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Paris mayor's race takes a run at Airbnb-style rentals

France 24 logo France 24 13/03/2020 Tracy MCNICOLL
a man and a woman standing in a room © Charles Platiau, REUTERS

Airbnb has made a mantra of travelling off the beaten path and "living like a local". But in Paris, the apartment-sharing giant's biggest market globally, a number of those locals say the path to their doors – and through their cobbled courtyards, and up the echoey stairwells of their charming walk-ups – are now well-beaten enough, merci. The result? Every major candidate in the race for Paris City Hall is stumping, more or less, to roll up the welcome mat.

After taking the fight to Airbnb for years as mayor, incumbent Anne Hidalgo has pledged to hold a referendum in every Paris arrondissement (district) over Airbnb if she wins re-election after the March 22 run-off.

The issue of short-term tourist rentals was hardly a glint in the eye of politicians in 2014, during the last Paris mayor's race. This time, candidates from left to right are campaigning on technical solutions to what is, they appear to agree, a problem.

"Local shops [are] disappearing, but Airbnbs [are] everywhere, which fuel property speculation, luxury shops and mono-activity that targets affluent tourists alone," green EELV candidate David Belliard's programme rails, namechecking Montmartre and the Marais."Whole neighbourhoods are dying because Parisians are forced to leave them, no longer able to afford to live or shop there."

The French Communist Party's Ian Brossat, who is Hidalgo's right-hand-man on housing, has touted a ban. Brossat even wrote a book on the subject in 2018 called "Airbnb: The Uber-ised City". But the right doesn't disagree. Conservative candidate Rachida Dati has said short-term rental "platforms have killed places like the Ile Saint-Louis", and told French daily Le Monde that "Airbnb must be restricted, regulated and banned in some districts".

City Hall contenders are proposing to lower the number of days Parisians are allowed to rent out their own homes, down from 120, and/or double, even triple, the number of inspectors charged with sussing out infractions, up from the current 35.

Detractors include local residents groups, who deride short-term rental tourists as nuisances, driving up home prices and driving out businesses authentic neighbourhoods need; and hoteliers, who see short-term rental landlords as free-riders impinging on their businesses without the expense of meeting industry norms. When Airbnb signed a major sponsorship deal in November with the International Olympic Committee through 2028 — a stretch that includes the Paris 2024 summer Games — Hidalgo and Paris hoteliers alike were livid.

Part-time Paris?

"For us, in the beginning, Airbnb wasn't a problem when it fell under the sharing economy," Brossat tells FRANCE 24 in his bright City Hall office overlooking the tin roofs of the Marais. "The problem is that pretty quickly it went from a sharing economy to a predatory economy, with more and more professionals stepping into the breach who decided to make a business of it full-time."

Paris's Communist deputy mayor in charge of housing under the Socialist Hidalgo, Brossat cites as concerns now the loss of housing, residents being replaced with tourists, the noise tourists bring into residential buildings, and neighbourhoods losing their identities when they "are no longer lived in but merely visited".

Take Ile Saint-Louis or the Marais, Brossat says. "We have 26 percent of the housing in the first four arrondissements of Paris no longer occupied by residents year-round," be it because the properties are now second homes or Airbnb-style rentals. "We don't want Paris to become solely a display case."

Mayor Hidalgo's long-standing battle with Airbnb is well-documented. Over the course of her six-year term, City Hall beefed up a housing-fraud brigade that scrapes the web and beats the pavement, following up on neighbours' complaints or, once a month, fanning out across a single neighbourhood for a crackdown operation. The City of Paris has tacked on new constraints like requiring registration numbers for every rental. It has squeezed into local legislation all that French law allows to rein in overzealous landlords, then lobbied the French government for broader powers. From Airbnb, it obtained the payment of a tourist tax on stays, like the one hotels collect – in 2019 Paris brought in €15.3m from this tourist tax. Hidalgo and Brossat have also pled the city's case in Brussels and at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.

As it stands today, Paris homeowners are allowed to rent out their primary residences for up to 120 days per year; they can rent out their second homes in Paris all year round, but only if they also rent out an equivalent property as social housing in the same neighbourhood or put up twice the surface for rent as traditional housing. Professionals can buy up some commercial spaces to rent out short-term if they apply to change the property's purpose to hotel accommodation. Still, local politicians and many Parisians alike want more done.

"When I became deputy mayor in 2014, residents didn't understand why we were tackling this phenomenon," Brossat says. "Today, they reproach us for not going far enough. So it's clear the situation has changed."

