Man fined £100,000 for letting London council flat on Airbnb

Westminster City Council calls for improved regulation of the short-term letting industry

London has over 80,000 rooms and properties listed on Airbnb. Getty Images
London has over 80,000 rooms and properties listed on Airbnb. Getty Images

A tenant in publicly-funded housing has been fined £100,000 for sub-letting an apartment not far from Buckingham Palace on Airbnb.

Toby Harman, 37, posed as a woman named Lara to rent out his council apartment close to Westminster, but the council found his name among the over 300 reviews, often thanking him for recommending restaurants.

The apartment had been advertised as a “cosy studio apartment” with a jacuzzi since 2013. Westminster City Council took Harman to court, and following an unsuccessful appeal he was evicted and ordered to pay £100,974 in unlawful profits.

Cities around the world have moved to constrain or control short-term letting on portals like Airbnb and Booking.com as concern grows that homes needed by residents are being used to host holidaymakers.

Amsterdam, San Francisco and Reykjavík have placed limits on the amount of time homeowners can rent their properties on short-let websites. Japan has instituted a complete ban on the practice.

London currently has over 80,000 rooms or homes listed on Airbnb, the most of any UK city. Just one per cent of people control 17 per cent of London’s Airbnb lets, data from Inside Airbnb suggests. In 2015, the city capped short-term lets in London at a total of 90 nights per year.

“Social housing is there to provide much-needed homes for our residents, not to generate illicit profits for dishonest tenants,” Andrew Smith, Westminster council’s cabinet member for housing services, told The Times.

“It’s illegal for council tenants to sublet their homes and we carry out tenancy checks, as well as monitoring short-term letting websites for any potential illegal sublets.”

Mr Smith said the council had reallocated 24 homes in the past year due to fraudulent activity by tenants.

“We’re also pressing government to introduce a national registration scheme to make it far easier for us to take action against anyone who breaks the rules on short term letting,” he said.

In a September 2018 report, the British government said it was against a ban on the industry, adding that “further legislation would be overly bureaucratic and could act as a barrier to households letting out their properties on a short-term basis.”

Instead, it recommended a non-regulatory approach led by the Short Term Accommodation Association to improve standards and promote best practice in the industry.

In April, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan called for a registration system for anyone wishing to rent out a property for less than 90 days in a calendar year.

In a letter to the then Minister for Housing, James Brokenshire, co-signed by Airbnb and six London councils, the Mayor said the benefits of short-term lets for tourism and generating income needed to be balanced with the need to protect long-term rented housing, and to ensure that neighbours of Londoners renting their properties short-term are not negatively affected by a high turnover of visitors.

Airbnb has insisted it is working with, not against, governments to curb fraudulent listings on its site.

"This property was removed from Airbnb earlier this year," the company said in a statement.

"We regularly remind hosts to check and follow local rules - including on subsidised housing - and we take action on issues brought to our attention.

"Airbnb is the only platform that works with London to limit how often hosts can share their space and we support proposals from the Mayor of London for a registration system to help local authorities regulate short term lets and ensure rules are applied equally to hosts on all platforms in the capital."

Updated: July 29, 2019 04:27 PM

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