Hostmaker’s apology isn’t an apology – and short-term lets are an attack on ordinary renters

Still no idea. Image: Generation Rent.

It was Friday at 5pm when we got the message – well, when CityMetric got the message, to be more specific. After Generation Rent’s petition climbed to over 8,000 signatures, short-term lettings company Hostmaker finally apologised and announced that the ads encouraging landlords to turf out long term tenants in favour of holiday lets would be removed from London’s transport network over the weekend.

In its official statement, the company said:

“We are sorry for the concern caused by our recent ad campaign and we acknowledge the tone was misguided. The adverts will be coming down this weekend and we will be reviewing all future creatives with our partners.”

My first instinct was to celebrate – but the rest of the statement quickly turned my celebration to disbelief at how out of touch one company could be. Here’s the rest of the statement...hold on to your hats.

“In a cosmopolitan city like London, there is a need for a range of housing and rental solutions to meet the needs of the wide variety of residents and visitors in our capital city. Whilst it’s critical that there is plenty of affordable housing stock available, our portfolio is made up of premium homes in zone 1&2 postcodes and does not take affordable housing stock away from the market.

“We are here to meet the needs of Londoners and visitors to the capital who would prefer to stay in a high quality, furnished and managed home service. We provide a flexible lettings model to homeowners of these type of properties; blending long-term, mid-term and short-term rentals to suit market demands and help homeowners weather the current slump in rent prices and property sales, ensuring they aren’t left with gaps in the year when their property is standing empty.”

Firstly, let’s take note of the fact that Hostmaker didn’t get in touch with Generation Rent directly to let us know the outcome of our campaign. Instead, it went straight to a journalist. That’s pretty damning proof that this apology is more about damage control than anything else.

Then there’s the send time. At 5pm last Friday, I should have been starting to wrap up for the weekend; instead, I was busy letting the 8000 people who joined our campaign know they’d won.

Hostmaker’s statement is, quite frankly, disgusting. Let’s take it line by line to find out why.

“Whilst it’s critical that there is plenty of affordable housing stock available, our portfolio is made up of premium homes in zone 1&2 postcodes and does not take affordable housing stock away from the market.”

Zones 1&2 are not the preserve of the uber-rich. In zones 1&2 you can find Tower Hamlets, a borough where the average household earns £23,092, spends a whopping 71 per cent of its income on rent, and where 48.6 per cent of children live in poverty. In Kensington & Chelsea, the average income is £34,678 and 95 per cent of earnings go towards rent.

So: Hostmaker’s adverts telling landlords they can make “up to 30 per cent more” by ditching their tenants for short term lets are, ipso facto, encouraging landlords to kick out the poorest renters in zones 1&2.

Hostmaker’s “premium homes” in zones 1 and 2 would be a lot more affordable to Londoners if they didn’t have to pay the 30 per cent mark-up that holiday lets make. Those people now have to find homes in zone 3 or beyond, and can outbid renters already living there with their higher incomes. Those renters are pushed even further out from the centre, adding to the pressure throughout London – all thanks to companies like Hostmaker which take homes out of the long-term residential market.

“We are here to meet the needs of Londoners and visitors to the capital who would prefer to stay in a high quality, furnished and managed home service.”

I’m a Londoner who wants “a high quality, furnished and managed home service”, Hostmaker. In fact there are 2 million renters in London who probably want that too. What of them?

It doesn’t take a genius to read between the lines here.

“…help homeowners weather the current slump in rent prices and property sales”

Bear with me whilst I get my tiny violin for this one. The average rent per person in London is £660 and, as someone who was once separated from a housemate by a wall so thin I could push it over, I know all too well that many landlords are cramming enough tenants into houses to cover much more than their mortgage.

London’s house prices might have fallen by 2 percent over the past year – but they are still 89 per cent higher than they were a decade ago. If landlords have a business model that cannot handle a slowdown in rents, then they should sell up to someone who can.

But clearly the holiday let market is appealing for landlords precisely because they want to maximise their profits. This is exactly why we ultimately need to do more than take down the ads: we need to tax and regulate the sector properly.

You know what’s the worst part is? The ads are still up. On Sunday evening I walked through Oxford Circus and saw three huge Hostmaker ads still there. On Twitter, we’ve been sent proof of adverts on the Overground this week.

Incidentally, some Londoners now seem to be taking matters into their own hands.

Georgie Laming is a campaigner at Generation Rent, which represents 11 millions renters across the UK.


 

 
 
 
 

How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 


Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first


On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them


A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.