LISBON — Long before the coronavirus swept across Europe this spring, many cities had been complaining that a proliferation of short-term apartment rentals aimed at tourists through platforms like Airbnb was driving up housing costs for locals and destroying the character of historic districts.
Now that the pandemic has all but cut off the steady flow of visitors, many European cities are seizing an opportunity to push short-term rentals back onto the long-term housing market.
In Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, the city government is becoming a landlord itself by renting empty apartments and subletting them as subsidized housing. In Barcelona, Spain, the housing department is threatening to take possession of empty properties and do the same.
Other city governments are enacting or planning new laws to curb the explosive growth of rentals aimed largely at tourists. Amsterdam has banned vacation rentals in the heart of the old city; a Berlin official warned of a crackdown on short-term leasing platforms “trying to evade regulation and the enforcement of law”; and Paris is planning a referendum on Airbnb-type listings.
For years, properties rented out for short-term stays have snatched away housing units from local residents in several European cities. Lisbon has more than 22,000 Airbnb listings, according to Inside Airbnb, which tracks listings in cities around the globe. Barcelona has 18,000, and Paris — one of the platform’s largest markets — has nearly 60,000.
When tourists are plentiful, renting a property on a short-term basis can be more lucrative for owners than a long-term tenant, something that city governments say has distorted housing markets in cities where supply is already tight. They also accuse online platforms of circumventing laws put in place to protect local markets.
“We cannot tolerate that accommodations that could be rented to Parisians are now rented all year to tourists,” the deputy mayor of Paris, Ian Brossat, said in a phone interview. Mr. Brossat also said he was hoping to cut the number of days per year that a property can be rented through platforms like Airbnb — currently 120. He accused the company of breaching even that rule.
“Airbnb pretends to respect the law, but it’s not the case,” said Mr. Brossat, who has written a book critical of Airbnb and its impact on cities.
Airbnb denies any wrongdoing, in Paris or elsewhere. “They’ve set the rules, and we’re following the rules,” said Patrick Robinson, Airbnb’s director of public policy for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “Where there is a vigorous discussion about the right regulations, we’re part of that conversation, and ultimately that’s for local politicians to decide.”
He said that Airbnb provided registration details and other data to the authorities in major tourism hubs like Lisbon, Paris and Barcelona to help city officials enforce their rules. “We actually think that better access to data is the solution here.” In September, the company introduced City Portal, which it says will allow governments access to data that can help identify listings that do not comply with