Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Apartment Rentals Wolves Are Howling

So, have you removed your advert for an apartment rental in Mallorca from Airbnb? Or from any one of the 83 websites in total over which the tourism ministry is hanging its sword of rental Damocles? Like the websites themselves, you are probably ok until the week after next. The ministry has given the websites a short period of grace to get their accommodation house (apartments) in order. After that, let the fines begin.

It's finally happening then. For years (at least since 1999), successive governments have issued dire warnings each summer about illegal apartment rentals. We all got so used to these stern statements of intent that we came to assume - rightly enough - that they were the crying of wolves. Not now. The wolfpack is on the prowl, and it doesn't even need to leave the office. Website A. Click. Apartment without tourism ministry registration licence number? Click. What shall we fine? Twenty grand? No, go on, let's make it 40 grand. Why not? Click and kerching! The tills of fines revenue ring in the summer air. What lovely loot for the government.

Yes, if you fail to take that advert down, you can anticipate being the provider of a nice little earner for the Balearic administration. It'll be of very little use you trying to wriggle out of it. True, there is a defence. But how can you possibly make it stick, especially as the burden of proof is all yours? It's rented out under the tenancy act, you maintain. Really? Where's the contract? This is point number one. How many of these short-term not-so-called holiday rentals have ever been formalised with a contract?

Second question. Has the visitor paid a deposit, understood to be the equivalent of a month's rent? Well, has this allegedly non-tourist done so? Erm, not as such. Third question. Can you prove that this tenant is not a tourist or traveller? You what!? This is the killer question. It will be almost impossible to prove. Indeed I struggle to see how it can be possible at all. The tenancy act defence is thus rendered totally useless. Redundant. Meaningless. Here, have a fine.

The days, therefore, of the occasional inspector from the tourism ministry or tax agency turning up and frightening tourists who were totally unaware that they were in illegal flats are more or less passed. There will probably still be some knocking on doors, but life has become so much simpler for the inspectorates. Isn't internet technology wonderful. It most certainly is. All those nice websites allowing owners to advertise their flats. All those nice websites opening their doors to the inspectors. It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

Where do my sympathies lie? On both sides to varying degrees. The government had to act, especially once it became clear that it and whole communities were being eaten by Airbnb. As previously noted, the legislation wasn't going to be like it is. It's all that wonderful internet technology that is to blame. The government suddenly became aware that it existed, as it also became aware of a certain amount of social unrest and Podemos prodding it with a housing emergency pointed stick.

Owners, not all of them, have been getting away with it for years, especially the more corporate variety. Tourists, who are not and never have been to blame, were unknowing participants in an activity not entirely legal. No wonder some might have been shocked when the occasional inspector pitched up in the past. It's not as if anyone was ever going to advise them as to the legality or otherwise. They are now advised. The news of the legislation, the fines is all over the place.

For all that the government needed to intervene, there is nevertheless a sense that it has taken an almighty great sledgehammer to the nut. One of the government's problems is clear. How can it distinguish between a tenant who is a genuine family member and one who is not? I would feel very sorry for any owner who lets his or her family use a flat and gets caught up in all this. Hopefully, some common sense will prevail.

Then there is the owner with one or two apartments who has been renting out to tourists for years either in accordance with the tenancy act or not. There may have been some stretching of the law, but this type of owner now also faces being penalised.

The appetite of Airbnb, however, has meant an impression of everyone getting in on the act, skirting the law and - in certain instances - gobbling up whole portfolios of apartments. At least, though, some apartments will be made legal after the twelve-month moratorium on issuing licences. The question will be where, while certain provisions in the law will in any event automatically exclude them.

But for now the wolf is not crying. It is howling.

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