A sure sign that the housing crisis is coming to the boil is that politicians are, once again, pointing the finger at Airbnb.
When criticism rains down on ministers over the shortage of homes, the spectre of a “crackdown” on the accommodation portal is often conveniently deployed as an umbrella. It is a handy signifier that something – anything – is being “done” to address the problem.
It was reported by political staff of The Irish Times on Thursday morning that Fianna Fáil's Darragh O'Brien, the Minister for Housing, told the parliamentary party meeting of Fine Gael that his department is close to finalising an examination of how to further regulate Airbnb, a highly efficient technology platform that allows people to offer rooms or entire properties for short-term rental.
Senator Tim Lombard also said that Airbnb properties were “soaking up” the rental market and harming rural and urban Ireland by reducing rental supply.
It was suggested that properties “would not be allowed to advertise on the platform without the requisite planning permission”.
This is a vague promise by the Minister – it is already illegal, in many instances, for properties that are not the landlord’s main residence to be offered for short-term rental without planning permission, if they are located inside rent pressure zones (RPZs).
There are some exceptions within RPZs, such as if you let the property out for more than two weeks at a time. Or if it is your main residence, you can let it out without planning for fewer than 90 days per year while you are away. If the property is outside an RPZ, there is no problem and therefore no restriction.
Rather than expanding the number or type of properties captured by the restrictions, it seems the Minister may simply be looking to beef up enforcement of the existing rules, which were brought in almost two years ago.
If he is targeting the “advertisement” of properties, as opposed to their letting, this suggests he may be looking for a way to put the onus on Airbnb to prevent some ads from appearing in the first place.
Either way, the intention is to choke off the supply of short-term rental to the tourism market, and force the owners of those properties to bring them back into the housing market. However, the last attempted crackdown in 2019 appears to have made very little impact on the housing crisis. It is worse now than it ever was.
Airbnb is – let’s be honest – a handy target for officials and ministers who are themselves the targets of intense public and political pressure over the housing shortage. Few will speak up in defence of a stock-market-listed, tax-efficient global tech giant, even if its impact on the housing crisis seems to be debatable and, at times, exaggerated.
One of the major problems with the platform is that it is not obliged to publicly release detailed data on its listings, such as how many whole-of-property listings are in RPZs, or for how long each of those properties is rented out each year, or how many times they are rented.
This information gap makes it difficult to discern its exact impact on the housing crisis.
Forcing Airbnb to publicly disclose detailed data would inform the conversation. In the meantime, we must make do with data scraped from its public listings, such as the independent website, Inside Airbnb, which tries to shed light on the extent and nature of its listings in locations across the globe, including Ireland and – specifically – Dublin.
How bad is the Airbnb problem here in the context of the housing crisis? The Inside Airbnb data for Ireland shows 28,910 listings, but more than 45 per cent of those are rooms within private homes, and so are broadly irrelevant in terms of addressing the housing crisis.
About 15,880 are “entire” homes from which, in theory, some could be returned to the housing market.
Of those, just under 10,000 are “highly available” throughout the year, suggesting they are year-round tourist lets and not people temporarily letting out their own homes. About 44.2 per cent of those, or 4,385, are homes owned by landlords with multiple listings – a sure signifier that the lister is a professional landlord running a business in the rental property market.
Those are the type of landlords most likely to return properties to the long-term market, if they are facing restrictions and their business’s solvency depends upon it.
Those numbers are for the whole country, however, including unaffected zones as well as RPZs. In Dublin, where the housing shortage is most acute, there are 4,663 entire homes listed, and just 1,339 of these are highly available throughout the year. About 811 are from landlords with multiple listings.
Even if every single one of those properties were coerced by policymakers back on to the rental market, it wouldn’t come near to solving the housing crisis, even temporarily. Many of those properties are in prime tourist city-centre locations, and may not be attractive to long-term renters.
Airbnb funnels tourists to parts of the country that might not otherwise get a lot of visitors, due to a lack of tourism infrastructure.
It has also revolutionised the way many people book accommodation when they travel. It has popularised an entirely different form of tourism to the traditional hotel or guesthouse stay, by allowing visitors to experience a new place from a local vantage point.
The housing crisis is down to 20 years of political mismanagement of the issue, not because of a tourist portal. People use Airbnb because they like the experience. Not every tourist wants to stay in a single room inside a hotel. Policymakers intent on choking off Airbnb rentals may find it hard to put that particular consumer behaviour genie back in the bottle.
The professional tourism industry, which includes hoteliers and B&B owners who must compete with Airbnb rentals, is never going to defend the portal, or ask for proportion with its regulation. Who will defend the tourists who use it?