David Alexander: Edinburgh needs to tackle sub-lets scourge

Most people who live in or near the centre of a city with a thriving commercial and tourism profile expect to experience a certain level of noise and disruption not found in the suburbs.

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Demand during the Festival can see Edinburgh residents sub-let their homes to tourists. Picture: Ian RutherfordDemand during the Festival can see Edinburgh residents sub-let their homes to tourists. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Demand during the Festival can see Edinburgh residents sub-let their homes to tourists. Picture: Ian Rutherford

In Edinburgh, however, growing numbers of central area residents believe – correctly, in my opinion – that the situation has gone beyond the realms of acceptability and is now having a serious and negative effect on their quality of life.

The problem is one of “rogue” lessees who take on rented property with the deliberate intention of sub-letting to tourists on Airbnb and similar platforms.

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This evidence is coming in several forms but mainly as a result of complaints from neighbours (some of them owner-occupiers, others tenants themselves) living within earshot of rented property that has effectively become self-catering tourist accommodation.

Many tourists do, of course, treat this accommodation and the well-being of others with respect and are not a problem for more permanent residents living around them. However, as this unlawful form of sub-letting seems to involve larger flats of three or four bedrooms, then the temporary “occupants” appear to consist of groups who are attracted to Edinburgh more by its pub culture than its architecture, museums and art galleries.

Some of the sub-letting is done by student occupiers, for the months of July and August when they are living back on their home territory. This in itself is a breach of the tenancy agreements but at least is temporary and may be done in ignorance. More disturbing is the growing incidence of people pretending to take on leases as genuine tenants with the deliberate intention of then sub-letting the accommodation to tourists and “weekenders”.

While utterly condemning such behaviour, their motives are clearly obvious; a flat rented at £1,000 a month could secure as much as £300 a night during the Festival.

Apart from neighbours possibly having their lives disturbed, potential victims include landlords who will have to meet the cost of excessive wear and tear and probably find any insurances related to the property will become void. Even the sub-tenants (who probably are not aware that they are occupying a property unlawfully) may find their personal insurance invalidated.

A wider and perhaps even more serious consequence is that every residential rented flat that is sub-let as tourist accommodation is one less property available for genuine applicants seeking longer-term rented accommodation. And of course the law of supply means that if the stock goes down, rents go up.

Most reputable letting agents operate tenant vetting systems which are designed to weed out undesirables but like most other things these are not foolproof; some applicants who set out to deceive in this manner have turned out to be extremely plausible.

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Nevertheless, we as agents need to be even more questioning to try to minimise the problem. For example, an application for a four-bedroom flat made by a single person or childless married couple should immediately set off a warning light (there may indeed be a perfectly genuine reason but best to double-check); also, perhaps more questions need to be asked of each applicant’s long-term residency and employment plans.

However, action by the city council and the introduction of appropriate by-laws seems to be the course of action most likely to bring about results. Several European capital cities, led by Berlin, have already placed a restriction on the number of residential properties that can be let as tourist-related accommodation – with hefty penalties for those who ignore the legislation.

By acting similarly, the council will bring relief to established city centre communities and also help to maintain a healthy level of stock of rented properties for those for whom it is intended – residents with a long-term interest in, and commitment to, our city.

• David Alexander is managing director of DJ Alexander