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OTAs accused of illegal subletting crackdown failure in London

UK: Online travel agencies Airbnb and Booking.com have been accused of failing to crack down on the illegal subletting of social housing in London by local councils.

The Guardian has reported that social housing tenants are moving out of properties and subletting them illegally to holidaymakers as holiday lets, and that the platforms have refused to cooperate with requests to remove them.

The newspaper cited one case where a tenant was found to be advertising his housing association property for £4,000 a week, despite having never lived in the property, according to campaign group the Tenancy Fraud Forum [TFF].

Sub-letting part of one’s home is illegal unless a tenant has been granted written permission by their landlord to do so. If a tenant were to sub-let part of their home without the landlord’s permission, they would be in breach of their tenancy agreement.

It follows a similar investigation by the i newspaper in February, when through analysis of data from the TFF, it was claimed that social housing fraud cost around £6.2 billion to taxpayers in 2023, and that the number of social homes being illegally rented out as holiday lets has increased by almost 50,000 listings in the last 11 years. The TFF estimates that each lost home costs taxpayers £42,000 on average over a three-year period.

At a time when there is a significant shortage of council or housing association homes and rising levels of homelessness in London, local authorities and social housing providers want to bring the issue to prominence and secure housing for individuals and families in need.

TFF chair Katrina Robinson, who is also a housing association lawyer, accused Airbnb of “putting profit before conscience” and alleged that the platform had “refused to remove the listing and told me to talk to the host”.

In 2022, The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea [RBKC] was given permission to work with Airbnb to crack down on alleged fraudsters who were illegally sub-letting their properties as short-term lets in the capital. The council required a court order and spent around £20,000 in the process to collaborate with the home-sharing platform as the data-sharing would otherwise have violated GDPR laws in the UK.

As a result, Airbnb was allowed to share payment data on two undisclosed estates in North Kensington where illegal subletting activity was said to be taking place, in order to provide evidence of and tackle social housing fraud, as well as provide more housing options for families in need of the space.

However, the RBKC said that Airbnb was still refusing to remove listings that went against the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act and Islington Council has also aired similar findings.

Airbnb’s terms and conditions currently state that the personal details of hosts can be shared for the purposes of fraud prevention, but Airbnb has stressed that it cannot pass the information on to landlords without a court order under privacy laws.

In a statement, the home-sharing platform said: “Airbnb requires all hosts to have the relevant permissions to share their homes. Issues are rare and we take appropriate action where concerns are raised.

“Airbnb is also leading our industry in working with governments and authorities to help them access data and enforce the rules, including supporting the UK government’s work on a host register, and working with numerous local councils and the Public Sector Fraud Authority to tackle social housing abuse,” it added.

Housing providers have also told The Guardian that Booking.com has so far refused to remove illicit listings or disclose information. In one particular case in Notting Hill, residents claimed that streams of guests would come and go from an illegal sublet at a London block owned by housing association Notting Hill Genesis, and that the guests would regularly cause disturbances and damage communal areas.

Airbnb and Booking.com have claimed that, as accommodation agents, they are unable to request proof of ownership from hosts, although the Accommodation Agencies Act requires owner consent before a property is advertised on a platform.

A Booking.com spokesperson said that the company had suspended the listing reported by Notting Hill Genesis pending an investigation.

They said in a statement to The Guardian: “When a property owner chooses to list with us, they must confirm that they have the right to list their property. We do have a solid process in place for authorities to report any listings they might have concerns about and are looking into why the complaint by Notting Hill Genesis does not appear to have been escalated through our correct internal channels, which potentially resulted in a delay.”

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