Photo: Sharing Action
The results of research by the UOC and the founder of Inside Airbnb, Murray Cox, show the difficulties that cities face in negotiating with online home rental platforms
The preliminary results of the Data Policies & Strategies, with a Focus on Short Term Rental Platforms study, conducted by the Dimmons research group from the UOC's Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and activist Murray Cox, as part of a framework partnership agreement with Barcelona City Council, shows that in many of the cities surveyed, there is no specific legislation, which means that the platforms are not obliged to share their data (including addresses, owners' names, number of nights occupied). For this reason, the cities are calling for legislative change which would cover all of the European Union.
The study was presented at the Sharing Cities Action Encounter, organized by Barcelona City Council and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya. At the event held as part of the Smart City Expo World Congress, the researchers showed that the majority of the twenty cities surveyed around the world have not achieved the desired results in negotiations with tourist apartment rental platforms such as Airbnb, due largely to this lack of regulation. This encounter is the result of the summit held last year in Barcelona, where fifty cities signed the first Common Declaration of Sharing Principles and Commitments which integrates the different viewpoints of the cities on platform economy.
The local administrations surveyed were Amsterdam, Athens, Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Krakow, Montreal, Munich, Naples, Paris, Porto, Rotterdam, San Francisco, Tallinn, Thessaloniki, Umeå, Valencia and Vienna.
Without data, there is no control
Firstly, local administrations need data on the activities of the digital platforms in the cities, both to ensure compliance with local regulations and to draft regulatory policies that guarantee access to and availability of housing, and to prevent gentrification processes. Secondly, data are essential for fiscal control.
Of the local administrations that took part in the survey, 62% have agreements in place with one or more platforms to collect taxes on tourist apartment rentals. However, very few city councils have been able to access the data, meaning that platforms like Airbnb do not pay the tourism taxes that they should be paying in the majority of the cities.
"The few cities that have been able to access the data are the ones that already have specific regulations", Cox explained. "These are pioneering cities, such as San Francisco, Santa Monica, Vienna, Grenoble, Bordeaux and Barcelona". Thanks to a compulsory municipal system of registering landlords, the councils in these cities are able to have an impact on who offers tourist apartments and where they are offered. This registration system differs from the usual model, where there is no regulation and landlords can rent out their apartment without having to inform the administration. Consequently, the cities that already have their own legal framework are able to negotiate more easily with the platforms to obtain specific data and modify protocols.
The study highlights that Barcelona is one of the cities that has had the most success in this negotiation with the platform, especially due to its having ensured that the platform itself removes advertisements without a legal licence. In any event, the study notes the lack of useful data which would allow cities to control the phenomenon and confirms that the platform has been able to withhold these data. Therefore, the study shows that cities need to unite to be able to gain more negotiating power with the platforms and also to call for European regulation that does more to protect cities.
Towards a change in European legislation
Despite the existence of pioneering cities, there is a widespread problem when it comes to regulating tourist apartment rental platforms. According to the study, because cities do not have their own data or the data they receive from the platforms are insufficient, half the cities surveyed have to track data. This means that they use a technique of massive web data collection, a practice that is very much associated with the digital activism practised by Murray Cox, co-author of the study.
It was also found from the in-depth interviews conducted with the city leaders that the various city councils view cooperation between cities as highly positive. This is the case, for example, of Barcelona and Vienna, where there exists the possibility of sharing strategies with other geographically close cities.
Besides this, apart from local regulations, most of the cities in the study feel that a new international legal framework is essential. To this effect, the cities have identified the need to work together to put pressure on the European Union so that it will give its support to local or national laws and redefine the existing European E-Commerce Directive.
Data activism to fight against the opaqueness of the platforms
Mayo Fuster, researcher with the Dimmons research group, emphasized that the study has a highly innovative focus: "It could be seen as city activism, as the cities have formed an alliance with the cause of social activism thanks to Murray Cox's knowledge". The Australian-born engineer is the driving force behind Inside Airbnb, a technological tool that tracks the data of Airbnb, the tourist apartment rental platform in every city in the world. These data report, for example, the number of bedrooms and apartments that are rented in each district, their price and if the same owner has several apartments to rent. This is how Cox has proven the gentrification effects of Airbnb, in addition to lifting the lid off thousands of irregular practices. "Housing is a basic human right and not just a piece of merchandise in the world economy. I use my knowledge of technology to defend this right", stated the activist.