Stephen Burgen in Barcelona
Friday 2 June 2017 12.45 BSTLast modified on Friday 2 June 2017 22.00 BST
The next time you book a holiday apartment in Barcelona you may wake up to find an inspector standing at the end of the bed.
Amid growing evidence that the massive upsurge in tourist apartments is driving rents up and residents out, the city has launched a crackdown on illegal, unlicensed apartments, and Airbnb, the dominant platform, is in the eye of the storm, although not the only offender.
According to the council, there are about 16,000 holiday rentals in the city, of which nearly 7,000 are unlicensed. Last year Barcelona fined Airbnb €600,000 for continuing to advertise unlicensed flats on its platform.
The city has doubled from 20 to 40 the team of inspectors who roam the streets seeking out illegal rentals, armed with apps that reveal at a click whether properties are legal or not. By next year their number will have risen to more than 100. Cross-referencing licences with property advertised online, they identify rogue apartments which are then ordered to close down. Owners – when they can be found – face fines of up to €60,000.
“We often can’t track down the owners. They have disappeared,” said Silvia Arrue, who coordinates the team of inspectors.
Peter Huntingford, public affairs spokesman for Airbnb, categorically denied claims it had not cooperated with Barcelona. “We are committed to being good partners to cities and have worked closely with officials in city hall and the Generalitat [regional government],” he said.
“Legislation needs to differentiate between regular people sharing their homes and professionals running a business.
“Home sharing is part of the solution to tourism challenges in Barcelona. It puts money in the pockets of local families, helps them afford their homes and spreads guests and benefits beyond tourist hotspots.”
Airbnb has consistently claimed the majority of its clients are simply homeowners trying to make ends meet, but Arrue is among many who dispute this.
“A lot of owners say they are renting out of economic necessity but the truth is they own several properties,” she said. “Our research shows that the great majority of the properties on offer are owned by a small number of people,” said Daniel Pardo of the Assemblea de Barris per un Turisme Sostenible (Neighbourhood Association for Sustainable Tourism). He said that, despite the agreement the city reached with other platforms, “all of them continue to promote unlicensed property. Many carry a licence number but when we check them out most are false. Airbnb may be the biggest but they’re all doing the same thing.”
Janet Sanz, the Barcelona councillor responsible for housing, said they were on to that. “It’s our job to check them because the platform doesn’t know if the owner has used a false number or not, and this is what we are doing. If they are false we will order them to close,” she said, adding that the platform then had an obligation to remove the property from its site.
“Our attitude is zero tolerance. We will do everything we can to guarantee the right to housing in the city,” Sanz said. “What these people have to understand is that Barcelona exists for its people. The priority is it’s a place to live.”
The city has stopped issuing licences and many existing licences in the most heavily touristed areas such as Ciutat Vella (the old city) will not be renewed when they expire. After a hotline for reporting illegal flats opened the number of calls from the public rose from 39 in 2015 to 2,784 a year later.
Property owners can make five times as much renting to tourists as to residents. However, tourism is not the only factor pushing rents up, said Jaime Palomera, spokesman for the newly formed Sindicat de Llogaters (Tenants’ Union). Before the financial crisis hit in 2007, mortgages were easy to come by. Now that banks aren’t lending, property speculators have become active in the rented sector, he said.
Nearly a third of residents are tenants and rents in Barcelona have risen by 23% in the past three years. In some working-class areas people are paying 60% of their income in rent. Contracts are only for three years, after which the owner can unilaterally decide not to renew.
“We believe that rents should reflect the income of the city’s residents,” said Palomera. “The city shouldn’t be prey to speculators who can drive out residents just to make a profit.”
A dozen or more neighbourhood associations have sprung up over the past year as the housing question has become the focus of resistance to both tourism and gentrification.
“We’re not aiming to demonise tourism but to regulate it,” said Arrue, but the view among many citizens is that they are being robbed of their city. Anti-tourist graffiti has begun to appear, with “No tourists past this point” painted on a street in the old city and “Why call it tourist season if we can’t shoot them?” near the popular Park Güell. In recent weeks, several hotels have also been attacked with stones and paint bombs.
inspector: someone whose job is to officially inspect something
offender: a person who is guilty of a crime
roam: to move about or travel, especially without a clear idea of what you are going to do
rogue: behaving in ways that are not expected or not normal, often in a way that causes damage
hotspot: a place where war or other fighting is likely to happen
make ends meet: to have just enough money to pay for the things that you need
zero tolerance: the act of punishing all criminal or unacceptable behaviour severely, even if it is not very serious
mortgage: an agreement that allows you to borrow money from a bank or similar organisation, especially in order to buy a house, or the amount of money itself
unilateral: involving only one group or country
spring up: to start to exist suddenly
gentrification: the process by which a place, especially part of a city, changes from being a poor area to a richer one, where people from a higher social class live