Thousands of Airbnb properties may be operating unlawfully in the Capital as council enforcement struggles to cope with the explosion of short-term lets.
More than 7,000 entire properties are being offered for rent in the city on Airbnb – rather than a spare room in a house – but fewer than 35 properties in the city have applied for planning permission to operate as a commercial business.
The low numbers makes it far harder for the council to take action when neighbours complain about anti-social behaviour, particularly from the growing number of “party flats”. Exactly when owners of short-term lets need planning permission to operate an Airbnb is unclear, but the city council has brought several cases to court this year and won every one.
Campaigners fighting to protect the interests of city centre residents want to see this approach rolled out to the majority of Airbnb properties. The backlog of cases, however, means that using current resources, it would take years for the local authority to tackle the problem.
Other concerns have been raised about the way in which short term lets operate outwith any formal regulation system.
Worries about how short-term lets could affect home and buildings insurance policies have also been raised by the Law Society, potentially leaving neighbours and home-owners at risk of huge bills.
One Edinburgh landlord and letting agent has also highlighted the potential for safety regulations being ignored by short-term let landlords who are not required to register with the council and therefore fly under the radar of health and safety regulations.
Edinburgh council’s housing and economy convener, Kate Campbell, called on the government to allow councils to set up a licensing regime for Airbnb and holiday let properties. The Scottish Government said it is working with councils to provide the powers they need.
Airbnb has supported calls for regulation of the short-term lets industry and put forward its own proposals for a 90 night cap, with exceptions for peak times including the festival and Hogmanay.
A handful of decisions made by council officers on Airbnbs and short-term lets have made their way to the Government appeals board, the Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA).
The government’s reporters have backed the council in recent cases, partly due to policy protecting existing residential areas.
The council is already struggling to deal with the number of short-term let complaints, dealing with as many enforcement complaints in the first six months of 2019 than they did in the entirety of 2018.
Cllr Kate Campbell said: “We know there are too many short term lets in Edinburgh. We see the impact all around us.
“Through the Short Term Lets Working Group we looked at the challenges we are facing, what tools we have now and how best to use them, and crucially what tools we think we need to properly get to grips with the industry.”
The Law Society of Scotland said short-term let hosts could be in breach of insurance and mortgage conditions.
In their response to the Scottish Government’s consultation on short-term lets, they said issues could arise if hosts do not have the right insurance.
In London, one short-term let was found to void the communal insurance of all tenants and properties in a block, an issue which has not been tested in law in Scotland.
A fire or flood in a holiday-let in an Edinburgh tenement caused by a holiday let could therefore leave permanent residents without the money needed to rebuild their lives.
However, Airbnbs and short-term lets do not only put the Capital’s residents at risk, evidence shows they are also putting visitors at risk.
An investigation by The Times highlighted that in a sample of 150 flats, more than one in ten did not report a smoke alarm or carbon monoxide detector, and a further third only had a smoke alarm.
Letting agent Jonathan Gordon said the growth of Airbnbs means significant safety issues could be being missed as short-term landlords do not need to be registered with the council.
He said: “We have got one flat which we took over from other agents where we have put a new fuse board in because it was so old and it came up with lots of faults. It trips all the time and that flat is going to need completely rewired.
“But there were no smoke alarms in the flat, the gas safety was out of date, no appliance tests, no Legionella risk assessment, no carbon monoxide alarm, despite it being managed by an agent with a shop.”
Flats like these could be fuelling the growth of short-term lets as landlords decide they do not want to do the work needed to get them up to standard.
Mr Gordon added: “There is nothing to stop that landlord taking it back and renting it out short-term. It’ll cost them £4,000 to rewire that flat, the checks were £600/700.
“Some landlords will think ‘I’m not doing that’ and short term let it, I don’t have to do all of those things.”
Mr Gordon called for licences for Airbnb owners and added that they should be forced to comply with the safety standards all private landlords are supposed to meet.
He said: “If you do the repairing standard as well you have to have smoke alarms, gas safety, PAT testing, electrical appliance condition reports.
“It starts to level the playing field and means people aren’t using it quite so simply and quickly as a cash cow.”
Cllr Campbell echoed Mr Gordon’s call for appropriate licensing. She said: “We believe that we need a licensing regime to control overall numbers, the concentration in a specific area, whether or not a property is suitable and to make sure that landlords are fit and proper.Our corporate response to the Scottish Government was very strong and I feel confident that we will get the powers we need.”
An Airbnb spokesperson said “This is false data that does not reflect how locals share their homes in Scotland. The truth is that hosts share their homes for less than four nights a month and almost half say that the additional income helps them afford their homes.
“We whole-heartedly support regulation and have backed calls for a tourist tax in Scotland, but the current rules are complex and confusing. We want to help hosts follow the rules, which is why we are working with the government on clear and simple rules that work for everyone. We want to be good partners to cities and have already worked together with more than 500 governments around the world.”