When Stephen Machin visited Dublin from Spain in early November, he booked a short-stay apartment in the Jervis Place block off Upper Abbey Street.
Arriving after 9pm and a long day travelling, he walked into the foyer to find the apartment he’d rented, number 7, on the ground floor. And that’s when he saw the sign.
A big white and red “important” sign, it warned that short-stay lettings, including Airbnbs, were not allowed in the building.
After he left Dublin, Machin queried the sign with the companies he’d booked through: Booking.com and Halfpenny Bridge Holiday Homes. He was trying to get some clarity, he said.
But he got very little from either organisation, which just told him short-stay lettings were legal. When he posted a review on Booking.com that raised the issue of the sign, he got a response from “Liam”.
“Like in other cities there is the usual socialist campaign to ban apartment letting to tourists. Because the law is on our side we continue to welcome visitors,” it says.
However, the law requires anyone who wants to use an apartment for short-term lets year round to apply to the council for commercial planning permission. There’s nothing in the council’s planning database to show that Number 7 has that.
And, anyway, the building’s management company says they put up the sign at the request of the building’s residents, and also because of fire-safety concerns.
Liam Clancy, who runs Halfpenny, defended the use of the apartment for short-term lets, and a spokesperson from Booking.com suggested that the company had investigated.
Back and Forth
Machin says he “purposefully” booked through Booking.com for his visit to Dublin, rather than Airbnb because of an experience he had recently in Barcelona.
There, he says, his host told him not to answer the intercom or open the door, or say he was a friend if somebody knocked, he said. “I felt really uncomfortable.”
He didn’t want to have the same issue again. “I don’t want to have to be sneaky, pretending to be a resident in the building rather than somebody on holiday.”
So when he arrived in Dublin and found the sign, it made him anxious. He didn’t raise it as an issue straight away though, he said. “I didn’t want to upset the apple cart.”
His mother was joining him. “If I had brought it up then, I probably would have had to find another place,” he says.
After he left Ireland, he contacted both Halfpenny and Booking.com. An Halfpenny employee got back to him and said: “Under current legislation all the short term lettings are both permitted and legal.”
“There has been some individual people campaigning to have Airbnb rentals discontinued.
As far as we know this has no effect on Booking.com rentals,” they said. “We were not aware of any sign in the hall.”
A Booking.com representative also said that “according to current legislation, unchanged at least until the end of 2018, short term lettings are fully legal”. So “there is no ground to open a formal complaint with Booking.com”, they said.
Machin kept chasing both Booking.com and Halfpenny Bridge Homes for confirmation that they had been to check the sign, and that the short-term let didn’t breach fire-safety rules in the building.
“As this is being handled internally, unfortunately, we will not be able to update you on the process or outcome but we truly thank you for letting us know and for the feedback you have provided,” a Booking.com representative messaged him on 30 November.
When he sent them an image of the sign, a representative of Booking.com case doubt on whether it was real. “Usually, a sign put by authorities should have a small note with a reference to the current law the sign is referring to,” they said.
“Above it, it is very unlikely that authorities put explicitly ‘Airbnb’ on a public official sign.
This sign is very much matching the version of the property, saying that there was a big campaign against Airbnb,” they said.
Putting up the Sign
The house rules for the building are that there should not be short-term lets there, says
Peter Sinclair, an agent with Piphees Parke Management Company, which manages the complex.
There are a few reasons for that, he says. The apartment owners voted that at their annual meeting, said Sinclair.
Also, the block has planning permission for residential apartments, not commercial short-term lets and none of the apartments has gotten permission from the council to change that use, he says. (There’s no change-of-use applications in the council’s planning database.)
“Nor in this case would the management company allow it,” Sinclair said. “So they’re in breach of the planning permission given for the building if they’re doing it.”
Fire safety is a third issue, he says. Alarm systems vary for different kinds of buildings, depending on what they’re used for.
Live in a four-bedroom semi-detached home and you’ll likely have a couple of smoke alarms stuck to the ceiling.
In housing complexes where people live and so are familiar with their surroundings, you’d have another type, he says. The type they have at Jervis Place.
In hotels, or complexes for short stays, you would typically have another type of fire alarm system, says Sinclair. One they don’t have.
Sinclair says that some residents in the complex had in the past found the number of short-term lets was disruptive.
“Long-term residents were opening their doors and just seeing these people walking up and down the corridors with wheelie bags and stuff looking for numbers,” he says. Stag or hen weekends can “run riot” too.
Piphees Parke flagged those they knew about with Dublin City Council, he said, and the council wrote to those apartments’ owners to warn them. That and the sign has had impact, he says. “We have noticed a huge drop-off in it.”
Sinclair said he couldn’t say whether number 7 was on that list or not. However, a Dublin City Council spokesperson said that “there has been no complaints received about this address”.
Clancy, who runs Halfpenny Bridge Holiday Homes, which is a registered business name connected to the estate agents Capel Abbey, said they have had two recent complaints about the sign – including one from a British guy in Spain.
They “felt that the atmosphere was intimidatory, that people were trying to stop them enjoying their holiday and that the sign was very unwelcome”, said Clancy.
Is he concerned about fire safety? “We’re on the ground floor with a huge bay window out into the garden. So there isn’t a fire-safety issue from our perspective,” he said.
Clancy said he doesn’t own the apartment, his company just manages it. He said he has advice from a solicitor that the way they are renting out the apartment is legal.
For planning, the issue is whether what he is doing is a business or commercial use, he says.
“It is our position that it is short-term residential. We put some people in there for three weeks, and some people in there for three months, and some people in there for three day. So we do a mix between different lengths.”
In 2016, An Bord Pleanála ruled that using an apartment year round for short-term holiday lets is a change of use that requires planning permission.
At 20 Capel Street, a few doors down from Jervis Place, Tabragh Limited has applied for permission to keep using five apartments as short-term lets, after a warning letter from Dublin City Council, planning files show.
This application acknowledges that the coming and going of short-term visitors, security concerns for other residents, and the fully commercial nature of the operation mean that it is different from a residential apartment, and needs planning permission.
Clancy says though that the management agency is “jumping the gun” by putting up the sign before more laws are brought in. “It’s a very vague area. To start intimidating tourists, when things are still quite vague.”
Clancy said people in the short-term letting industry aren’t happy with its coverage in the media, as it ignores the risk to jobs, he says. “There are jobs at stake as well.”
Many landlords who turned to short-term letting were just trying to get somebody to pay a decent rent during the recession, he says. “My solution was to try to get in a few tourists which at the time there were no objection to it at all.”
When anyone lists a place to stay on Booking.com, they are asked “to verify that they are operating in full compliance with local laws”, a spokesperson said.
“If we are ever made aware that a property on our site may not be operating in compliance with local regulations, we investigate immediately – just as we have done in this case – and will remove the property if that is indeed the case.”