It pushes residents out, pushes rental values up and changes the dynamic. Having seen what happens elsewhere, we know what not to do.”
Council leader Adam McVey, said the authority had had a “helpful” meeting with AirBnB earlier this year. “We are working on proposals to find Edinburgh-focused solutions to issues that have been highlighted.”
Airbnb recently proposed a 90-day limit on short-term lets in the Capital outwith the summer and winter festival periods.
Lothian Green MSP Andy Wightman, who is leading a campaign to tackle the problem of short-term lets, calculated that pushed the limit up to 156 days.
He wants a registration or licensing scheme for properties which are let out for more than 90 days a year,
But he says it is not only the operation of individual lets which needs to be brought under control, but also the extent of short-term lets across the city.
And he wants a change in the planning system, giving councillors the power to control the spread of commercial lets.
Mr Wightman would like to see a requirement for operators to apply for planning permission if they want to change the use of a domestic dwelling to a commercial apartment.
“If the planning system was tightened up it would allow councils to adopt policies on the issue. My personal view is we do need to limit quite dramatically the number of homes being converted to commercial lets because we need people living in the city.”
The Scottish Government said it understood calls for new controls over short-term lets and was gathering further evidence on the issue. “We will consider all the available evidence before deciding on the next steps. We need to strike the right balance between enabling tourists to find places to stay, the risk of loss of homes to the housing stock and the need for residents to be able to afford to live, and enjoy living, in their neighbourhood.”