Madrid’s residents are being forced out of the city centre. Blame Airbnb

The Metropolis building on Madrid's Grand Via. Image: Getty.

Central Madrid is not going to “become a theme park like Barcelona, Rome or Venice”, the city’s urban development boss José Manuel Calvo pledged recently. Hundreds of thousands more tourists descended on the capital last year, adding to rental pressures that have forced 10 per cent of locals from the city centre in the past decade. And wildly increasing numbers of people are using tourist accommodation platforms like Airbnb. In the view of Madrid’s left-wing leadership, the problem is critical – and the required solutions are bold.

In many ways, Madrid is a success story. Last year some 680,000 more tourists visited the Community of Madrid, a region of 6.5m people, of whom half live in the city of Madrid. The rise represented a 13.5 per cent increase on 2015 which left Barcelona, although still more popular overall, in the shade. For a country struggling with high unemployment, especially among young people, this was good news. But there are losers.

To some the cause of the exodus seems obvious. Population in central Madrid has plunged in the past ten years, but in the last two, tourist accommodation has grown by 50 per cent. According to a study by the Madrid Higher Technical School of Engineering, the number of properties available on various platforms rose from about 4,000 to 6,000 from 2015 to 2017.

And while much media focus has been on Barcelona, Airbnb has emerged as a major force in Madrid’s tourist economy, with rentals in the city as a whole doubling to 650,000 last year. It means the Spanish capital now has more Airbnb lets per visitor than any other Spanish destination.

This meteoric growth has sparked urgent calls for action. Rents in Madrid have risen by 14.6 per cent in one year, according to recent Bank of Spain figures. And so the city is looking to policy to reduce the undeniable incentives for landlords to use Airbnb, as well as other similar platforms, to profit from their property and indirectly push up rents even further.

 As it stands, pokey one bed attic flats easily command about €60 a night on Airbnb, meaning owners can pocket up to €1,800 a month. The same flat will be lucky to fetch €1,000 on the rental market – and that’s with the rapidly inflating prices partly caused by pressure from Airbnb.

Add to this the comparative freedom property owners have compared with Madrid’s well-regulated rental market (flexibility to up prices at will, for example), and converting your pad into holiday accommodation seems like a shrewd business proposition.

Madrid’s City Hall has recently laid out a three-pronged effort to curb the popularity of home-sharing platforms. The first measure would ensure that only someone living in a property could let it out as tourist accommodation. Speaking to EuropaPress, José Manuel Calvo said the move would be necessary “so that we don’t have intermediaries or anyone buying 17 homes in order to put them up as tourist properties”.

More interestingly, the leadership also wants to limit the numbers of days in a year for which a property can be leased out. Slightly radically, Calvo has suggested that 60 days “seems right”. But given that he plans to agree the cap with platforms like Airbnb, this seems ambitious.

Finally, Mr Calvo says, the plan would mean “part of the economic return obtained by the property owner would go to City Hall” – which is an innovatively indirect way of explaining a tax.

The central area of Madrid to be affected by these policies is often called the almendra - or almond – but so far it is proving a tough nut to crack. City Hall itself has limited power to take action. Most of that lies with the regional government of the Community of Madrid – which is in the hands of City Hall’s political opponents. And recently Carlos Chaguaceda, director of tourism for the province, suggested a national solution was necessary, while stressing the importance of not demonising Airbnb and other platforms.

Airbnb, for its part, has said it wants to be a “good partner” with the city and regional government to help “local families” who want to share their homes. But in Barcelona it is currently at loggerheads with a city hall that is breathing down its neck. 

Nestled on the outskirts of Madrid is a monstrous amusement park packed with rollercoasters. Adventurous tourists who strike out into the city’s expansive Casa de Campo park occasionally have their genteel strolls interrupted by screams from the rides.

For most, though, the disturbance is a distant hum. With their efforts to prevent the city centre becoming a theme park itself, Madrid’s policymakers are keen to keep it that way. But it seems they will have their work cut out. 

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.