David Alexander comment: Airbnb tourist lets bring a whole host of issues

Recently this column expressed concern about the number of properties to let in Edinburgh transferring from the long-term residential to the short-stay market.
The holiday let phenomenon is rippling from the city centre out to the suburbs, says David Alexander. Picture: contributed.The holiday let phenomenon is rippling from the city centre out to the suburbs, says David Alexander. Picture: contributed.
The holiday let phenomenon is rippling from the city centre out to the suburbs, says David Alexander. Picture: contributed.

Last week, this concern gained credence from a report by commercial property firm Colliers International which stated the number of people staying in Airbnb accommodation in the capital had rocketed by 70 per cent in the space of a year.

Now, I welcome any venture that increases the accommodation options for visitors to Edinburgh. This phenomenon is not new; long before Airbnb came along, residential properties were let out by locals throughout the year or during the summer. And, to be fair, private rooms are the most popular form of accommodation through Airbnb, suggesting many visitors booking on the site are sharing homes with their hosts – properties that would not be available to the conventional rental market.

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Nevertheless, although one-bedroom flats are the next most popular (taking up 26 per cent of the market) there has been a significant shift in the take-up of three- and four-bedroom houses, by 8 per cent and 17 per cent respectively. This suggests the holiday let phenomenon is rippling from the city centre out to the suburbs.

Edinburgh City Council is now looking at whether it has sufficient powers to regulate this growth (should it not know that already?) or if an act of parliament might be required. Of particular concern is the number of complaints from residents about noise and other anti-social behaviour, especially centrally-situated “party flats” involving groups of young men or women. Now, there is a price to pay for the benefits of living in the centre of a lively city, such as accepting a certain level of noise not normally apparent in a tree-lined, suburban avenue or crescent. But, city centre residents do have the right to a good night’s sleep and not to be disturbed by high levels of comings and goings at various times of the day. It also seems reasonable to want to live in a “settled” community, where neighbours are known to one another.

There was a time when affected residents had “transient neighbours” only during the festival period, but with Edinburgh now a year-round tourist destination, their angst is extending to previously off-peak months. Yes, there are rules restricting the number of days a year in which a property can be let to short-term stayers if it is not to be designated a business, however, the system does not appear to be very well policed, so who knows how many of those responsible actually take notice of this?

Another concern of the council is, of course, the effect of holiday lets on the conventional rental market. For some time, Edinburgh has had a shortage of rental properties to meet the underlying demand for long-term accommodation. This has been one factor causing rents to rise and these will increase further if more conventional properties are turned over to the tourist market.

We should also consider the effect on the bona fide hotel trade. I am sure the chain hotel groups can speak for themselves but let’s spare a thought for Edinburgh’s B&B and guest house operators whose properties are subject to expensive health and safety regulation, which does not apply to short-stay properties not specifically designed for that purpose. Not only is this essential part of the city’s holiday accommodation offering at risk, so are the jobs of those who depend on it.

Some might argue the possible positive effects of B&B closures, as these could be restored to their original role as private dwellings, thus increasing the availability of housing stock in popular areas. However, as things stand there is a good chance any B&B-turned-dwelling will become “non-business” holiday accommodation for the part of the year permitted by law – and simply left empty for the remainder, which hardly helps the capital’s housing shortage.

David Alexander, managing director at DJ Alexander