Airbnb: Turning homes into hotels

The original premise of Airbnb seemed like a good one. If someone had a spare room, they could let it out as a bed and breakfast room to bring in an extra bit of cash. The person staying would be a guest in their host’s home, meet them, probably chat with them in the evening, and share breakfast in the morning. However, Airbnb has turned into something quite different. It is now used by professional landlords to let out entire properties on a day-by-day basis. Unsurprisingly, a landlord can make much more money from such short-term lets than they can from a long-term tenant paying monthly.

Turning a home into a de facto hotel is quite unfair on the neighbours, who have to put up with different people arriving each day or week, and with guests’ behaviour, which may not be of the same high standard as when they are at home. Councils are starting to take action, with London banning property owners from letting them out short-term for more than 90 days per year, and there are plans to introduce a similar restriction in other cities such as Edinburgh and Liverpool.

The Rotunda, Birmingmam. By Erebus555, CC BY-SA 3.0 licenceThe craze for turning homes into hotel rooms has been around longer than Airbnb, however. In 2007, the Rotunda, an iconic, cylindrical office building in Birmingham, was extensively refurbished and converted into apartments. Due to its location and being a famous building, these flats sold for a hefty premium. A significant number, however, were bought by a company trading as Staying Cool, for use as “serviced apartments”. I thought at the time that this was simply a euphemism for turning them into hotel rooms. It seemed rather unfair on people who had bought their apartments to live in, for them to discover they were sharing the building with a hotel, despite no planning permission existing for such a use. Today, some of these rooms are available for £300 or more per night.

It seems a grey area exists where “serviced apartments”, including Airbnb-style lets, are concerned. English planning law defines various use classes. Class C1 is for hotels, and class C3 for “dwellinghouses”. Most homes will only have planning permission for C3, and indeed the Rotunda was granted change of use to class C3. Why, therefore, are people allowed effectively to run hotels from their properties? The idea of planning law is that local councils can decide whether a certain site is appropriate for use as a hotel, particularly regarding nuisance caused to neighbours. It’s unlikely a few flats in a building would be given such permission unless certain facilities were provided, maybe even a separate entrance and lifts.

The solution to the problem of Airbnb could be to tighten up the planning rules. If someone wants to let out a single room, as was the original idea of Airbnb, of course that should be allowed, as long as it only involves letting out part of the property, and the host actually lives there too. If, however, it’s a case of letting out whole apartments as hotel suites, change of use to C1 should be required, and then it would be up to the authorities to decide whether such use is appropriate. Landlords should not be able to profit hugely from turning their properties into hotels at the expense of people who are looking for somewhere to live, and people who have the enjoyment of their homes ruined by holidaymakers or party-goers.

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