Paris rentals: 60,000-100,000

And how quickly it has. "Airbnb was born [in San Francisco] in 2008 and has developed pretty exponentially since 2010, notably in Paris, which is the city most concerned in the world by such rentals and particularly by Airbnb," says Sciences Po Rennes lecturer Thomas Aguilera, a specialist on public policy, urban planning and tourism. He says Paris listings number "between 60,000 and 100,000 apartments on all platforms, so not just Airbnb... an exponential development, quick, massive and pertaining to just about every neighbourhood". But the academic guards against making causal leaps.

The rise of Airbnb, after all, fits into a larger story about mass tourism and globalisation that began well before two California roommates inflated an air mattress on their living-room floor on the road to fame and fortune. It is part of the narrative of "intensive touristification" that invested cities like Barcelona, Berlin, Venice, Prague and Lisbon in the 1990s and 2000s. Paris, after all, is the world's tourism capital. Aguilera and colleagues Francesca Artioli and Claire Colomb are conducting a research project to measure short-term rentals' impact on cities, but he says economists, geographers and sociologists are only beginning to make sense of the data.

"No study has proven, has developed a scientific model, that puts a causal link between Airbnb's development and residents disappearing in the Marais," Aguilera cautions, as just one example of the work left to be done. "It might be proven, but it has to be done first."

The numbers game, indeed, is rife in the French capital. The City of Paris estimates that some 20,000 to 30,000 apartments have been lost to the Parisian rental market, rented out short-term year-round through Airbnb and some 300 other, smaller platforms. Airbnb, for its part, says it only had 4,100 apartments rented out for more than 120 days in Paris in 2019, and of those only 1,040 for more than 255 days. As of December 2019, Airbnb is required to file a list of its rentals with authorities annually. But the French government didn't obligate the firm to append a listing's web address, the URL, as Paris requested, which means it takes "ten times longer", Brossat says, for inspectors to cross-check the information themselves.

"Four thousand, yeah. Airbnb is lying," says Brossat, with a cackle. "Airbnb is not telling us the truth about its numbers. When we ask Parisians what they think, what they feel, we see that the phenomenon has spread much more than Airbnb says. But there isn't much point in the numbers war. The issue for us is to protect Parisians. Airbnb is protecting its business," Brossat says in office, its walls clad with with art and an antique French Communist Party poster.

Exodus

One can't blame tourists for seeking out an authentic local experience in the world's tourism capital. But the thing about Paris is, as Europe's smallest capital by size, there aren't all that many locals to speak of. A dense warren of streets struck through with avenues and the city's compact old-build charm mean there is precious little space for new construction within its Périphérique ring-road. About 2.15 million people live in Paris, set against the 50 million tourists who visited the greater Paris area in 2018. And lately, there are fewer Parisians every year.

"Between 2012 and 2017, the population rose in every department in France, except Paris," the country's statistical agency, l'Insee, wrote in December 2019. "The capital loses 11,000 inhabitants every year, even though it was gaining 10,000 between 2007 and 2012."

Many attribute the mini-exodus at least in part to the rising cost of housing in a city that saw property prices hit the symbolic €10,000 per square metre mark last August, skyrocketing 66 percent over the previous decade. Prices appear to be driving middle-class families out of town. There were 1,400 fewer children in Paris schools last September, after drops between 2,000 and 3,000 over the previous four years.

Some quarters have lost more locals than others. The city's expensive central districts have been shedding residents disproportionately. In the very heart of the city, the 2nd arrondissement has lost more than 10 percent of its population since 2015 and seen three kindergarten classes close. As it happens, while Paris's central arrondissements bid au revoir to those locals, they are also seeing short-term rental properties bloom en masse. And residents' frustration has crystallised around Airbnb as the dominant market player.

Looking to succeed the current EELV green party mayor of the 2nd arrondissement in a new district that takes in the first four arrondissements, Raphaëlle Rémy-Leleu is campaigning for "a brigade of 100 inspectors in the capital to fight against the diverting of the principal of the collaborative economy and the disneylandification of the central neighbourhoods".

"Airbnb didn't cause the housing problems. The gentrification of Paris is much older than that. But it is an accelerator of that gentrification," Brossat says at City Hall. "Housing wasn't cheap in the centre of Paris before Airbnb. But the problem has accelerated because of Airbnb," he says. "There is a demographic phenomenon linked to a lower birth rate. But there is also an incontestable phenomenon of the eviction of families [as rentals develop]. A number of apartments that were being rented to families are now rented to tourists year-round. That's the truth."

