Short term lettings in London are out of control. The next mayor needs to act

Them again. Image: Getty.

Quite simply, there’s a renting crisis. Right now, Londoners are spending half of their income on rent, and research from housing charities shows that almost half of renters in England are experiencing stress and anxiety.

And what’s really rubbing salt into the wound is the news from City Hall that 1 in 50 available homes in the capital are now short-term lets rented out by the likes of Airbnb, and TripAdvisor, forcing rents up and driving renters out of their neighbourhoods. These sites make it so easy to list properties for short term holiday lets that many landlords are letting out their properties like this year-round. These sham holiday lets are depriving Londoners of homes and worsening the housing crisis.

The news comes at a time when 1 in 50 Londoners are homeless and the temporary accommodation crisis is spiralling out of control. Right now, 59,000 households in London live in temporary accommodation, including 89,000 children. Temporary accommodation is often anything but, with many families staying in unsuitable and unsafe temporary accommodation for years.

Airbnb has snapped back, calling the figure inflated and blaming double-counting of properties across multiple platforms for the high number. And that reveals yet another facet of the short-term let crisis in London. Back in 2015, the Deregulation Act gave landlords the freedom to rent out their properties for up to 90 days a year – any longer and they would need to secure planning permission to convert the homes into hotels – or face a fine of up to £20,000. While you’d think the steep fine would be a persuasive deterrent, it has been rendered completely toothless as local authorities have no way of proving an offence has been committed.

In fact, the only way that local councils can catch out rogue short-term let landlords is by manually counting the days a property is rented out on, say, Airbnb, and then cross-referencing this with the countless number of other platforms they may also be renting it out on. This is something that cash-strapped councils have no hope of doing. Councillors in the capital have talked about the rise of key-lock boxes on blocks of flats, a telltale sign of the holiday let trade, meaning entire buildings of constituents have been lost to make way for short-term lets.

Short-term let companies are aware of councils’ limitations. Secret filming by the BBC in 2019 found Hostmaker encouraging landlords to keep properties on their site and to “feign ignorance” of the law if caught. And last week, The Times published an article in which ARLA, a letting agent body, claimed that landlords could “earn an average of £500 extra a month by renting their properties on Airbnb rather than to long-term tenants”. The article ignored the 90-day limit altogether. 

Things urgently need to change. With the mayoral election creeping closer, Londoners and local councils alike will be looking for candidates with solutions to the ever-growing short-term lets industry. The frontrunners have set out their priorities; Sadiq Khan has pledged to campaign for rent controls, Sian Berry has vowed to make tackling the housing crisis front and centre of her campaign, and Shaun Bailey has said he will build more homes. These measures are all welcome. But to improve Londoners’ lives we need a crackdown on rogue landlords letting out sham holiday lets and depriving people of homes. Councils need to be given the right tools to root these landlords out and improve standards.

This week, Generation Rent is launching a campaign calling for forced data sharing between short-term let companies and councils to aid the crackdown on landlords breaking the rules. You can sign the petition here.


Tackling toxic air in our cities is also a matter of social justice

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Clean Air Zones are often dismissed by critics as socially unfair. The thinking goes that charging older and more polluting private cars will disproportionately impact lower income households who cannot afford expensive cleaner alternatives such as electric vehicles.

But this argument doesn’t consider who is most affected by polluted air. When comparing the latest deprivation data to nitrogen dioxide background concentration data, the relationship is clear: the most polluted areas are also disproportionately poorer.

In UK cities, 16 per cent of people living in the most polluted areas also live in one of the top 10 per cent most deprived neighbourhoods, against 2 per cent who live in the least deprived areas.

The graph below shows the average background concentration of NO2 compared against neighbourhoods ranked by deprivation. For all English cities in aggregate, pollution levels rise as neighbourhoods become more deprived (although interestingly this pattern doesn’t hold for more rural areas).

Average NO2 concentration and deprivation levels. Source: IMD, MHCLG (2019); background mapping for local authorities, Defra (2019).

The graph also shows the cities in which the gap in pollution concentration between the most and the least deprived areas is the highest, which includes some of the UK’s largest urban areas.  In Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham, there is a respective 46, 42 and 33 per cent difference in NO2 concentration between the poorest and the wealthiest areas – almost double the national urban average gap, at around 26 per cent.

One possible explanation for these inequalities in exposure to toxic air is that low-income people are more likely to live near busy roads. Our data on roadside pollution suggests that, in London, 50 per cent of roads located in the most deprived areas are above legal limits, against 4 per cent in the least deprived. In a number of large cities (Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield), none of the roads located in the least deprived areas are estimated to be breaching legal limits.

This has a knock-on impact on health. Poor quality air is known to cause health issues such as cardiovascular disease, lung cancer and asthma. Given the particularly poor quality of air in deprived areas, this is likely to contribute to the gap in health and life expectancy inequalities as well as economic ones between neighbourhoods.

The financial impact of policies such as clean air zones on poorer people is a valid concern. But it is not a justifiable reason for inaction. Mitigating policies such as scrappage schemes, which have been put in place in London, can deal with the former concern while still targeting an issue that disproportionately affects the poor.

As the Centre for Cities’ Cities Outlook report showed, people are dying across the country as a result of the air that they breathe. Clean air zones are one of a number of policies that cities can use to help reduce this, with benefits for their poorer residents in particular.

Valentine Quinio is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.