Sunday 9 December 2018

'We want regulation that doesn't harm what is working really well'

Aisling Hassell says the accommodation rental giant has dealt with 'a lot of anecdotes' ahead of looming regulation, writes Michael Cogley

Airbnb wants to be a good citizen, says its Irish chief, Aisling Hassell. Picture: Mark Condren
Airbnb wants to be a good citizen, says its Irish chief, Aisling Hassell. Picture: Mark Condren

Ireland's short-term letting sector is about to change. Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy seems to be on the cusp of following Toronto's lead in implementing a 180-night limit to remove the incentive for landlords to permanently list their properties on sites such as Airbnb and Booking.com.

The regulation process has gone on for more than two years, involved multiple ministers and taken a number of twists, including the abandonment of a memorandum of understanding with Airbnb.

Murphy, along with his political colleagues right across the Oireachtas, hopes such rules will force landlords off sites like Airbnb and back into the rental market.

Airbnb's Irish chief executive Aisling Hassell believes such a change will not herald the results Murphy, Fianna Fail, the Labour Party, Sinn Fein and the Green Party desire. Speaking at the peer-to-peer property rental giant's European HQ on Hanover Quay in Dublin, she staunchly defended the company's role in Ireland's housing crisis.

"I do feel Airbnb has become a little bit of a lightning rod on this issue, far above the net impact," she said.

"It depends on which audience you're looking for but there are a lot of people out there, without a lot of data frankly, using the issue to have attacks on government and, within that, it's easy to throw about names like Airbnb that are well known.

"There are about 16 home-sharing platforms in Ireland and I suppose the good news is that Airbnb has grown in the last 10 years and people love to travel on the platform. The bad news is that, with that, the brand gets associated incorrectly with the scale of the problem."

Hassell declined to identify the offending parties, but it doesn't take long to find vocal critics of the accommodation rental website.

Right across the political spectrum, the short-term letting market has been labelled as a critical area in need of proper regulation. Last October, the Oireachtas housing committee, which is chaired by Fine Gael TD Maria Bailey, warned that short-term lets could force people to move out of the city. In the foreword of her report on the matter, Bailey said short-term lettings could create a "ripple effect" that could force people to move further out of the city.

Hassell, a Glasnevin native, said the scale of landlords using their platform on a long-term basis was much lower than commentators and politicians had suggested.

"Around 80pc are sharing their private home, so it's a very small proportion that could potentially be private operators," she said. "When we started having this conversation with the Department of Housing, we said 'Let's do it on a fact basis'. We supplied all that data to the department, the housing committee, and the Oireachtas as well. The whole idea was that we were trying to make sure that commercial operators didn't take properties off the rental market."

She says their research found that a landlord would need to let their property on the website for at least 180 days a year before it began to become more attractive. Hassell, who joined the company in 2014, is slow to admit that there are any rogue landlords operating on the platform at all.

When asked whether or not a landlord who could achieve an occupancy rate of 90pc plus on the site had an incentive to whip their property out of the long-term rental market, she replied saying that, if an incentive exists, then the company would be in favour of regulation.

"It also masks the fact that when you're hosting on Airbnb, you're checking in your guests, you're making sure they have a great experience, you're trying to get your five-star review," she says. "It's a lot of hard work. The one aspect that is always discussed is the commercial side."

Airbnb has consistently stated that it wants to be regulated in Ireland and that the "noise" created by multiple policy suggestions reported to be discussed in the Department of Housing has caused uncertainty among its hosts. The proposals that are likely to be brought forward by the minister will represent a vastly different approach to that of Simon Coveney, the former housing minister and current minister for foreign affairs. Coveney sought to agree a memorandum of understanding with the company, which would have encouraged the company to commit to identifying professional landlords using the platform all year round. That idea was subsequently scrapped.

Should Murphy's proposals take a similar line to the stance taken in Toronto, homeowners will be forced to register with their local authority to let out their property. Toronto also has restrictions on the type of properties that can be let on a short-term basis, including an outright ban on income properties. The Canadian regulations, which took effect in June, allow homeowners to list their entire home while on holidays for up to a total of 180 days a year.

