Interview with Mr Mark Boekwijt, EU representative of the city of Amsterdam
1. The Digital Service Act (DSA) – which we can expect to see become EU law this year – will go a long way towards making ‘what is illegal offline illegal online’. From the perspective of European cities, would the Digital Services Act live up to this slogan when it comes to removing offers of short-term rentals which are not aligned with national and local rules?
Overall, I believe we should be pleased with the DSA’s emphasis to ensure that ‘what is illegal offline, is illegal online’. We can trust in any case that the DSA will be more instrumental for us, in aspects such as monitoring platforms, in demands to get illegal content offline as soon as this has been notified and also in the cross-border cooperation between member states and the European Commission to enforce compliance.
More importantly: both the European Parliament and the Council positions (as they are currently still in negotiations) clarify that STR-advertising that is not in compliance with national regulations is indeed illegal content! That is not only an important recognition of our concerns and our future use of the DSA-framework; it is also important to the backdrop of the new Commission initiative for STR that is announced.
And second, the European Parliament asks for specific attention for STR, asking the European Commission to work on codes of conduct “to facilitate compliance with obligations in areas as protection of minors or STR”. Surely, codes of conduct will not be the game-changers, but they are also a step in a direction of more attention to our concerns.
We would have liked to see more regulation for our issues with STR, but given that the DSA is a horizontal instrument, we did at least manage to get our sector concerns in the instrument. The fact that we have lobbied over a longer period of time about the negative impact of STR, may have contributed to the decision for a new initiative. Let’s see what that will bring us!
2. Why is the possibility to better regulate short-term rental services high on the agenda of European cities?
We underline that we are not against STRs in our cities. But we need to ensure that all STR activity is legal and respectful of the regulations that are in place. For example, the maximum number of nights per year a flat may be rented out through STR platforms.
The pressure on the affordable local housing market in each of our cities is a key consideration. Our cities are faced with a constant and high demand for affordable housing. And we, first of all, need the available housing stock to accommodate those citizens that wish to study, work and live in our cities. This is a principle of general public interest that is the basis of each of our city’s housing policies.
We expect and hope that the Covid situation will allow for more people to travel and that tourism will regain its momentum. Our cities are a key driver in making Europe the world’s number one tourist destination. Tourism is an important source of income and employment for many people. We are and will always remain welcoming to tourists. However, we have as local authorities a broader responsibility. The rise in STR in the pre-Covid times has been staggering. In Amsterdam, for example, in 2013 there were about 4500 listings, which grew to 22000 by 2017. The centre of Florence has seen an increase of STR of 60% since 2015. The city of Kraków recorded an increase of 100% of STHR between 2014 – 2017. It is for our cities vital that we find a balance in this sector and that all STR activity remains respectful of the regulations.
3. What are European cities’ key messages to the EU regarding the upcoming regulatory initiative on short-term rentals?
Unbalanced STR in our cities not only affects the liveability in our districts, but it also changes the social structure of the neighbourhoods and their residential milieu, weakening their residential function. It displaces the city’s residents who want to work and study there to other parts of the city.
In the vast majority of our cities, most platforms (in particular those dominating the STR market) do not share the minimum data that we need for regulatory enforcement. The owners (often unidentified) of the accommodations used for STR services do not share the necessary information either.
We hope the European Commission will propose legislation in place, obliging platforms to cooperate with the competent authorities with a view to ensure that their advertisements of STR services are legal. STR-services that do not respect the local, regional or national regulations, are illegal! Therefore the platforms should be obliged to share data that is essential for enforcement and this obligation should be enforceable at the EU level since the digital services in question are transnational.
The platforms should block with immediate effect STR advertisements that are notified to them as not respecting the local/regional or national regulations that are in place by local/regional or national authorities. Should this obligation not be sufficiently clarified within the framework of the Digital Services Act, then this new regulatory initiative for STR should provide for this obligation.
Likewise, platforms should be obliged to ensure the traceability of those persons or entities that wish to offer, through their platforms, STR services. This obligation should be imposed regardless of whether or not those persons or entities offering STR services do so for their professional or as a so-called ‘peer’.
In the majority of European cities, when it comes to STR services, the distinction between a host being a ‘peer’ or a ‘professional’ is irrelevant. The regulations for STR that are in place have to be respected regardless of this. Given the very limited availability of housing stock in most of our cities, there are only very few situations in cities where it is allowed to ‘professionally’ exploit an accommodation through STRs. The reason is that in most of our cities the primary aim of our policies is to make this housing stock as much as possible available for those citizens who wish to work and study in our cities. The professional market for accommodation for tourists is regulated in separate regulatory regimes, for instance for hotels and bead-and-breakfasts.
4. Exchange of data will be a central theme in the upcoming EU regulatory initiative on short-term rentals. Which data is of particular value to European cities to oversee, and where necessary regulate local STR offers? Who should be providing authorities with such data?
In the vast majority of our cities, a limit applies as to the number of nights accommodation may be rented out for STR, as well as limitations as to the number of persons that may stay overnight.
Most platforms (in particular those dominating the STR market) do not share the minimum data that is essential for regulatory enforcement. They don’t see interest in doing so. Online platforms often claim that our data requests are incompatible with GDPR-standards. That is unjustified. All customers of online platforms that wish to use these platforms to offer STR accommodation services in our cities, need to be informed by the online platforms (as part of their contract with the platform) that relevant data may be shared with competent public authorities (when they so request) with the purpose of ensuring compliance with the regulations regarding STRs that are in place. This is fully consistent with the GDPR-framework.
Essential for any minimal regulatory enforcement is for example the identification of the owner of the accommodation, as well as identification and exact location of each STR premise with the number of beds. We also need data on the periodicity of rentals: number of nights per visit, plus the total number of nights the premise rented out per year. And finally data on the number of visitors per night. This is essential to monitor the maximum number of occupants in a given dwelling for safety purposes. Data is also needed to comply with tax rules, that are in place for the tourism industry (i.e. tourist tax). The data we demand can be shared on a periodical basis per month, half-year or even annually. Where registration numbers are mandatory for STR-activity (either by local, regional or national law), then these data should be administered per registration number.