Photo by Destiny Esaw

The property website said earlier this month that more than half the rental properties in Dublin were not available for long-term rental.

Instead, they were being offered to holidaymakers though the Airbnb platform. Airbnb says the figures are exaggerated.

But even if the numbers are less than suggests, they still throw up a bounty of unresolved issues.

It is unclear whether all the Airbnb renters – and those working with other short-term letting companies – have, in cases where they need it, the right commercial planning permission to do this. And, if they have not, whether the fines they might face are large enough to stop them.

Critics have said Dublin City Council has been too slow to take cases for breaches of the planning rules. Nor is there a comprehensive licensing-and-registration regime for the sector in place here.

Some go further: a Fianna Fáil spokesperson has suggested that renters should not be allowed to make a property available on Airbnb for more than 90 days a year.

At present, data drawn from the website InsideAirbnb by the campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) suggests that almost half of Airbnb properties in Dublin are available for three months or more, though of course this is not such a problem if it refers to just one room of a house.

The suggestion of a 90-day limit resembles measures some other European urban authorities – including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and Paris – have adopted to combat what they see as Airbnb (and other similar operators) reducing the availability of long-term rental accommodation in their cities.

For example, Amsterdam seeks to limit holiday rental of a property to just one month per year. Barcelona has suspended all new permits for holiday rentals. Berlin has introduced a ban on converting apartments to holiday rentals, a decision that has reportedly returned 8,000 apartments to the long-term rental market.

But Airbnb and others in the industry are fighting back, lobbying the EU institutions to declare such restrictions infringements of the freedom to supply services across the Single Market – one of the core principles of EU law. A new CEO report – “UnFairbnb” – documents how this may lead to such regulations ultimately being challenged in the European Court of Justice.

For Airbnb and its allies, to set limits on how long a renter can let out a property, or to block new entrants to the market, constitute serious breaches of European competition policy. The European Commission, the CEO report suggests, broadly agrees with them, as does the European Parliament – last year, 510 MEPs voted to condemn public restrictions on the supply of tourist accommodation, with only 60 MEPs voting against this motion.

For Airbnb, this is about trying to “remove barriers to regular people benefiting from innovations like Airbnb”. But for CEO report author Kenneth Haar, it is about Airbnb being “under a lot of pressure locally across Europe … [and] trying to use the top-down power of the EU institutions to fight back”.

How that fight will end is unclear. One EU directive acknowledges that restrictions on competition can be legitimate if there are “overriding reasons relating to the public interest”. As I’ve noted before, national governments with the will to do so can challenge seemingly set-in-stone EU rules.

In the meantime, the overriding public interest in at least mitigating the crises of homelessness and unaffordable housing in Dublin would suggest that stronger regulation of Airbnb et al. may be appropriate – starting with the stricter enforcement of existing rules, including planning laws, and, if necessary, extending to the types of measures pioneered in Amsterdam, Berlin and elsewhere.

The housing issue here can only be fully resolved by a massive programme of public home  building. But that does not mean useful reforms have to wait. Every little would help.

My thanks to Kenneth Haar and Mary Naughton for help with this column.

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).

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