Spirit of the Law

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advertisement for an apartment in Barcelona on airbnb

Yesterday, I posted an image of Barcelona citizens protesting “for the abolition of all tourist apartments”, questioning whether the real problem is tourist apartments per se, or the high demand on the part of foreigners to party in Barcelona. Indeed, local laws intended to regulate the tourist apartment sector are only making things worse. Here, I want to question the efficacy of these laws.

Firstly, it has to be said that it’s true that party animals prefer to rent tourist apartments. In these spaces, they can party non-stop, without the bummer of hotel security putting a damper on their Beastie Boys-ordained “right” to this activity. So it is true that much of the tourist unruliness that Barceloneta residents are complaining about emanates from this type of accommodation. However, there’s an important distinction to be made between two kinds of tourist apartments: ones that are lived in by private individuals who occasionally rent them to tourists (via sites like airbnb), and full-time tourist apartments managed by specialized rental agencies with large portfolios of these kinds of dwellings. It’s easy to tell the difference: one is a lived space, with plants, books, tchotchkes and other personal items belonging to the “normal” occupants; while the other is not. The profits are very high indeed: renting apartments to tourists can be up to nine times as profitable as renting to locals.

Now, which kind of apartment owner is more likely to rent out their property to a herd of party animals? Someone who only occasionally rents their flat to tourists would be completely out of their mind to do so. It would ruin the relations they have with their neighbors, not to mention the cost of clean-up and repairs after their home is trashed. Airbnb uses a system whereby guests and hosts alike are evaluated by each other. The evaluations are like references, allowing owner-occupiers and tourists alike to build up a reputable resumé. The agencies that rent out tourist apartments full-time don’t ask for references, only damage deposits.

Yet, Barcelona City Council, in all its wisdom, sees collaborative consumption platforms such as airbnb as the problem, not the tourist apartment rental agencies (the worst of which rent flats out to hoodlums precisely in order to pressure long-time neighbors out of their homes; that way they can get their paws on these lucrative properties). The City requires tourist apartments to be licensed, and limits the number of licenses issued. Agencies do their best to make sure they snap up the few licenses that are issued (and we all know how that’s done, nudge nudge, wink wink). City Council even wants tourist apartments to be consolidated within entire buildings, favoring large-scale real-estate operators, not to mention land speculation, and making it impossible for any individual to occasionally rent out their private home to tourists, at least legally. Airbnb was moreover fined by the local authorities some months ago for 30 thousand euro. In any case, we can see that the law intended to regulate the tourist apartment sector is ultimately exacerbating the very problem it was presumably intended to solve.

There’s an expression in Spanish, “Hecha la ley, hecha la trampa,” for which an English equivalent does not exist, as far as I know. The closest English expression is probably “Every law has its loophole.” One has to wonder if the “loophole” and the “spirit” of the law aren’t the same thing in this case.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona and teach at CIEE, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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