Ever rented out a room in your flat? I have. Many people in Edinburgh have too. The city sees a massive influx during August and without residents offering up spare rooms – or indeed their whole home – there’d simply be nowhere for the festival to live.
But the festival has always been an exception. Worth the inconvenience and congestion because we get the biggest arts event in the world and it’s good for the city’s economy and reputation.
In the last few years, short-term renting has spread all year round with the growth of websites like Airbnb. There’s more than 7,000 short-term lets available in Edinburgh on Airbnb alone – most in the city centre, Leith and the Southside. That’s the equivalent of 35 massive 200-bedroom hotels. It’s big business – and getting bigger.
So, what’s the problem? For starters, there’s no regulation of these properties. Not only can visitors be ripped off, no health and safety checks mean many are accidents waiting to happen. There’s also no-one to police how the flat is used and prevent partying into the wee small hours, annoying the hell out of neighbours who have no comeback because the stag party will be gone the next day. If you’re just letting out a room in your home, you have some oversight of your guests’ behaviour – not when you’re an absentee landlord.
More than half of the city centre short-term lets on Airbnb are by what the site calls “multi-listing hosts”. That means they’re letting a bunch of properties – in effect, there are running a hotel spread over many properties.
That’s unfair to actual hotels that are paying their rates and complying with a whole range of laws and policies designed to make life bearable for others. But the greatest problem is the effect this new form of commercial renting is having on our communities and the character of our historic city. There are tenements in the Grassmarket and areas like it where only one tenant or owner is left in the entire stair. At every other door is the dreaded grey metal box holding the keys to the flat for the next transient visitor.
Communities are under attack as properties are sold off to become second homes for the wealthy or short-term lets for groups on a budget. Try getting to know your neighbours when they are never there or change every three days. I don’t live in the Old Town or city centre, but I am concerned about what’s happening there. They should be places where real people live – not just a playground for visitors.
For that is what makes them interesting places to visit. Authenticity is all the rage in the tourist industry – people don’t want to go to places that seem artificial or an ersatz reconstruction of what used to be. They want the real thing. We need to get a grip on this and I’m glad to see public authorities are beginning to act. Earlier this year the city council called for properties rented out for more than 90 days to be re-classified as commercial businesses. It would mean residents have somewhere to complain to apart from the internet and that high-stress areas could be treated differently.
In the same way you can have too many pubs in an area, you can have too many Airbnbs. Short-term commercial lets are now being regulated throughout the world in tourist hotspots like Paris and Amsterdam. It’s time for Scotland to catch up and I’m pleased to see this is on our government’s agenda.
Column written for the Edinburgh Evening News - Thursday 7th December 2017