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Airbnb is a website that’s fast becoming the bane of the hotel industry.
The Silicon Valley startup, founded in 2008, lets people list their spare rooms – or even their entire home – for holiday leases online, opening up thousands of new places to stay in cities across the world.
It’s one of the most frequently mentioned examples of the “sharing economy” the internet is powering; instead of companies and professionals leasing out houses and hotel rooms, individuals can make a bit of extra cash by sharing their home.
But the site’s listings may not be what they first seem. Data from the site analysed by the Guardian suggests that professionals and buy-to-let investors with empty properties have carved out a huge presence on the site. The rise of these semi-professional landlords is causing concern among hoteliers and is potentially an extra headache for those struggling to get on the capital’s crowded housing ladder.
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The analysis of more than 13,000 Airbnb listings in London – by far the site’s biggest UK market – shows more than 6,600 are leasing out an entire home or flat, rather than a spare room. More than 1,500 people listing properties on the site have multiple listings, with 180 listing five or more properties or rooms across London.
Some of the site’s super users have dozens of properties across the city at once: one, who went by the name Petra, had 127 active listings on Thursday. The account did not return requests for comment.
The study also suggests many listings on the site – which vary from a £20-a-night spare room staying with a family in Newbury Park to a £900-a-night warehouse in Shoreditch – are rented out frequently, rather than just once or twice a year when the resident is away.
Using the number of reviews as a minimum for how often a property has been leased (visitors don’t have to leave any feedback, meaning the actual number of stays may be higher) shows that more than 3,100 of the London listings have had more than 10 visits, while 1,600 have had more than 20 stays in the short life of the UK arm of the site.
The Guardian analysis echoes similar findings made in the US in, published earlier this week, which found two-thirds of listings in the city offered up entire homes.
The UK findings have further raised concerns of the British Hospitality Association, which has often sought to challenge its members’ dotcom rival on the grounds of health and safety and property regulations.
“We are very concerned that large numbers of private homes are being let on a semi or even permanent basis to tourists because it’s unlikely that any of these properties have ever had any fire risk or health and safety checks,” said Jackie Grech, the organisation’s legal and policy director. “76% of fire deaths in the UK last year were in the home and if you have strangers staying there who aren’t familiar with how things work, the risks could increase.
“The BHA also has some serious concerns about the opportunity for antisocial behaviours that could occur in these properties, which aren’t professionally managed.”
Others were concerned that if Airbnb makes buy-to-let investment even more attractive, the London property market could become even harder to access for those on low-to-medium incomes, especially the younger generation.
“We suspect that many of these properties will be owned by buy-to-let investors, many of whom claim they are not running lettings businesses in order to claim tax exemptions,” said Ashley Seager, co-founder of the Intergenerational Foundation. “As we recommended in our recent buy-to-let paper, the government should reform taxation on buy-to-let to remove the market advantage they receive and place them on a level playing field with first-time-buyers desperately seeking an affordable home of their own.”
However, others took a more relaxed view about the listings, noting Airbnb was still relatively small compared to hotels – which offer around 120,000 rooms in London – and the size of the city’s housing market.
“If Airbnb is being used by a professional group of landlords to provide hotel accommodation using residential property then this could potentially have implications for the housing market. But it would have to grow a hell of a lot to have any significant displacement effect,” said Matt Griffith, associate fellow at the centre-left IPPR thinktank. “It would certainly have planning implications though.”
Airbnb itself noted that the site has in total around 17,000 listings in London, while the city has three times as many empty homes, with latest figures suggesting more than 59,000 residential properties are vacant. It said it encouraged hosts to follow all appropriate local laws.
“We require all of our hosts to follow the rules in any lease agreements they might have and relevant local regulations. The situation in London regarding planning laws has been frankly confusing with an antiquated law from the 1970s,” said a spokesman.
“Housing costs are determined by a large number of factors, not least the amount of new properties being built. There is no evidence in London or any other city that Airbnb has a negative impact on house prices or rents.”
Margarethe Theseira, a research fellow at the Centre for London, was given access by Airbnb to their data to look at London’s sharing economy. She said the vast majority of Airbnb hosts rented out their own homes, and said that while the pressure on housing costs was real, Airbnb may even be of help in dealing with it.
“[T]he increasingly high costs of living in London and the years of low or no wage growth for London workers (particularly [for] those earning less than median salaries) is putting pressure on London household budgets,” she said.
“London households spend £60.26 less per week now than they did a decade ago. Having the option to rent out a spare room can provide a valuable additional source of income for London residents.”
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk