Airbnb is getting blamed for Amsterdam’s housing crisis. So the city council is going to war against Airbnb

Canal houses in Amsterdam. Image: Getty.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: a major European City in the midst of a housing crisis has started to crack down on one of the quintessential brands in the ‘gig economy’. We heard this story back in September, when London stripped Uber of their operating license. This time, however, it’s Amsterdam and Airbnb’s turn to pass the buck.

Like London, Amsterdam is struggling with housing. A study published by the University of Amsterdam in 2016 found that, over a 12 month period, house prices increased by 0.42 per cent whenever the density of Airbnb’s in a square kilometre radius increased. Couple that with a low number of allocated building permits, a lack of high-rise buildings and house prices rising to pre-2008 levels, and you have a market whose supply won’t meet demand until at least late 2019. The national student union LSVb has also estimated that Amsterdam faces the largest shortage of student housing in The Netherlands.

But it’s not just the effect on rent that has driven the city to take action against the firm. Airbnb is one of the major players in the Dutch accommodation scene, accounting for roughly 12 per cent of all overnight bookings, and a wave of sublets.

Nearly 5,000 homes in Amsterdam are permanently rented out on the house sharing site, which locks these homes out of the housing market. The estimated number of illegal sublets account for around half of the total number of Amsterdam homes listed on Airbnb.

City Alderpersons (elected councillors) such as Laurens Ivens believe that ‘Cottage Smokers,’ or ‘Pawnbrokers’ – real estate speculators who buy houses on a large scale and then rent them out to tourists – are behind a number of Airbnb properties. This practice is illegal in the Netherlands, as is renting out more than 40 per cent of your home. What’s more, the Dutch financial firm Rabobank has argued that speculators who buy property simply to rent it out disrupt the market and inflate prices, thereby increasing the risk of a housing market bubble.

The city has often struggled to gather sufficient data on these matters, however. Airbnb only agreed to actively check on whether its host sites are compliant with the law a little over a year ago.

Landlords are obliged by municipal law to report their listings. At the moment, though, the city estimates that it spends around €4m a year on policing casual holiday rentals, while also collecting online information through ‘data scraping’ to discover whether hosts are breaking the current rules.

The current law also allows the city to present fines of up to €6,000 to those found to be breaking these rules; last year, over €4.2m in fines were collected for housing fraud, the majority because of this particular violation. The city has also banned families consisting of more than four people from renting out their home.


The city took further action in January, when it announced plans to limit rental periods to just 30 days a year starting in 2019, down from the 60 imposed in December 2016. The move was, naturally, condemned by Airbnb’s policy manager, who described the move as “legally untenable”. The firm has yet to take any legal action, however.

Next year will also see new B&B owners required to apply for a permit from the municipality, which reserves the right to refuse licences in busy areas such as the growing financial district Zuidas. 

Several days later, Amsterdam went even further and joined eight other European cities – including Barcelona, Vienna, Paris, and Brussels – in writing a letter to the European Commission, demanding new rules for holiday rental periods. The cities also noted their desire for platforms such as Airbnb and Booking.com to share data with regulators, whilst also installing ‘quality rules’ to prevent host anonymity.

In spite of this, Airbnb remains popular with tourists, with record overnight stays recorded in 2017. Amsterdam accounted for around 81 per cent of the 2.6m bookings made in The Netherlands, according to Statista. The French data bureau also found that, on average, traditional hotel accommodation in Amsterdam is €11 cheaper per night than an Airbnb booking.

Mid March saw The Netherlands go to the polls to elect new municipal councils (think UK city council elections, but with a better devolution package). The Dutch Labour Party (PvdA) campaigned on a total ban on Airbnb in Amsterdam, a move shared by the Socialist Party (SP) and the Party for the Animals (PvdD). The liberal parties of D66 and the VVD, meanwhile, were less enthusiastic about a ban, but nonetheless support the current restrictions, as well as a further examination of Airbnb’s practices.

The VVD (who lead the current government) recently filed a motion in the Dutch House of Representatives to label housing fraud as an ‘economic crime,’ which does suggest an increasingly hard line from them on these matters. This also comes after one of their parliamentarians, Wybren van Haga, was accused of illegally leasing buildings.

