On a rainy Tuesday morning a well-dressed, middle-aged couple are leaving their aparthotel just off Ellis Quay in Dublin 7. They roll their wheelie cases along the street and head for the bus shelter.
A sign on the outside of the building reads “Ellis Quay Apartments”, and inside a notice on the reception desk informs guests that due to refurbishment works, luggage storage is not currently available.
To all appearances, this is a legitimate aparthotel run by a major hospitality firm called the Key Collection.
But Dublin City Council’s planning database doesn’t list any change of use for these apartments, to move them from residential homes to commercial use.
(Key Collection didn’t respond to queries about this block, back in September 2017.)
In 2016, An Bord Pleanála ruled in one case that an apartment being used year-round for short-term holiday lets needed a change in planning permission, from residential to commercial.
The Department of Housing issued a circular to local authorities, flagging the case with them, and saying it meant any apartments used just for short-term lets year around needed permission.
Still, though, companies continue to use apartments in the city as aparthotel businesses, without planning permission.
Will new rules for short-term lets set to come into effect on 1 July finally force these businesses – as well as those Airbnb “hosts”, some who let out as many as 55 “entire homes”, scattered in complexes all over the city – to convert their highly profitable businesses back into residential homes?
Earlier this year, Dublin City Council said it would need an extra €750,000 for staff and resources to effectively enforce the new short-term-let regulations.
But with weeks to go until the rules are supposed to come into effect, no new staff have yet been hired, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council said.
There are no new penalties listed in the draft rules, and no specific measures aimed at tackling the numerous professional short-term-let operators, who often breach the law in lots of different places at once.
Same, Same or Different?
As of 1 July, everyone who shares their own home on Airbnb and similar platforms will be obliged to register with their local authority, said a Department of Housing spokesperson.
Those who rent rooms can continue to do so and subletting your entire home will also be permitted for up to 90 days per year, they said.
People who share their own homes on Airbnb and other platforms need to register with their local authority by the end of June, the spokesperson said.
But no platform or process has yet been set up for people to do this and no information has been published as to what documents they will require.
If the property is not a principal residence and the owner wish to use it for short-term letting, they need to apply for planning permission – and if the property is in a rent-pressure zone, that permission will likely be refused, says the Department of Housing spokesperson.
Converting a residential apartment to a short-term let business will continue to be classed as a “non-serious” planning infringement under the new rules, they said.
Where a short-term-letting company, or property management company, has multiple properties that are in breach, the council will continue to take enforcement action on each property individually, using the slow and cumbersome planning process, which necessitates issuing warnings first and then eventually going to court.
In theory, a prison sentence can be imposed for breaching planning law, but the rules also list the sanction for a non-serious planning infringement as a €5,000 fine.
“It’s a jelly and ice-cream approach,” says independent Councillor Mannix Flynn, who has been complaining about the impact of short-term lets in Dublin for several years.
He says he welcomes the new regulations, but fears they won’t be enforced effectively and that the fine is too low to be a deterrent.
A separate regulator should be established and work in conjunction with the Revenue Commissioners, says Flynn.
The council lacks the investigative skills, the resources and the ability to impose the necessary sanctions, he says.
“Dublin City Council is not an investigative body,” says Flynn. “Staff are up to their eyes and many are already treble-jobbing.”
But Eoin Ó Broin, Sinn Féin housing spokesperson, says the new rules are significantly different from the status quo. “For the first time it is clearly defined that all short-term-let businesses, who don’t have planning permission, are in breach of planning law,” he says.
The An Bord Pleanála ruling of 2016 only applied to apartments that were part of residential complexes, so it was not clear whether houses and entire buildings – even ones that contained apartments – were in breach, Ó Broin says.
Also, the 90-day rule is important, as there was no clarity around how many days constituted a breach, he says.
Enforcement of the rules is obviously essential though. “If they are properly enforced it should make a significant difference in the urban cores,” Ó Broin says.
Dublin City Council currently has eight staff in planning enforcement across the city tasked with enforcing planning law in all its forms.
That means, among other things, signs and street furniture, unauthorised extensions, as well as short-term lettings. To give a sense of the workload – one person is tasked with all types of planning enforcement for all of Dublin 1.
There are two people working on that to cover the Central and North West Areas, three people across the South City Centre and South East Areas and one person in the South Central Area.
One and a half jobs are focused on the North Central Area and a part-time role exists in dealing with miscellaneous enforcement issues and that person also assists in South Central as required.
The council is currently in discussions with the Department of Housing around the number of extra personnel required to enforce the new regulations and timelines for that, a council spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said: “The existing corps of planning enforcement officers employed by Dublin City Council will be mandated with enforcing the new provisions from 01 July… [and] will be supplemented by dedicated additional resources.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said local councils will start by registering home sharers and building up profiles of properties.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that they will be changing their enforcement to a more proactive approach. “It is anticipated that investigations will be carried out by way of onsite visits and interrogation of booking websites and requests for information,” she said.
Staff at the council are currently working on 150 active cases and they’ve resolved approximately 150 cases to date too, she says.
How will council staff know if a property has been rented out as a short-term let for more than 90 days in a year?
In a planning prosecution, the onus of proof is on the defendant to show that they are compliant, the council spokesperson said.
Short-Term Let Companies
Back in 2015, there were 86 hosts with three or more entire homes operating through Airbnb in Dublin, and that number had risen to 331 by November 2018, showed figures from Inside Airbnb.
There are broadly two types of professional short-term-let operations.
There are visible and public companies including City Breaks Apartments and Key Collection, which have run aparthotels without planning permission.
They tend to buy or rent entire buildings and turn them into a short-term let business, and they often rent on booking.com, where full addresses are published.
“If an operator has an old Georgian house on Mountjoy Square and it’s five stories and he has that broken down into x number of units – each one of those units is a planning breach in my opinion,” says Ó Broin.
“So, all Dublin City Council has to do is have one high-profile refusal to comply and you could be looking at very significant fines very quickly,” he says.
But some other companies operate more covertly through Airbnb and might style themselves as “property management companies”. They are professional hosts with multiple listings on Airbnb and it can be difficult to track where those listings are since Airbnb doesn’t make specific addresses available, except to guests who’ve already booked.
Sometimes these “hosts” rent properties in different locations and turn them into Airbnb businesses. In other cases, they might work on behalf of landlords who own multiple properties in several complexes.
Indeed, in some cases the property owner doesn’t even know that the home has been converted into a short-term let.
Will the new regulations be stringent enough to deal with these professional short-term-let operators?
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing didn’t respond to queries about possible flaws in enforcement against property managers – who can close down one flat, if they get a warning letter, and keep running or opening apartments elsewhere – rather than owners of single immovable apartments.
“Enforcement action will be taken against persons operating unauthorised short term letting on an individual property basis,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Housing.
“Therefore a person owning a number of properties and found to be in contravention of the new regulations could face multiple actions in respect of each individual property,” the spokesperson said.