More than 100 people attended three separate illegal parties hosted at the same Airbnb on Carlisle Street in central London in July
Westminster City Council
There were people everywhere and the noise was deafening. It was just before midnight on July 25 and the illegal party on Carlisle Street in central London was in full swing. The luxury short-term rental property hosting the party, which had been turned into a pop-up nightclub, was littered with disposable cups, nitrous oxide canisters and half-empty bottles of champagne. There was a DJ, a professional sound system, what appeared to be bouncers collecting payment on the door and a bar selling drinks. When council enforcement officers arrived to break the party up, they counted 106 drunken revellers. And it was all made possible by Airbnb.
With nightclubs closed and gatherings of large numbers of people banned under new coronavirus laws, short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb and Booking.com have inadvertently become nightclub-for-hire services. These illegal parties, hosted at short-term rentals across central London, have left local residents terrified about the potential spread of Covid-19 and forced council enforcement officers into an increasingly ludicrous game of whack-a-mole against rogue properties.
The property on Carlisle Street is one of the worst repeat offenders. Over three consecutive weekends in mid-July, enforcement officers working for Westminster Council shut down and issued noise abatement notices against similar illegal parties at the address, all attended by more than 100 people. The property also has the dubious honour of being the first in England to be sanctioned for breaching new coronavirus regulations that came into force on July 18. These new powers allow local councils to shut down gatherings that pose “a serious and imminent threat to public health”.
All the bookings for the property on Carlisle Street were made through Airbnb. The property is not listed on Airbnb at the time of writing but is on Booking.com and Expedia. “We had already removed these guests from the platform,” says an Airbnb spokesperson, adding that the company has “zero tolerance for antisocial behaviour”.
Westminster Council has been the worst affected by the rise of illegal, pop-up nightclubs booked through Airbnb, Booking.com and other short-term rental websites. In May, at the height of lockdown, the council received just one complaint about an event of this nature. In June, this rose to 12 and in July it was 30. At present, investigating such illegal gatherings has become a nightly ritual for the enforcement officers tasked with breaking them up and issuing notices against property owners. The work is laborious and can be dangerous with large groups of young people drinking, taking drugs and ignoring social distancing rules. Police assistance was required at many of the illegal events.
Many of the parties in London appear to be professionally organised, with what appear to be bouncers on the doors and bars selling drinks inside
Westminster City Council
Also in July, at another illegal party in a short-term rental on nearby Brewer Street, enforcement officers arrived to find what appeared to be bouncers on the door, a DJ, sound system and more than 100 people in attendance. This time the party was spread across two apartments in the same building. Later that month a similar illegal party was hosted at another apartment in the building. Council enforcement officers eventually discovered the flats were owned by a local restaurant, which before lockdown had used them as staff accommodation. Airbnb and Expedia said no listings at this address were booked on their platforms on the weekends in question.
Local residents and community leaders are growing increasingly exasperated at a perceived lack of accountability shown by the likes of Airbnb and Booking.com, platforms which initially turned thousands of residential properties into de facto hotels, only for the pandemic to turn them into illegal, pop-up nightclubs that risked aiding the spread a deadly virus during a global public health emergency.
Reports of illegal pop-up nightclubs booked through Airbnb have forced the company to introduce a global ban on all parties and events at its listings. The policy, announced on August 20, will remain in effect “until further notice”. Airbnb has also banned under-25s with repeat negative reviews from using its platform in the UK, France and Spain to book whole properties in their local area. A similar policy was announced in Canada and the USA in early July. A spokesperson for Booking.com says the company has “zero tolerance” for illegal activity conducted via its platform. A spokesperson for Expedia says the company takes instances of antisocial behaviour “very seriously”.
But council officials in London say such measures do not go far enough and are once again calling on the government to take decisive action to compel short-term rental platforms to fall into line. “It’s a dangerous trend which causes significant disruption and puts lives at risk,” says Heather Acton, cabinet member for public protection and licensing at Westminster Council. In late July, Acton wrote to Christopher Pincher, the minister for housing, calling on the government to introduce legislation to help councils take swift action against problem hosts. Such legislation, she wrote, should take the form of a mandatory property registration system for short-term rental platforms in the UK, giving local councils a detailed list of all short-term rental properties.
“The council needs to have the necessary information to enforce against illegal short-term letting and unlicensed music events which risk the lives of other residents in these buildings due to the lack of social distancing and potential spread of Covid-19,” Acton wrote in her letter to Pincher. She added that local councils had done “everything possible” to introduce voluntary schemes with the industry to try and prevent illegal short-term letting and associated antisocial behaviour, but that it was now clear such efforts had failed. “We no longer have confidence that private industry is fully signed up to make these voluntary initiatives work,” Acton wrote. A spokesperson for the minister of housing confirmed Pincher had received Acton’s letter and would respond in due course. “We support the increased consumer choice provided by the short-term holiday lettings market. However this industry needs to act responsibly,” the spokesperson adds.
Council officials are concerned that illegal events hosted in short-term rentals could aid the spread of coronavirus
Westminster City Council
Westminster, which encompasses Soho, Covent Garden and other central London locations normally known for their vibrant nightlife, has been worst hit by the rise of illegal pop-up nightclubs. In neighbouring Camden, which has a similarly large number of short-term rental listings, the council has received only a handful of complaints. One short-term rental property on Kilburn High Road hosted two illegal parties in late July and early August. Local residents complained of loud music, shouting, drug use and fighting, with police visiting the property on several occasions. At another short-term rental on High Holborn eight police officers were required to break up an illegal party that was using hired security guards. “Providers must start taking more responsibility,” says Danny Beales, Camden Council’s cabinet member for investing in communities.
Darren Rodwell, executive member for housing and planning at London Councils, which represents all 32 boroughs in the capital and the City of London Corporation, says the “grossly irresponsible parties” aren’t just a nuisance but also a serious public health risk. “The government must introduce legislation to improve regulation of short-term lets and to close the loopholes currently being exploited,” he adds.
I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London
Even before the pandemic, the scale of the short-term rental crisis faced by London was enormous. According to data from AirDNA, an analytics platform, in Westminster alone there were 8,836 short-term rental listings as of January 2020. AirDNA data also shows that in the past 12 months 5,769 listings in Westminster have exceeded a 90-day legal limit placed on entire homes listed on short-term rental platforms in the capital. Across London, 73,549 homes are listed as short-term rentals, equivalent to one in 50 of all homes in the city.
The pandemic has been a rollercoaster for Airbnb, which faced a furious revolt from its hosts when almost the entirety of its business evaporated overnight as the world went into lockdown. A recovery in recent months has been followed by news that Airbnb will forge ahead with its plan to list on the stock market. The listing will be one of the biggest of 2020, with Airbnb’s last fundraising round suggesting a valuation of $18 billion. In early March, before the company felt the full force of lockdown, it had been valued at $26bn. In May Airbnb announced it was shedding 25 per cent of its staff.
James Temperton is WIRED’s digital editor. He tweets from @jtemperton
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