'Disneylandification'

The Disneyland reference resonates with speech therapist Aurore Wait. "I get the feeling that I'm in an artificial city where there are no longer people who work. There are essentially people in leisure situations," says Wait, who has lived in the 2nd arrondissement for 40 years. "If you're over 40, you feel a bit in the way," the 60-year-old tells FRANCE 24.

Wait was attending an event on Monday off the pedestrian rue Montorgueil in the 2nd on "the harm mass tourism is doing to housing and residents". Hosted by group called ParisVsBnB, which documents the spread of short-term rentals in the city, and housing rights group Droit au Logement, it was billed as a debate but it wasn't a particular heated one. Despite burgeoning coronavirus concerns, more than a hundred people turned out for the event at the local sports centre's amphitheatre. Most seemed to agree with the posted premise that short-term rentals are detrimental here.

"How can one even conceive of a 20m2 apartment that brings in €7,000 a month?" Franck Briand of ParisVsBnB asked rhetorically on stage. "It's something that was completely unimaginable eight years ago. Today, thanks to rentals by the day, that is what is happening in our neighbourhood, in the second arrondissement."

Jean-Baptiste Eyraud, the spokesman for Droit au Logement, took the mic at one point, intoning "Airbnb everywhere, housing nowhere!" and briefly got a chant going through the crowd. Another man was invited to talk about the "We sign it" petition he started to ban Airbnb in Paris, with 12,659 signatures so far. Others came with questions about how to fight noisy short-term rentals in their buildings. One young woman suggested, in hardly veiled terms, squatting rentals to bring awareness to the housing cause.

Aurore Wait, for her part, has been trying to put her finger on a feeling, about why she's been so uneasy about pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly redevelopment in Paris. Looking at a map at the debate of where Airbnb rentals are concentrated in Paris was a revelation. "Basically, the neighbourhood is going to become a completely fake neighbourhood made for tourists," overrun with space for "meandering", she says. "What I don't understand is, why am I struggling with that when I could appreciate it? I don't have a car in Paris, I bike, I walk a lot, and still this city has become almost intolerable to me."

"The thing about Airbnb is that this city is turning into a thing that's pleasant for tourists, for people who have nothing else to do," says Wait, who lives in a sixth-floor walk-up near the Palais Royal. She finds she avoids the pedestrian, restaurant-lined rue Montorgueil now and expresses a nostalgia for a grittier Paris, when the heart of the city beat at the rhythm of the people who live and work here. "There's a sort of fake festivity [now]. A sort of, hey, how funny, there are only people having drinks on terraces all day long. It's amazing. There aren't any calm places anymore."

Up on stage, packing up after the debate went long, Briand is no stranger to that sentiment. The ParisVsBnB member weathered four years in a flat on the rue Palestro nearby, living above a party pad. The owner, who reportedly also runs 36 other rental properties, bought an old garage and applied for a "change of purpose". He converted it into a short-term rental for tourists that could sleep 15. But nobody got much sleep. The nightly noise was too much for Briand and his full-time neighbours to bear.

"With all the problems we had, with the terrorist attacks in Paris, with the Gilets Jaunes, the police weren't available. So when we called for them to intervene, they didn't come," Briand says. "We really felt abandoned, at every level, by the City, by public authorities, etc. And they, meanwhile, during all that time, they prospered."

The building's homeowners finally won a court battle against the landlord, who was forced to shut down the apartment's basement addition. Now, the rental sleeps six. "There are always a bit more and it doesn't prevent parties. But now, instead of going downstairs every day, shouting, making war, I go down every other week. But it's a battle that continues," says Briand, who is also on the Montorgueil-Saint-Denis neighbourhood council. "Four years. We suffered, huh? In chatting with other residents on the street, we realised that this was affecting quite a few other buildings, with this party element."

Keymasters

A block over, on the rue Saint-Denis, a street famed in Paris for its motley mix of sex shops, textile wholesalers, bars and restaurants, cobbler Mickaël Amari looks none the worse for the short-term rental invasion. Customers are unusually sparse this Tuesday lunch hour, but Amari puts that down to coronavirus more than Airbnb. The cobbler, who has tended this shop for 13 years and watched the neighbourhood evolve, has seen the concierge businesses that manage short-term rentals pop up all over the area, like one called "Urban Flat in Paris" up the rue Saint-Denis. "There is one on the rue Saint-Sauveur, on the rue Mandar... There are plenty," he says.

Shoe and boot repair shops in particular are cited as the sorts of neighbourhood businesses at risk of replacement when a quarter tips into serving visitors instead of locals; tourists just don't stop in to have their brogues re-soled. But the chatty, affable Amari, who is quick to perform a magic trick for new customers, still has plenty of local clients dropping off footwear at his "Ali Baba's cavern" of a shop. And he boasts another draw for the rental crowd since he cuts keys. "We make a lot of keys for them," he says. "Because they want to rent apartments out, they need three, four, five keys at a time."

