Barcelona’s crackdown on Airbnb renters

The property-rental site is based in the Catalan capital, but is deeply unpopular with the competition

Rosa María Sánchez rents out rooms in her flat to help pay the bills.
Rosa María Sánchez rents out rooms in her flat to help pay the bills.Consuelo Bautista

For any thrifty tourist visiting Barcelona, Rosa María Sánchez’s apartment pretty much has it all: it’s a stone’s throw from the Paseo de Gràcia; a short walk from the Barceloneta beach; and close to the Sagrada Familia basilica. Sánchez, a widow living on a pension, she says she has seven years on her mortgage to pay, and so when she heard about Airbnb, the internet site that puts property owners in touch with travelers, she decided to rent out two of her three bedrooms. But she has now fallen foul of the Catalan regional government, which says it must approve all tourist accommodation in the city.

Barcelona is among the world’s most-popular tourist destinations, receiving some 8.4 million visitors a year. That’s why Airbnb chose to locate its Spanish headquarters in Barcelona: “Not just for its tourism potential, but also because it is innovative and entrepreneurial,” says the company’s general manager in Spain, Jeroen Merchiers.

But the regional government of Barcelona has made it clear it doesn’t approve of Airbnb’s activities, and has just fined the company €30,000, along with seven other sites offering similar services. The regional government says that all tourist rentals must be registered with the Catalan authorities, and has threatened to block access to sites such as Airbnb from Catalonia if they do not comply with its rules. But Merchiers believes that a compromise can be reached. “We hope to be able to work with the regional and city authorities to help them come up with laws that are more in tune with the times,” he says.

Barcelona is among the world’s most-popular tourist destinations, receiving some 8.4 million visitors a year

Rosa María Sánchez is typical of many low-income residents in Barcelona, saying that being able to rent out rooms has given her a lifeline. “There are many similar cases, and worse than mine, of elderly people who are only able to pay their bills thanks to this income,” she says. Barcelona’s hotel association estimates that there are some 12,000 such apartments renting out rooms without permission.

In response to what they see as the regional government’s heavy-handed approach, a small group of Barcelona residents who rent out rooms in their properties have begun to get organized. Last week they read out an open letter to Barcelona’s Mayor Xavier Trias at a gathering in the city center: “Sharing their home helps the people of Barcelona earn a little extra to pay their bills and continue living in the neighborhood they love.”

A report commissioned by Airbnb – put together by Dwif Consulting, in conjunction with the ESADE and IESE business schools – shows that 60 percent of people offering rooms in their apartments used the money they earned “to pay their utilities bills” and that 53 percent have been able to pay their mortgage as a result.

The regional government of Barcelona has just levied fines on eight sites offering accommodation

The regional government’s response to the question has been supported by hotel associations, who have called on other regions to take a similarly combative stance. But Fevitur, which represents private property owners who let to tourists, accuses the hotel sector of “trying to hold on to a monopoly.”

Carlos Torrecilla, a lecturer at the ESADE business school, says that Airbnb is simply meeting a demand for a certain type of accommodation that Barcelona City Hall is unable to supply. “The law makes it difficult for supply to meet certain requirements from demand,” he says, warning that overly restrictive legislation could lead to “protectionism in the sector.”

A sector in the spotlight

Barcelona’s hotel owners say that the city can still absorb many more visitors annually: up to 10 million. This would certainly be catered for by the growing number of beds coming onto the market. But the sector insists that it will not allow homeowners to let rooms unless they are registered with the authorities, pointing out that they don’t pay taxes. “We cannot survive this constant fraud, this hidden economy,” says Joan Molas, president of the Spanish Confederation of Hotels and Tourism Accommodation.

But Rosa María Sánchez denies that she and others like her are not declaring their income. “Each year, when I have to make my tax return, the people at Airbnb send me a letter with a certificate detailing my earnings from this,” she says. An expert in tourism accommodation who prefers to remain anonymous says that Airbnb’s system dissuades homeowners from trying to avoid their taxes, given that all earnings are paid via bank transfer.

Fevitur said in a statement this week that it “agreed completely with the fight against the hidden economy,” and that any new legislation should favor the “organized development” of letting private properties by applying the same laws to them as to any other dwelling.

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