Belgium joins the global move to control short-term rentals

Airbnb has long been one of the greatest success stories of Silicon Valley. A simple idea in 2008 to provide short-term rentals in San Fransico has bloomed into a multinational behemoth with $5.99 billion of revenue in 2023.

The idea is simple. An app where you can find and book somewhere to sleep and get a good breakfast when travelling. Typically, cheaper and with more options of location than hotels, the idea has proved to be wildly popular with tourists. For property owners, Airbnb has provided a simple and convenient global marketplace for their spare room for a small administration fee.

Everyone wins, right?

airbnb curbed in brussels

'Well, as time has gone by, it has turned out that it’s not been good for everyone. And it has been the local residents who have suffered the most.'

Long-term impact from short-term rentals

With the huge market and the profits available, Airbnb has attracted business who have purchased large numbers of properties within popular cities. The lack of administration and paperwork necessary, has also seen some landlords shift from long-term rental, to focusing on short-term tourist rentals.

The explosion in properties moving to Airbnb only, has seen thousands of properties drop out of the rental marketplace. In 2017, for example, over 2,800 rentals in Antwerp alone.

The knock-on impact has seen property prices and rental prices skyrocket. With that, the stock of available properties has shrunk, further inflating the rental prices of those properties which remain.

At its peak, Barcelona was seeing over 21.3 million registered overnight stays in a single year. Against a population of only 1.6 million people, that’s a huge number. In 2020, a study by the Journal of Urban Economics found that rents in areas with high Airbnb activity jumped by 7%, as opposed to 1.9% on average. House prices were also affected, seeing a 17% jump in areas with Airbnb but only 4.6% across the city as a whole.

With a reduction in the number of permanent residents, local amenities, such as corner shops, are also feeling the pinch. Areas which experience high volumes of short-term rentals are more likely to have fewer local shops and services as they are simply no longer needed.

From an expat perspective, the market becoming smaller has enabled some landlords to reject expats instantly. Why go for a shorter rental, when there are a large number of locals who will take longer contracts? This is of clear concern for our members and the expats who we support.

A global challenge

As with any new technology or idea, legislation is often far behind the game. The new business model involved, along with the sheer volume and explosive growth has left many government bodies, both local and country-wide, scrabbling to catch up.

These are problems which appear wherever Airbnb arrives and sparks a boom in short-term rentals. Which has led some cities to legislate to curb the impact of the company’s presence.

Some of you may recall that Belgium first introduced legislation around person-to-person rentals back in 2016. Following much controversy and a lengthy legal battle with Airbnb, the Brussels Parliament accepted an updated ordinance at the end of January 2024.

In 2021, Barcelona was the first to actually ban short-term room rentals, making it illegal to rent out a room for less than 31 days at a time. It is, however, still permissible to rent out entire houses and apartments with the correct permits.

Many other major European cities are tackling the issue by capping the number of days which a host can rent out a property. In Amsterdam the limit is 30 days per year, whilst London has set the cap at 90 days.

This trend is being followed across the world, with Tokyo outright banning the website, as have some boroughs of Montreal, Quebec.

But change is coming at a country and regional level as well.

For example, Italy’s tourism ministry has begun to take control of short-term holiday lets. The country now requires that the property is registered on a national database, that guests sign a contract with the host and that the host registers guests’ details on a national database. The aim here is to control overtourism and tackle housing shortages in tourist hotspots.

On a larger scale, the EU Competitiveness Ministers agreed to a plan for how information on short-term rentals can be made available and shared throughout the 27 countries in the bloc. The plan will require all hosts to register for a unique identification number which will need to be displayed on all advertisements. Sites like Airbnb will be required to check and verify the codes for any rental properties on their site. The aim here being to regulate the industry and to combat the growing number of illegal and poor condition rentals being sold to consumers.

Striking a balance

Whilst the damage which short-term rentals can do to a community are increasingly well documented, the benefits should not be overlooked.

Providing easily accessible, affordable and well-located accommodation is a huge benefit to local tourism. And with tourists comes revenue for local businesses and attractions. The resulting jobs and investment in the local area should not be discounted or ignored.

That said, a balance is needed to avoid overtourism and, more crucially, to minimize the negative impact that the tourists have on local people. When an industry results in entire cities becoming unaffordable for local people, then something needs to change.

Thankfully, it appears that the issue is now being fully realised and concerted effort is being made to address it. So, whilst companies like Airbnb are set to continue to grow for now, change is coming that will return the heart of local cities from hosts to residents where it should have been all along.

The inspiration for this industry update came from the superb article by BBF Apartments. If you’d like to know more about the steps Brussels is taking to address illegal Airbnb locations in the city, we highly recommend that you take a look at the article.

BBF Apartments is an ABRA member offering over 1,700 serviced, furnished or unfurnished apartments throughout Antwerp and Brussels. You can see their available apartments on their website.

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