Sponsored: Is Airbnb’s model for short-term lets ruining cities, or breathing life into them?

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Short-term lets are increasingly being blamed for urban ills. At one level, it’s the reduction in properties available for long-term rental and the not-so-small matter of tax avoidance. At another, it’s about the impact on local communities and noise disturbance from partying guests. Is the criticism justified? Airbnb is the company most often associated with this trend, but it's doing more than most rivals to put things right.

Paris is typical of the reaction. Last year, its mayor warned of the risk it will become a “museum city”, and this despite a letting limit of 120 nights per property. "I have nothing against Parisians who rent their home a few days a year to put butter in the spinach," said Mayor Anne Hidalgo in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche. “The problem is the multi-owners who rent apartments all year round to tourists without declaring them, and the platforms, accomplices, who welcome them.”

In London, short-term lets are capped at 90 nights per year – with Airbnb the first platform to introduce the limit – a move designed to protect long-term rented housing. However, the law is difficult for councils to enforce and it can be side-stepped by advertising on multiple platforms.

Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has praised Airbnb for working with City Hall, has called for a registration system to enforce the limit. He said: “Short-term lets are a benefit to visitors to London, and to Londoners themselves who want to earn a little extra money. But these benefits must be balanced with the need to protect long-term rented housing, and to make sure neighbours aren’t impacted by a high turnover of visitors.”

Crimes and misdemeanours

New problems continue to crop up for short-term lets, however. In October last year, Superintendent Mark Edgington, force lead for modern slavery at Avon and Somerset Police, released a statement that linked the proliferation of short-term lets to prostitution. He warned that pop-up brothels are increasingly being reported in short-term rental properties across the UK and were being connected to modern slavery and sexual exploitation. “Many hosts are completely unaware their properties could be used for this, or the signs they should be looking out for,” he said.

Interestingly, Airbnb goes to some lengths to avoid such problems. The platform employs sophisticated technologies and behavioural analysis to block potentially troublesome guests and forbids illegal activity. It even partners with Polaris, a leading anti-trafficking organisation and works with international agencies to prevent human trafficking.

Other problems for short-term let landlords were highlighted by the insurance company Aviva in its home-sharing survey*. For example, more than half of hosts have seen their homes or possessions damaged by guests, while just under half have had items stolen. What’s more, 38% had experienced a domestic disturbance involving neighbours or the police and 18% had properties left in an ‘unacceptable’ state by guests. Anyone considering letting a property should therefore ensure they have appropriate insurance that meets their specific needs and demands.

Airbnb, for its part, offers host guarantees and insurance that covers listings for up to USD$1m, which covers every booking. A spokesman defended the company: “In Great Britain in 2018, only one in every 12,000 trips resulted in a claim for significant property damage (claims reimbursed for more than $1,000) under our Host Guarantee. That represents a rate of only 0.009% of trips.”

Tools and hotlines

Airbnb is understandably keen to address the issues that are tarnishing its reputation. Later this year it will launch a dedicated hotline for city officials. A spokesman said: “As part of our ongoing commitment to work with cities around the world, we’re launching a dedicated line where mayors and city officials can connect with appropriate Airbnb representatives about our new policies.”

The company has already partnered with more than 500 local governments and organisations around the world to promote tourism, collect and remit taxes. So far, it says it has remitted more than $2bn in tourist and city taxes, including more than $100m in Los Angeles alone.

In cities like Edinburgh, however, the focus has been more on noise and parties, and a three-month trial has been held where hosts use a noise detector device to detect and act on potential noise and nuisance issues. A "good guest guide" has also been shared with the city’s hosts that has been developed in partnership with VisitScotland. This includes advice on carrying suitcases where possible, rather than rolling them noisily along the city’s cobbled streets.

Globally, there are new guest standards, a hotline for neighbours and a verification system for hosts is currently under way. Residents can report issues with guest parking, waste, noise or other issues directly to Airbnb via an online Neighbour Tool, while the hotline will enable “anyone, anytime, anywhere to reach a real person at Airbnb.”

In addition, large parties and events are now banned in Airbnb listings in multi-family residences, such as apartment buildings. Any type of unauthorised party remains prohibited in all listings.

Community benefits

So, is home sharing bad for cities? No, says Jag Herar, a self-employed IT consultant who, rather than ploughing money into private pension, put it into property in Bradford. He now has a mixed portfolio of approximately 50% long-term rentals and 50% short-term. With the latter, he’s specialised in meeting the needs of the theatre industry and has even launched his own "More than Digs" website.

“If you imagine a touring production of Mamma Mia, or Matthew Bourne's Red Shoes, they'll be touring the UK and will sit in a particular venue for up to four or five weeks. It’s everyone from actors to stage crews and make-up artists. They all need somewhere to live. With Airbnb you have to pay up front and if you're booking 15 cities for a tour, you can't afford to pay all that at once.”

Despite some horror stories with short-term lets – “yes, I've had 'ladies of the night' set up camp for a week in my apartment” – he does see many benefits for the West Yorkshire city.

“My voids for longer-term rentals in city centre apartments were quite high. People would stay six months and then it would be empty two months, before another six months let. It wasn't very stable for me and I had to look at alternative revenue streams. Then I found this niche of satisfying the entertainment industry.”

Landlords under pressure

Jag called his website "More than Digs" because he wants to recommend local businesses and services as well as offer a bed for the night. “I get people staying whose cars have broken down or they need an MOT as they're on the road the whole time – so I do a lot of recommendations, which is great for the local community,” he says.

“I’m also driving business from landlords to local tradesmen for gas safety checks, painting and plastering – more so with short-term lets as there’s more wear and tear. There’s also a lot of footfall going into city centres at a time when the high street is under pressure. Bradford is also the UK's curry capital and guests usually ask for recommendations – if a big production wants to go, I can put them in touch with local restaurants who can accommodate larger parties.”

Jag also takes issue with those who feel home-share sites are reducing the amount of long-term rental properties and forcing poorer people out of city centres. “A far bigger issue is that it isn’t viable for landlords any more as new regulations come in. Letting agents are being hammered and there are new tax rules for landlords. A lot are leaving the industry and selling their buy-to-lets.”

As with many other issues, it seems harsh to blame Airbnb for that.

This is a sponsored post by our partner AvivaThe author is an Airbnb host.

*Research was carried out by Censuswide in August 2019, interviewing 1,000 UK adults who let out properties to guests as a short-term/holiday let, and 1,000 UK adults who have stayed in a home-share property.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.