The vast majority of Irish Airbnbs are illegal. Two law students are going after them

A former Labour Party TD wants you to think that “Airbnb recognises the historic housing challenges facing Ireland” and that the company wants “to be part of the solution”.

That’s according to an Airbnb statement from December last year, which included a quote from its “Head of Public Policy for Ireland” (its lobbyist) Derek Nolan, who was Micheal D Higgins’s successor as Labour’s Galway representative.

You can listen to the lobbyist if you like and choose to believe someone who’s gone from Leinster House – the place where government, we’re told, comes together to represent the people and regulate big business – to a company valued at more than $115 billion to fight for its interests. Airbnb is here to help.

Or you could wonder: wonder whether the more than 25,000 Airbnb lettings advertised in Ireland is contributing to the country’s housing crisis, or housing emergency as senator Tom Clonan put it this week; wonder whether we can trust landlords to act in tenants’ interests when they have the option to carry out illegal evictions and make easier money, even for them, on Airbnb; wonder who benefits when Airbnb listings outnumber longer term options in all 26 southern counties.

One thing is certain about Irish Airbnbs: the overwhelming majority are illegal. Though Airbnb landlords can avail of exemptions in certain, narrow, instances, they require planning permission to let out their properties. Last July Social Democrats housing spokesperson Cian O’Callaghan through a parliamentary question was told that just 38 such planning applications were successful from 2019 to early 2022. Thirty-eight of 25,000. One local authority, Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council, has received “no applications to operate a property as a short-term let… since the introduction of the short-term letting regulations”. Airbnb meanwhile advertises on its site “over 1,000 homes in Dún Laoghaire, Dublin” to rent.

Two UCC students have decided to address this.

Brian O’Kane and Peadar Ó Rathaille this week began sending planning enforcement complaints to Cork City Council. They have 60 in already and have plans to send 371 complaints relating to Cork city short-term lets. After hitting the city they’re going to go for 1,700 similar lets in Cork county before shifting their focus to Dublin and the rest of the country. “I'll be willing to go about this for as long as it takes,” said final year law student O’Kane from Blarney, county Cork.

Fellow law student Ó Rathaille, an Ennis, county Clare man, said he’s “heard oftentimes that every lever is being pulled to address the housing crisis” but was frustrated that no real efforts have been made to address illegal Airbnbs. “To my mind this is probably the easiest lever to pull that hasn't yet been pulled to return potentially 25,000 houses to the market. I saw that the law was there but it just wasn't being enforced, which is a general theme in law in Ireland. It communicates that the 'law is here, but we're never going to enforce that,'” he said.

O’Kane, who has familial experience of homelessness, has been involved in direct action with a tenants’ union and a housing cooperative in Cork, which has explored what he calls a “non-profit, landlord-alternative housing system”. Confronted with local and national governments that don’t seem to care about the issue, or at least unwilling to deal with it, O’Kane says that “direct action point is a great way for people to turn vague, meandering tweets into real, substantive action that can bring about real change in the short term as well as the long term".

Councils last year requested from national government €40 million in funds to bolster their planning departments – they received €5 million, suggesting, if anything, a government unwillingness to take planning issues seriously. The first of O’Kane and Ó Rathaille’s complaints are with Cork City Council and there are more to come. When the understaffed authorities receive these complaints, they’ll have to rule on them. The problem can’t be ignored.

“The law is very clear that they have to respond within a specific timeframe, giving reasons if they decline to issue enforcements – they must provide reasons to either myself or Brian, or whoever might be making a planning enforcement complaint for short-term lets,” said Ó Rathaille.

It’s not for craic O’Kane and Ó Rathaille are doing this. They want to see properties once used for lucrative (for landlords) short-term lets either put up for sale or long-term lets. Once a short-term let owner is subjected to one of their complaints, they’ll have a choice to make, with the possibility of a court-imposed €5,000 fine and six-month jail term to face.

“Personally, if I were an Airbnb owner, and I saw a five grand fine coming through the letterbox plus a possible court appearance to defend the fact I had no planning permission, I would be more likely to return my property to the rental market or sell up. Of the 25,000 Airbnbs in the country at the moment, if about half of those were suddenly returned to the market for renting or for housing there would be greater competition, so the price of general renting and general house pricing would also plummet,” said Ó Rathaille.  

Both denounce Ireland’s market-driven housing system and both speak of the difficulties, near impossibilities, faced by their fellow UCC students in finding accommodation. “Ten years ago my sister lived in digs for €150 a month, which now seems like nothing. It's completely changed now: people are paying €400 for digs and they get locked out of the kitchen three days or week or something like that, because the housing system is completely ruthless. No one can afford to live,” says O’Kane, with Ó Rathaille adding, “Housing isn't seen as a need, it's seen exclusively for greed.”

O’Kane is to do an internship with a human rights law firm this summer while Ó Rathaille is going to study for a master’s next year before pursuing a career in planning and environmental law. Both want to continue their activism.

“Most law students got into law for the right reasons and towards the end of their degrees they're not there for the right reasons anymore. You've been given the skills that can either fix society or further worsen society. And I do think there's a responsibility there, an implied responsibility, if you have those skills,” says Ó Rathaille.

The Ditch editors

The Ditch editors