How Proactive Is the Council in Tackling Illegal Short-Term Lets?

Temple Bar Resident Emmet Kirwan said he twice called the council to report that a short-term-lets company was advertising a flat in his building on Booking.com.

As he recalls it, the first time he was told to speak to his landlord about it. The second time, the person who took his call didn’t seem to know what he was talking about, he said.

So he switched his efforts to his management company, which – after complaints from other residents, too – agreed to act.

“They threatened the owner of the apartment with the High Court,” says Kirwan. The owner then stopped using that flat for holiday lets.

Others have also said that the council hasn’t adequately followed up on their complaints.

This is despite worries that the conversion of apartments into short-term lets is exacerbating the city’s affordable-housing shortage.

And despite An Bord Pleanála having ruled last October that using residential apartments for short-term lets was a “change of use” and therefore requires planning permission.

And despite the Department of Housing urging local authorities to proactively go out and tackle the issue.

However, a Dublin City Council spokesperson said the council has been enforcing the planning rules in relation to short-term lets, and that this has been effective.

“Dublin City Council rejects any suggestion that our attempts at enforcement are not working,”  the spokesperson said.

Proactive

One woman reported to the council more than 20 properties listed on Airbnb that were hosted by the director of a company she had reason to believe was converting residential properties into short-term lets without planning permission.

Dublin City Council responded in a 25 October email that “Unfortunately Planning Enforcement cannot investigate the Air B&B [sic] site from just the hyperlinks attached, to investigate we require the full address of each property in full.”

Just two days earlier, on 23 October, the Department of Housing had issued a circular that reminded local authorities that they should be proactive in investigating short-term lets that breach planning and enforcing the laws that exist to prevent this.

Similar information went out last December too. That circular told local authorities they should “investigate the matter by checking commercial website platforms and other media that such short-term lettings are advertised and procured through”. Some of these websites don’t list the full addresses of properties.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that “to fully investigate a complaint the specific address where the alleged unauthorised development is taking place is required”. This is to prevent vexatious and frivolous complaints being lodged, he said.

He did not respond directly to a question as to whether this approach would count as proactive enforcement. Nor did he clarify whether the council can ask Airbnb to release address information for its listings.

Any Progress?

Kirwan says there is one apartment in his building that is still being operated as a holiday let.

Declan O’Brien, a long-term resident of Temple Bar, who used to chair the residents’ association there, says he has heard that some enforcement notices have gone up in that neighbourhood in the last number of weeks.

At the same time, he has also seen more homes being converted to short-term lets, he says. “There are still armies of cleaners going in and out of residential buildings every morning,” he says.

In September, a Dublin City Council spokesperson said the council was looking into complaints about 40 short-term lets that have breached planning rules.

Before that, in January, the Department of Housing had established a working group to examine the issue, which brought on board expertise from Fáilte Ireland, the Department of Finance, the Department of Jobs, An Bord Pleanála, the Residential Tenancies Board, and Dublin City Council.

That working group was examining what regulation is needed to clamp down on the conversion of residential properties to short-term lets.

It was supposed to report by the end of the third quarter of this year, which would have been the end of September, a department spokesperson said in September.

Enforcement

There are already penalties in place for those who breach planning rules.

Carrying out unauthorised development is an offence, and according to guidelines issued by the Department of Housing “change of use of a structure without permission e.g. shop to office” counts as unauthorised development.

According to the Planning and Development Act 2000, the maximum penalty for breaching planning rules by carrying out unauthorised developments, is a £10,000 fine (yes, pounds), or two years in prison, or both.

Those who persist with the unauthorised use, after they have been convicted would also be liable to further fines of £10,000 per day.

Independent Councillor Mannix Flynn says there is a big issue with enforcement at Dublin City Council, in relation to this issue, as well as a host of other issues. “We don’t do it well,” he says.

In his view, Dublin City Council has not been proactive since the Temple Bar ruling, which he says was driven by the residents, not by the council. “There is a lack of will to tackle the issue,” he says.

Flynn thinks the council may be reluctant to take cases to court because it is a long and complicated process. Mistakes could result in losses, too.

But Dublin City Council says its planning enforcement is working. It has brought numerous cases to court, where penalties have been applied, said a spokesperson. They didn’t give exact figures.

“The penalties concerned are applied at the discretion of the courts taking each individual planning enforcement case into account,” said a spokesperson.

They said that some of those who have illegally converted apartments in the city are now facing prosecution.

“As there maybe [sic] legal proceedings pending in respect of Airbnb related matters it would be wholly inappropriate to comment on specifics relating to this matter,” she said.

Ongoing efforts at enforcement are proving effective, and some apartment owners have stopped the unauthorised use of their properties for short-term lets, the council spokesperson said. Others are being investigated and pursued, she said.

What Next?

The Department of Housing has been working to develop a memorandum of understanding (a formal agreement) with Airbnb, said the spokesperson for the department.

However, they have put this process on hold to allow the working group to clarify the guidance for the local authorities, he said. “The memorandum of understanding will need to be coherent with this guidance,” said the spokesperson.

The working group is now expected to report to the minister for housing before the end of 2017 on what regulatory approach he should take, said the spokesperson. This could include considering a licensing regime, or amendments to legislation.

The Department of Housing circular issued last month says that “home-sharing”, when people temporarily rent out their own residence, should be facilitated for a set number of nights per year.

O’Brien, the long-term resident of Temple Bar, says that for this to work, a licensing system is required. Otherwise, companies will switch between different platforms to advertise the properties, and skirt around restrictions, he says.

Dublin City Council is opening a dedicated portal for people to complain about overcrowding, but there are no plans to open a similar portal for reporting short-term lets that contravene planning, said a spokesperson.

“Planning enforcement already has a dedicated e-mail address for reporting alleged unauthorised development, so the requirement to open a portal is not something the Planning Department are currently considering,” he said.

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