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Hot topic: Airbnb vs Zweckentfremdungsverbot

One of the leading lights of the sharing economy, Airbnb is a great idea that has become part of the everyday fabric of travel. But with ‘Zweckentfremdungsverbot’, is it running into trouble with the authorities in Berlin, Iceland and New York?

Hot topic: Airbnb vs Zweckentfremdungsverbot
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“Tonight I’m sleeping in an illegally-parked campervan on the seafront,” an Australian newspaper editor tells me over drinks in Sydney. “It’s covered in parking tickets. I’m writing a piece on the weirdest places you can stay on Airbnb.”

Back in Brighton, and in need of a bed, I too found campervans parked on residential streets to rent through Airbnb, as well as a same-sex couple offering a room to travellers, including a home-cooked meal and a massage to help you unwind at bedtime.

I opted for a hotel in the end, but it’s this social aspect — if not quite that level of intimacy — that makes tourists choose Airbnb, believing that staying in a real home or an unusual structure makes trips feel more special.

You don’t have to co-habit with a host though. Many of us are happily paying a few extra quid not to endure agonising pleasantries with a stranger over the breakfast table (nor to have to explain that you’ll sleep just fine with a good book and a cup of Horlicks, thanks-very-much) and clicking the Airbnb button to ‘rent an entire home/flat’. But herein lies the problem: not all of these rentals are strictly legal.

While it’s obvious that you shouldn’t be sleeping in a Bedford Rascal covered in parking fines, you may not realise that renting an apartment for a long weekend in Berlin might be in violation of the city’s Zweckentfremdung-sverbot law (roughly translated: ‘ban against misuse’), which came into effect this year.

Berliners are still allowed to rent out their spare rooms, but are prohibited from using Airbnb and its competitors to tout entire properties on short-term leases.

Although Airbnb claims it’s helping Berlin residents pay the rent in a city with rising house prices and below-average wages, city officials insist apartments being used as holiday lets are pricing citizens out of their own local neighbourhoods.

Andreas Geisel, Berlin’s head of urban development explains: “[Zweckentfremdungsverbot] is a necessary instrument against the housing shortage. I’m determined to return misappropriated apartments to the people of Berlin.”

Hannah Cadwallader, Airbnb’s European head of communications, disagrees with this: “Current rules hit [regular Berliners] hardest, slow innovation and promote commercialisation.”

It’s not just the Germans who are clamping down. Since 2011, New York City has prohibited residents from letting out property for less than 30 days unless the main occupants are also present. It’s a law aimed at residential properties that were being turned into illegal hotels. Nearly three-quarters of the city’s Airbnb listings between 2010 and 2014 were found to be illegal.

Meanwhile, authorities in Mýrdalshreppur, Iceland, have banned all short-term lets, in response to a housing shortage in the picturesque village of Vík.

Vijay Dandapani, chairman of the Hotel Association of New York City, and president of Apple Core Hotels, which has around 800 rooms in Midtown Manhattan, complains that the “shadow hotel industry” has driven down hotel room rates in the city, telling PBS: “Those are rooms that would and should have gone to the hotel industry, given what we’ve invested in the city and our buildings.”

His arguments are similar to those taxi firms that are lashing out at car-sharing service, Uber. In both cases, tourists are more likely to be concerned with the impact on their own pockets than the financial fortunes of private transport monopolies or hotel chains.

And while the majority may be ignorant to the impact of their choices on local communities, with over 100 million guest arrivals from listings in more than 34,000 cities, kicking Airbnb out of your town might prove as difficult as banning the sharing of holiday ‘hot-dog legs’ on Instagram.

Q&A

Aren’t these laws a bit behind the times?
As Airbnb’s Hannah Cadwallader says, “When we went from the horse and cart to the car we needed new rules for new technology. The same is true for today.” Indeed. Maybe it’s time for more governments to start working with host-sharing sites to find solutions.

Is it wrong for me to rent out my home?
Some insist it’s our right to do as we please with our own properties, while others say the lure of renting out second homes as short-term lets — which is often more profitable than getting tenants — is making hustlers and black market hoteliers of those who would otherwise be landlords.

Will I get into trouble for booking in a ban city?
While politician and New York City Assembly member Linda Rosenthal went so far as to personally stage a hidden-camera sting operation to expose unlawful Airbnb hosting last year, no one seems to be setting out to prosecute guests themselves.

Should I accept a massage from my host?
We’d recommend reviewing it on a case-by-case basis.

Published in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)