Hassell said she was "surprised" when Toronto was mentioned by the minister, but said there were elements of the regime that would be viable in Ireland.

"Honestly, it depends on how its implemented," she says. "We have been able to do a very simple pass through registration and that's simple, but when it gets over-complicated and bureaucratic that ends up just being challenging to manage.

"We'll have to wait and see. We're waiting like everyone else to see what the proposal is. We know what the current challenges are, we just hope that common sense reigns, that we find something that's easy to implement, understand, and that doesn't harm what is working really well."

Hassell, who is also the company's global head of customer experience, said that a two-tiered regulatory system would be "sensible". She says the Government should focus on "pinch points" where housing shortages are most acute, namely Dublin, and allow different rules apply to the rest of the country.

The backdrop to this is that rents nationwide have risen for nine quarters in a row, according to statistics from property website Daft.ie. The average rent in the capital has risen by 13.4pc in the last year alone, with the cost now sitting at €500 more than the height of the boom at €1,936.

The constant increases in rent have been driven by a massive shortfall in the amount of available units. The rising rents have increased the pressure on Airbnb to clamp down on landlords who are using it on a permanent basis. Stories of apartments or even entire homes being turned into Airbnb units have become commonplace, with many in urban areas, and even coastal tourism spots, claiming the phenomenon has ravaged their locality. For Hassell, these claims are a distraction.

"The current issue is that there aren't enough houses. Airbnb didn't start that challenge and we certainly won't solve it. There are 10 times more vacant properties across the country than there are on our entire platform," Hassell said.

"The scales are completely different but we want to be good citizens. It's good for our hosts if there's clarity and they know what they can and cannot do.

"We do deal with a lot of anecdotes but that's why we continue to go back to the evidence-based reality, because I don't think government or any form of regulation should be based on somebody's story about a friend."

The Dublin native said that sometimes people mistake short-term letting activity with permanent activity. She said more and more people were letting out their properties on the weekends and heading home for a few days or bunking with friends to help them supplement the soaring rents that are being charged by the country's landlords.

While Hassell played down the use of Airbnb by commercial landlords, the most recent statistics from data collection website AirDNA points to 4,186 full-home rentals currently advertised on the site. Of the 4,890 active hosts dotted across the city, 1,119 are considered "super-hosts", who provide for at least 10 bookings a year. Of the 7,564 active rentals across Dublin, half of them are associated with hosts who have more than one listing.

The Department of Housing has taken a while to get around to the short-term lettings, Hassell says, but she maintains that this was due to the fact it was focusing on the more important aspects of the crisis.

"I think the housing problem is a difficult one and I think the department itself has been focused on the core problem which, as I said, Airbnb didn't cause," she says. "I think they've been focused on the core problems, which are a shortage of houses, and also a lot of the regulation around rents and incentives to ensure that developers will actually build. It's not going to be a quick fix, and I think they've been focused on that, which you can't argue with. Now would we like to have all the regulation sorted and move on? Yes."

Tech companies in other countries have also begun the process of buying accommodation for their workers, such as Google, which is investing $30m in Silicon Valley. While it remains unclear if the company will pursue a similar strategy in Dublin, it does potentially have the scope to accommodate hundreds of employees at the €300m Bolands Quay scheme, which it acquired in the Dublin Docklands.

When asked whether or not Airbnb would accommodate its own employees, Hassell said the company was not exploring it. "I can guarantee you that at the moment".

 

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name: Aisling Hassell

Position: Head of global customer experience, Airbnb

Lives: Howth, Co Dublin

Education: BA in mechanical and manufacturing engineering, Trinity College Dublin; MSc in fluid dynamics, Trinity College Dublin; International baccalaureate in beach rescue service, United World College of the Atlantic

Previous experience: Director of global customer experience and web strategy, Sage; Group head of customer experience, Vodafone; Customer experience VP, Symantec

Pastimes: Sailing

Favourite movie: The Thomas Crown Affair

Currently reading: The Bees by Laline Paull

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