Just then, a tall, bearded neighbour comes in looking to have a key badge made. Is he an Airbnb renter? "I do Airbnb. Why?" he asks. When he hears the candidates for Paris mayor are all looking to rein in short-term rentals, he wants to learn more. "What are there platforms, if I might ask?... I'm wondering if they want to outlaw it," he says. "Is that a real possibility?"

Happy to chat "as long as you're not taking names", the 39-year-old explains that he already rents out a small studio in this "crazy gentrifying" neighbourhood, but recently bought a commercial space in an apartment building nearby to convert into several short-term rentals. Finding a convertible commercial space is one of the biggest hassles for Airbnb investors, he explains, "because that's the gem". Pushing through his building's large wood door into a long narrow stretch of courtyard, he explains the ground-floor property had been a textile workshop. The mouldy space was "like a sweatshop" with the buzz of sewing machines running through the night and elicited "endless complaints" from building residents.

The property owner points out a number pad tucked under the workshop-style window of another courtyard apartment next door, a commercial space already converted for short-term rentals. Tourists can unlock the door with a code. "The owner doesn't have to say hello or anything," the man explains. He notes that the noise from that other rental echoing through the resonant courtyard drove a family upstairs to move away, a situation he is looking to avoid for the family who lives next door to the space he bought. "I was thinking of doing offices, just to make it easy for myself. But when I did the math, it was not even close," he says, wide-eyed.

"Off the record, I understand why people are complaining," he says. "There is such a shortage of living space, in all the major European cities." But he reasons he isn't taking away anyone's housing with his new venture. "It would have been offices," he says.

Across town, Airbnb renter Nicolas Tsaros isn't keeping such a low profile. Tsaros lists five apartments near the Eiffel Tower on Airbnb for about €130 a night. Before cancellations over the coronavirus scare, he says he was largely booked through October. He makes no secret of the fact he has rented the apartments out illegally, without the proper authorisation. At odds with the City, he faces up to €50,000 in fines per apartment. So he wrote a book about it. Tsaros's "Chronicles of an Airbnb renter in Paris: Revelations on a war against Parisians" came out in January.

An early adopter, Tsaros first rented out his own apartment in 2008 or 2009, he says, coming off four years of welfare benefits and managing bands in a music market ailing under the digital onslaught. He bought a first rental apartment as a test and banks, buoyed by the results, were relaxed about financing more in quick succession. "That situation would not be possible today," he says, citing banks' skittishness in the face of contempt at City Hall.

Tsaros likens himself to a whistleblower, pinpointing unfairness. When he first invested, under former Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanöe, he says, the powers that be were more tolerant of short-term renters. The landlord, who has a day job in the tourism sector on the side, sees short-term rentals as a drop in the bucket of Paris's housing problem — representing a tiny percentage of Paris rental housing stock using the City's numbers, or "really nothing" using Airbnb's figures.

"It's the scapegoat," Tsaros says. "Today, Ian Brossat [as deputy mayor for housing] is getting completely carried away in designating a guilty party and working his niche this way, but it is completely just abject." 

Tsaros's book calls for a moratorium on short-term rental inspectors' summonses to allow an impact assessment in Paris. "Because we are told that Airbnb is responsible for everything, but without reasons, without arguments," he says. "Today, interest rates are extremely low. It is obvious that over a period of five years, prices were going to soar. It seems obvious to me. But that it isn't being broached."

Tsaros suggests the so-called GAFAs, American tech giants like Airbnb, "are always the bad guys" to the Communists and Socialists at Paris City Hall. "For me, this is a life I'm building," he says. "Someone who has 30 apartments is a professional. One has to know to tell the difference."

The nuclear option

If Hidalgo wins a second term this month, Parisians can expect to be called back to the ballot box about Airbnb within months. But the questions on the ballot paper won't technically be questions Paris can answer itself, for now. Both queries being mooted – about whether the 120-day limit should be tighter and whether short-term rentals of whole apartments should be banned – are out of Paris's jurisdiction and meant to force the French government's hand.

At City Hall, Brossat is clearly in favour of Paris broadening its powers on those questions.

"I think we could obtain a lot of things from Airbnb if we had that threat at our disposal. It's the nuclear weapon," he says. "Today, the government isn't in favour at all. But I'm convinced that if hundreds of thousands of Parisians demand it, the government will surely have to consider it."

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