Amsterdam using Airbnb listing service to identify illegal rentals

Airbnb is a useful tool in the city's battle against illegal hotels, a city spokesman said

In a move that might dampen the popularity of Airbnb's site for Amsterdam, the city government is now using the accommodation listing service as a source of tips about illegal rental property.

"Airbnb is never a smoking gun," said Jan-Jaap Eikelboom, spokesman for the city of Amsterdam, regarding use of the service. But the government does use Airbnb and its competitors to compare its own nuisance data with street listings on sites like Airbnb, and has been doing so for a while, he said. This combined information can come in handy when investigating suspicious buildings and can help with spotting illegal activity, he said.

Individuals in Amsterdam are allowed to rent out homes they own as bed-and-breakfasts (B&Bs) to a maximum of four people if they abide by certain rules. The B&B, for instance, must be registered with the city in advance, the person renting the home must keep business records and only 40 percent of the floor area of the house can be used for B&B activities.

While this probably makes a lot of the more than 3,900 Amsterdam homes and rooms for rent on Airbnb illegal, the city isn't planning to crack down on individuals that are subletting their homes when they are on vacation, Eikelboom said. But there are entrepreneurs who abuse listing websites to make money, for instance by renting housing that is subsidized by the government, and that is a bigger problem, he said.

If the city plans to enforce the regulations, sites like Airbnb are a "very good source of information for us," Eikelboom said. "We can use Google too," he said. "Basically, you could say we use the Internet as an information source."

While Airbnb isn't the only site used by the city, it is probably the biggest, said Eikelboom. Wimdu, for instance, only lists 46 accommodations in Amsterdam.

Contrary to published reports, the city isn't banning Airbnb and could not do so even if it wanted to, he said.

"At the moment we suspect that there are 200 to 300 illegal hotels in the city," said Eikelboom, who couldn't confirm published reports suggesting the number of illegal tourist accommodations might be as high as 2,000. "But if you look at the amount offered at a site as Airbnb, it is likely to be higher than our estimates, we know that," he said.

Illegal hotels are often unsafe and a nuisance for neighborhoods that have to deal with more noise and garbage in the streets, the city's Center District said in June last year, when it first announced it would crack down on illegal accommodations for tourists. Running an illegal hotel is also an "extremely lucrative business," conducted at the expense of residents, businesses and regular hoteliers, it said at the time.

Most illegal hotels are located in the city's center, especially in the Red Light District. In the past three months, the Center District closed 10 illegal hotels because they were violating fire safety rules, said Eikelboom. Other illegal accommodations couldn't immediately be closed because of fire regulations, but the owners face high penalties if they do not comply with the city's demand to stop operating as a hotel.

The city is planning to resume its hunt for illegal hotels next week, and will certainly use all the information it can get, including information available on Airbnb, Eikelboom said.

Airbnb didn't reply to a request for comment.

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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