French cities are working to ruin Airbnb’s summer

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PARIS — As France heads out for the summer break, its mayors are turning the screw on short-term rental platforms.

Within only a few weeks, a string of French cities have imposed new restrictions on short-term accommodation platforms like Airbnb, Abritel and Booking.com — and Paris is cooking up more restrictions still. 

“We want to seize the opportunity of COVID to confirm the downward trend in tourist rentals. We now have evidence that Airbnb does have an impact on housing,” Ian Brossat, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo's deputy for housing, told POLITICO. 

As the COVID crisis effectively emptied large urban areas of tourists, cities across Europe are happily contemplating life with less Airbnb. 

In France, the U.S. platform’s second-biggest market, Airbnb is increasingly focusing on rural areas — where the platform is welcomed with open arms by local mayors — to limit its reliance on regulation-heavy cities. On Wednesday, the company said stays in France's rural areas account for 45 percent of bookings for this summer, compared with 24 percent back in 2019. 

After a string of French cities, including tourist hotspots Nice, Saint-Malo and Ajaccio, either formally adopted or mulled new restrictions in the last three weeks, Airbnb's rural strategy now looks more prescient.

On Thursday, a Paris court ruled that the company must pay an €8 million fine to the city of Paris for allowing postings without registration numbers on its platform. The same day, Airbnb announced that all hosts who wish to rent their apartments in the French capital will need a registration number; otherwise guests won’t be able to book their accommodation. The requirement will be rolled out in other French towns by the end of the year. 

Airbnb said that Thursday's ruling will “have no impact” on its Paris business because the company already implemented mandatory registration of listings. Still, the company said the court decision was “questionable” and is considering an appeal. Airbnb declined to comment on the new local rules. 

Southern crack down 

In June, four southern cities adopted or threatened to adopt new restrictions for tourist rentals to control the amount of housing put on the short-term market.  

After years of lobbying by the hotel industry, which sees Airbnb as a rival and a threat, Montpellier voted to limit the rental of second homes to one per household, in order to prevent people from buying houses only to put them on the short-term rental market. In the long run, all listings on platforms such as Airbnb will require a registration number, as is already the case in bigger cities such as Paris.

Marseille — France’s second-largest city — agreed to ask the larger metropolitan area to also limit the number of second home rentals to one, and to make it more difficult to convert housing into short-term tourist accommodation. 

Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi, a longtime foe of Airbnb, who earlier this year unsuccessfully tried to crack down on the platform, said his town would limit authorizations to avoid a massive influx of tourists over the summer. The mayor of the Corsican capital Ajaccio has also mulled new regulations. 

In Brittany too, the touristic town of Saint-Malo has imposed quotas on tourist accommodations, and homeowners will be able to convert only one dwelling for short-rental purposes.

It's unclear when these efforts will have the desired impact.

Dominique Debuire, the president of the National Union for the Promotion of Holiday Rentals, a trade group representing platforms such as Abritel and Airbnb, said the new push was unlikely to have an impact on this year's summer season, and that the effect will become clearer in six months to a year.

Municipalities, he said, are facing “a reasonable choice between tourist attractiveness and the satisfaction of the residents of city centers, for which it does become difficult to find accommodation.”

More to come

French cities aren't done with Airbnb yet.

Last month, the government issued a long-awaited executive order that makes it harder for owners to convert commercial properties like offices and warehouses into tourist accommodations.

Since 2015, 89,000 square meters of commercial space in Paris has been converted into hotel accommodation, including short-term rentals and traditional hotels, according to Le Parisien.

Cities that have implemented registration-number obligations will effectively be able to veto such conversions. But first, they will need to define the exact rules for when properties can be converted, and put them to a vote. In Paris, Brossat plans a city council vote by the end of the year, for the rules to apply in 2022. 

Paris also wants control over how many days homeowners can rent their main residence, and to be able to ban tourist rentals in some areas. To that end, the city is pushing for amendments in a bill that aims to give more power to local authorities, which is now under discussion in parliament.

Whether Paris' push will be successful is unclear. Unlike the capital's city council, neither the French National Assembly nor the Senate has a left-leaning majority, and the government is not in favor of decreasing the 120-day limit for renting a main residence.

Not to mention that Parisians themselves are happy with the current rules.

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