Airbnb to the rescue: empty flats help homelessness in Edinburgh

Airbnb to the rescue: empty flats help homelessness in Edinburgh
Edinburgh's five festivals will not go ahead this summer

HOUSING bosses in Scotland’s capital have finally moved all homeless families with children out of unsuitable B&Bs after Airbnb properties and hotel rooms were left empty by the coronavirus lockdown.

With assistance by charity Streetwork, 120 hotel bedrooms, currently empty due to the lockdown, and 65 flats including former Airbnb properties, have been transformed into safe accommodation for Edinburgh’s homeless families and rough sleepers.

The council has spent the last two years pledging that the practice, which is illegal if a placement lasts for more than a week, would be ended.

Despite an improving trend, council bosses have failed to end the practice amid austerity and welfare reforms – meaning people continue to present as homeless.

Edinburgh City Council spent more than £28 million on unsuitable accommodation for homeless people from 2016-19 – with one company tallying up more than £15m.

Now the pandemic has temporarily freed up previously unavailable housing stock, with short-term lets no longer a realistic option for owners.

READ MORE: Coronvirus comment: it shouldn't take a pandemic to show we can end rough sleeping

But it is only a temporary solution – Edinburgh’s self-catering industry, which is now facing “unparalleled uncertainty” after the summer festivals were cancelled, will be key to reviving the city’s economy when the pandemic is finally over.

In the long term, the city wants to designate short-term lets control areas to curb the practice in tenement flats.

Edinburgh’s council leader, Adam McVey, said: “We’ve worked hard to find safe places to stay for everyone who is or becomes homeless during this pandemic. With our partners, we’ve already sourced 120 hotel rooms and 65 extra flats and, in a major result for the city, we now have no families with children living in B&Bs.

“We’ve successfully moved the families we care for into suitable flats – including properties sourced from the private sector. We’re also determined that this will remain the case for as long as the coronavirus crisis continues.

“This is a very challenging time and I’m pleased too that, with our partners, we’re able to support those families with welfare services, food parcels, and anything else they may need.”

Charities have urged caution that no permanent solution will be found without suitable properties made available – while First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the Scottish Government will expect accommodation to be found once the pandemic is finally resolved.

READ MORE: Coronavirus in Scotland: Cities ramp up support for homeless and rough sleepers

Sturgeon said: “We had already been working with local authorities on the homelessness and rough-sleeping taskforce that made a number of recommendations.

“We have been working with local authorities to build up the housing first approach to housing homeless people and rough sleepers – which is very much about moving people in settled accommodation and then putting other support services around them.

“We would want to see that kind of approach continue, not withstanding the coronavirus epidemic.”

In January, Housing Minister Kevin Stewart said he was “disappointed” at the lack of progress in moving children out of B&B accommodation in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Before the Covid-19 outbreak, there were more properties available in Edinburgh’s city centre as short-term lets than there were for traditional private rented homes.

But the short-term letting industry is warning that it is facing “unparalleled uncertainty” and that with Edinburgh’s five major summer festivals now cancelled, at a cost of around £300m to the city’s economy, many operators could well go out of business permanently.

Fiona Campbell, chief executive of the Association of Scotland’s Self Caterers (ASSC), said: “The major online travel agencies have been overriding hosts’ distinct cancellation policies and forcing full 100% refunds, even on non-refundable rates.

“If this occurs for the summer and they force full refunds against hosts’ policies, it will be potentially devastating for Edinburgh’s self-catering industry. Without the festivals, many operators will be bust.

“Contrary to some of the caricatures of our industry, many self-caterers have fairly modest salaries and need the income from their investment to make ends meet.”

The self-catering industry is worth £723m to Scotland’s economy, while tourism makes up 13% of it. Reviving the industry will be key to the country’s economic recovery after the pandemic.

Campbell added: “It's had a hugely benign impact on the city and its residents.

The impact will be seen when pubs, clubs and restaurants simply do not reopen after restrictions are lifted.

“While many have criticised the apparent ‘over-tourism’ within Edinburgh, the debate may soon shift to whether we have a tourism industry at all.”

Last week, Greens MSP Andy Wightman called for coronavirus emergency legislation to be expanded so that Scottish councils “explicitly have the power to requisition accommodation in connection with a public health emergency”.

But MSPs rejected the proposals – with Conservatives labelling the approach “communist” .

Campbell added: “The tourism sector as a whole is already taking measures to provide accommodation to those that need it most.

“Local councils are considering utilising accommodation that was previously used as short-term lets and many landlords are now enrolled in the City of Edinburgh Council’s temporary housing scheme.

“Others have offered vacant properties to key workers and displaced persons.”

Shelter Scotland, which has long called for the practice of homeless families and children being placed in unsuitable B&Bs to end, has welcomed the progress in Edinburgh, but has warned that a permanent fix is needed.

READ MORE: Edinburgh's economy set for £300m hit after festivals axed

Graeme Brown, director of Shelter Scotland, said: “We welcome the news that Edinburgh council has now moved all families out of bed and breakfast accommodation and into empty short-term let properties.

“This is consistent with our call to the Scottish Government to grant councils the necessary powers to sequester holiday homes as temporary accommodation for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Obviously this is only a temporary measure for the families involved and is not a long-term solution to their need for a permanent home.

“No-one should be without the security and safety of a home, and in the face of this crisis, everyone needs to be able to follow the health advice on staying inside and self-isolating.”

One woman has told The Herald on Sunday that she was having “major trouble” finding a place to live for her and her partner in Edinburgh – and took to social media in a bid to find a home.

She has now found a flat which was previously being used as a short-term let.

She said: “Frustratingly, most said ‘only until summer, and if you’re still interested we’ll be putting the price up’ to way beyond what we could afford   as I assume they thought the Fringe would be on and things would go back to normal.

“It was the one person we had contact with that was happy for us to be there on a ‘normal’ tenancy and be there longer term that we ended up taking on.”

READ MORE: Scotland has worst death rate for homeless in UK

She added: “It’s now strange moving into a gorgeous flat to live in, for below market rate as well, and taking great joy in removing the obvious short-term rent features such as instructions on checking in pinned on the door, and complimentary alcohol sitting in a room.

“Before this issue, we were planning on moving to Livingston, but thankfully we’ll be able to stay in my city of birth for a bit longer.

“It’s heartbreaking really – landlords know they can quadruple their income if they go down the short-term let route, so why would they let to normal people like me?”

Grant Campbell, director of Crisis Scotland, said: “It’s fantastic to hear that people experiencing homelessness in Edinburgh have been given somewhere safe and clean to stay during this outbreak.

“We know that people are frightened, so ensuring they have somewhere they can self-isolate and social distance is absolutely right.

“But that doesn’t mean the job is done. Authorities need to ensure that everyone is able to access food and support while they’re living in this accommodation.”

Campbell added: “There must also be a plan outlined as to how people will be given somewhere safe and stable to live once this crisis is over – we cannot have people left to return to the streets or to unsafe, unsuitable temporary accommodation.”

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