'The chance of getting caught is very small': The uphill battle to police Ireland's new Airbnb rules
Councils are already struggling to crack down on many unauthorised short-term lets after fielding hundreds of complaints from locals.
IT HAD ALL the tell-tale signs of an Airbnb: the number-coded key lock by the door, groups of strangers coming and going at odd hours, the cleaning staff making their regular visits.
A search confirmed Siobhán Geoghegan’s suspicions: the recently renovated apartment in her historic building at Rialto in Dublin had been turned into a quasi-hotel, pulling in as much in a week from tourist as it would in nearly a month with a long-term tenant.
“I was really disappointed because the rents have already increased so much that people just can’t afford to live here – and it’s a small, one-bedroom apartment, so four people sharing that space doesn’t seem appropriate,” she said.
Geoghegan, like many others living in Ireland’s tourist hotspots, is waiting on the introduction of new laws next month, which will effectively ban year-round short-term lets in private properties in areas where the housing crisis is at its most acute.
But councils face an uphill battle in enforcing the expected avalanche of fresh cases under the incoming rules, with many local authorities already locked in years-long investigations and planning disputes to close down just a handful of unauthorised rentals.
A landmark decision
Under existing regulations, property owners are already in most cases barred from turning homes into year-round tourist accommodation without council approval.
That fact was confirmed in late 2016 when An Bord Pleanála delivered a landmark decision to block a Temple Bar apartment – advertised as delivering around €6,000 per month on Airbnb when it was put on sale – being used exclusively as a short-term let.
The decision was backed up by the Department of Housing, which later urged councils to investigate any cases of suspected year-round short-term lets and, where necessary, take action to shut them down.
Since then, councils have fielded hundreds of complaints, with some leading to enforcement actions being launched against the operators. Dublin City Council has been the nexus of issues surrounding unauthorised short-term letting.
Between 2016 and the end of 2018, the council received 247 complaints about short-term lets that resulted in warning letters. Fewer than two-fifths of the cases had been resolved as of March this year.
Some 104 of those complaints were fielded last year, compared to just 16 for Galway City Council and seven for Fingal. The other Dublin councils, as well as Limerick, Cork city, Meath and Wicklow’s local authorities, all received either one or zero complaints last year.
However enforcement case files obtained by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie, show the challenges even the most diligent council investigations face in policing illegal short-term lets.
Many cases are hampered by problems tracking down who is responsible for a rental, while others are stymied by owners’ claims that their homes are only intermittently being used as tourist accommodation.
One complaint to Dublin City Council in November 2017 said that one-fifth of the apartments in their Temple Bar apartment complex were being used as short-term lets.
Many were listed individually on Airbnb, while others were being advertised by a large ‘aparthotel’ operator.
It has come to the point where I had to keep their number on speed dial due to the noise from those apartments in the middle of the night,” the complaint said.
The council opened several investigations, but in one case warning letters to the individual apartment were simply ignored.
The property’s former owner, who was eventually contacted after registry searches, said the apartment had been sold in 2016. Nearly two years later the case is still open.
Meanwhile, in a complaint from early 2018, Galway City Council was told that a four-bedroom house near the city’s historic centre was being advertised on Airbnb and Booking.com for ‘luxury’ short-term lets for groups of up to 12 people.
The complainant raised noise and other issues, adding: “Why is this not regulated like bed and breakfasts?”
After writing to the property owner, the council received a response from her lawyers to say the house was rented to a tenant, who advised that it was only “occasionally” let and was mainly used as their home.
However listing searches showed it was available virtually all summer. The council recommended a follow-up letter in September to advise the owner that planning permission was needed.
In late October, nine months after the complaint was lodged, the council received a response from the legal firm to say they no longer acted for the owner. The house is still available for rent, now for up to 14 people, at a rate of €710 per night in summer.
A major shake-up
The introduction next month of new short-term letting laws will deliver a major shake-up to the industry as the government attempts to drive more homes onto the market for long-term rentals amid the ever-snowballing housing crisis.
In designated rent-pressure zones, which cover Dublin and major commuter towns as well as Galway and Cork cities and part of Limerick, councils will need to grant planning approval for any short-term letting of investment properties.
The Department of Housing said in a recent letter to all local authorities that it was unlikely any of these applications would be approved due to the housing shortages.
People renting out their main homes on a short-term basis will also be barred for doing so for more than 90 days each year without planning permission, while those offering stays under this threshold would have to register with their local authorities.
However all the onus for policing the regulations will also rest on local authorities, which many say are ill-prepared to handle extra enforcement cases given the difficulties involved in investigating short-term lets and recession-era staff cuts.
Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said local authorities such as Dublin City Council should focus on a few, high-profile cases that involved large-scale short-term letting “to send out a very clear signal” to other operators that they meant business.
“It’s like a lot of things – you can have very good regulations, but unless there are the staff and the resources in the local authorities to be able to enforce them, their effectiveness is open to question,” he said.
In a memo from November, Dublin City Council’s head of planning and development, Richard Shakespeare, noted that the enforcement of short-term lettings was “logistically very difficult”.
This was because of problems establishing ownership, getting access to properties and proving illegal letting, with the onus on local authorities to provide first-hand proof that properties were being used as tourist rentals.
The production of internet listings of properties from short-term letting platforms will not be sufficient evidence to proceed to issue an enforcement notice or sustain a conviction in court,” he added.
Shakespeare said it could cost €400,000 extra each year to enforce the regulations as more than 5,000 properties were listed on various platforms for short-term rental in the Dublin city region. The estimate has since increased to as much as €750,000.
The Department of Housing’s latest circular, issued last week, noted that enforcing the rules would need extra resources and asked councils to put in their requests for additional funding.
It added that “step-by-step procedures for taking enforcement action based on the experience of local authorities which have already been adopting a proactive approach in this area” would be issued shortly.
Once a council issues a formal enforcement notice in relation to a suspected illegal short-term let, anyone continuing with a relatively minor planning breach can be fined up to €5,000 or, in theory, jailed for up to six months.
If councils take court action, they can also seek to recover their enforcement costs, which would typically amount to several thousand euro, as well as legal expenses, however these cases are extremely rare.
In reality, councils usually hope that warning and enforcement letters will prove enough of a deterrent for anyone looking to capitalise on the huge returns available from short-term lets.
An Oireachtas committee argued in February that the new laws should go further and make it an offence for holiday letting sites to advertise non-compliant hosts following an earlier recommendation that the platforms be required to share data with authorities.
However under the incoming rules there is no requirement that property listing sites hand over any information, and they face no potential penalties.
Dublin councillor Patrick Costello said Airbnb and other platforms should be required to share data on hosts, much as the companies were already required to hand over taxpayer details to Revenue.
A breach of planning regulations is a criminal offence. If these platforms are aware that somebody is breaking the rules, which they should be given how much information they have, they should be sharing this information with the council,” he said.
When contacted by Noteworthy for comment, Airbnb said via a spokesman that it “always reminded hosts to follow local rules” and took action whenever “bad actors” were brought to its attention.
A Booking.com spokeswoman said the site required hosts to comply with all local regulations, and listings could be removed if they were in breach of any laws.
Neither responded directly to questions on whether they would provide information on hosts to authorities on request.
Nevertheless, even detailed data may not help councils identify those responsible for a large share of the short-term letting market. Many absentee landlords – the ones who would be held liable in the case of any planning breaches – outsource their listings to professional hosts, who handle all aspects of the short-term letting management.
Other major operators own properties outright, making them easier targets for council officials.
The Key Collections, which lists 20 hotels, apartment complexes and guesthouses in Dublin on its website, last year lost an appeal to An Bord Pleanála over its use of eight apartments at Smithfield’s Chancery Hall as short-term lets without planning approval.
The company, which declined to comment when contacted via a spokeswoman, argued it didn’t need to apply for council approval as the apartments were still in residential use. The apartments are no longer listed as available on its website.
TU Dublin lecturer and housing expert Lorcan Sirr said councils risked being out-manoeuvred by short-term letting hosts if they continued to take a “bottom-up approach” by only responding to complaints.
When something is as lucrative as a short-term let, people will do what they can to continue in operation, they will try to thwart the regulations, they will take a chance on it because they know the chance of getting caught is very small,” he said.
However the chilling effect of the new laws may be enough to push many full-time, short-term letting operators out of the industry.
Two professional Airbnb managers told Noteworthy that they planned to stop offering short-term lettings altogether due to the new laws, with one saying they would instead focus on longer-term, corporate rentals.
These fall outside the definition of short-term lets under the new regulations, which only cover stays of 14 or fewer days.
For now, most councils appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach to how the new laws will work in practice.
A spokeswoman for Dublin City Council, which will be at the front line of implementing the rules, said the local authority was currently examining the final regulations, which it received last week, and it would be “considering the implications of enforcing them”.
For Geoghegan, her hope is that the new laws will restore some stability to neighbourhoods like her own that have become unwelcome hubs for tourists.
“People want this authentic experience of the city that they’re going to visit, they want this edgy neighbourhood, but it takes away from the social fabric of the area,” she said.
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