The municipal election’s largest party – GroenLinks (Green Left) – has not called for a ban. But it is in favour of increasing sanctions on those violating the 30-day period. However, such is the nature of Dutch politics that no party is large enough to govern without a coalition. It is increasingly likely that the new coalition will be comprised of GroenLinks, D66, PdvA, and the Socialist Party. Judging by their manifestos, it might be time for Airbnb to start looking for new accommodation.

 
 
 
 

Free public transport won’t work – unless we get rid of the drivers

Gissa lift mate. Image: Fraser Elliott/creative commons.

The idea of free public transport has clear appeal. Cities in France; and Germany; are already considering such proposals, to reduce traffic and air pollution. And in the UK, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn declared that he would introduce free bus travel for under-25s, to complement the passes already available to senior citizens.

But the evidence suggests that offering free public transport causes headaches for local authorities – and may not be an effective way of getting commuters to stop driving cars. Tallinn, capital of Estonia, introduced free public transport for residents in 2013. But a 2014 survey showed that most of the people who switched to public transport had previously walked or cycled, rather than driven. A further survey in 2017 showed that patronage had increased by only 20 per cent over four years.

The April 2018 edition of German trade publication Stadtverkehr claims that the only cost effective way to get car drivers to switch to public transport is to couple reasonably priced transit with severe traffic restraints. For example, in the English city of Sheffield, attractive bus fares and timetables used to keep cars out of the city centre. From the 1970s, until the service was deregulated in 1986, there was simply no need for residents to drive into Sheffield.

Finding the funds

The biggest drawback to free public transport schemes is the lack of funds from fares to cover maintenance and upgrades. In Tallinn, for example, the city’s inadequate tram system will eventually require capital for a complete renewal – or face closure. Hasselt, a Belgian town with a population of 70,000, offered free bus travel for 16 years until 2013, but eventually scrapped it when costs became unsustainable.

Paris, meanwhile, has already banned the most polluting vehicles and offered free public transport for a few days each year when pollution has reached dangerous levels due to atmospheric conditions. But according to an article in the June 2018 edition of Today’s Railways EU, traffic is rarely reduced more than 10 per cent on these days, and the long term shift to other forms of transport is minimal.

In the UK, free bus travel for senior citizens has hastened the demise of many rural and intercity services. Many local authorities have diverted support away from rural, evening and weekend services, to the concessionary fares budget. During interviews with BBC Radio 4, younger people – who rely on buses to get to work or go out on the evenings and weekends – complained that services had been axed to offer senior citizens free travel during daytime on weekdays.

But irrespective of your age, health or prosperity, there is no point in having a free bus pass if there are no buses to use it on. As bus services are further deregulated in the UK, there will continue to be pointless oversupply on some corridors, while other areas struggle to see more than a few buses per week – if any at all.


Driverless minibuses

The development of autonomous electric minibuses could be a game changer, especially if a manufacturer is prepared to lease them on favourable terms. Local authorities could pilot a scheme whereby the bus is “hailed” by smart phone 15 to 30 minutes before departure. Indeed, tests for autonomous on-demand services are already underway in cities across the US, UK; and Europe;.

Once the expensive and restrictive labour element is removed from the operating costs, there is no reason why such services could not be offered free of charge to all users. In the urban core – within a 10km radius of a city centre – these services could run 24/7. Further afield, in the suburbs, a daily service from 6am until midnight would probably be sufficient to compete with the private car.

Autonomous minibuses could automatically connect with city buses and trains, which would continue to be staffed and paid for by fares. The minibuses would provide a “last mile” service, taking people within easy walking distance of their destination. In urban areas, all residential and business premises would be within 200m of a minibus stop, extending to 500m in suburban areas and 1km in rural areas.

At off peak times, the minibuses could replace some conventional bus services to avoid the inefficiencies created when a 70 passenger bus is used to transport only ten people on an evening or Sunday service.

To prevent abuse of the minibuses, passengers would scan their phones on boarding to confirm the booking. If they didn’t, a penalty could be collected automatically from their phone. CCTV could identify any disruptive passengers and refuse further bookings. Meanwhile, taxis would continue to prosper from those people willing to pay for a personal door-to-door service.

Public transit systems, as we know them today, would struggle to deliver a sustainable free service. But there’s a real possibility that the autonomous vehicles of tomorrow could do just that.

John Disney, Senior Lecturer, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.