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Airbnb vs rental homes: Are short-term lets the cause of the ‘out of control’ housing problem in the Highlands?

Leading north voices join debate on whether the Airbnb boom is to blame for the lack of flats to rent in the region.

There are only 23 flats to rent in the Highlands compared to nearly 4,000 Airbnb. Image: Roddie Reid/DC Thomson
There are only 23 flats to rent in the Highlands compared to nearly 4,000 Airbnb. Image: Roddie Reid/DC Thomson

Five MSPs have shared their views on the “big housing problem” in the Highlands.

According to Rightmove property website, there are currently only 23 properties to rent in the whole region, 15 of them in Inverness.

A leading estate agent explained they get dozens of applicants for a property and close viewings after the first day.

Karine MacRae Simpson, Director of Tailormade Moves, told the Press and Journal they get around 40 applications for a standard two-bedroom flat.

She explained: “We close viewings once we have a suitable qualified applicant, which could be after the first day of viewings, or it could take a few days.

“After Covid, despite the rent cap imposed by the Scottish Government, average rents have increased dramatically.”

Meanwhile, the Highlands is the Scottish local authority with the highest number of Airbnb properties, with 3,567, according to the 2023 Airbnb Scotland Survey.

Airbnb’s website shows there are more than 700 short-term lets just in Inverness city centre.

There are only 12 flats for rent in Inverness compared to more than 700 Airbnb. Image: Airbnb
Karine MacRae Simpson, Tailormade Moves director said finding a flat for rent is a struggle due to the “lack of supply” and “huge demand.”

Meanwhile, Skye seems to be the largest Airbnb hotspot, with more than 1,000 across the island and nearly 200 just in Portree.

There are more than 1,000 Airbnbs in Skye. Image: Airbnb

A new short-term lets legislation came into effect in Scotland in October 2022, making it a requirement for new hosts to apply for a short-term license before accepting bookings or receiving guests.

It also allowed local councils to create control areas to manage high concentrations of short-term lets.

However, several MSPs and residents think these measures are not enough and believe further restrictions should be implemented.

Is Airbnb to blame for the Highlands’ housing problem?

The Press and Journal has asked five Highland MSPs if they think Airbnb is the main cause of the housing problem in the region.

Emma Roddick, Holyrood’s youngest MSP, explained constituents contact her regularly about not being able to afford to rent a property.

The SNP politician said: “People tend to get in touch with me to say they can’t afford anything, and lump rent in with council tax, electricity bills, and shopping.”

“It’s very clear to me – particularly as I rent as well – that the cost of housing is contributing to people just not having the money left at the end of the money for essentials, let alone some downtime.

She believes Airbnb and other short-term let schemes “are absolutely part of the problem.”

Ms Roddick, from Alness, said: “We often see in tourist hotspots where over half the housing is unavailable for living in because it’s been bought up for letting to tourists or lying empty most of the year as a second home.

“We have got a big problem to answer in the Highlands and Islands of unsustainable tourism and how to get the level of visitors to a manageable one.”

Newly elected MSP Emma Roddick
MSP Emma Roddick.

The 26-year-old thinks it is important to recognise that “there is such a thing as too many Airbnbs in one place” and hopes the Highland Council “uses the powers they have to place control zones”.

However, she accepts Airbnb is not singlehandedly causing the housing crisis, saying there is a need to “grow and replenish social housing stock.”

She said: “If social housing landlords and council houses had more availability, people would be able to make use of it more and not rely on the market and private landlords to provide this.”

Highlands housing ‘never been this bad’

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant also thinks “Airbnb is part of the problem” and says she has “never known the housing situation to be this bad.”

She told the P&J: “Rent prices since the pandemic have become eye-wateringly expensive and this causes more demand for social housing which is not readily available.

“House prices are also too expensive when considering that wages are not rising at the same rate. This results in more demand on the rented sector which some landlords exploit for personal financial gain.”

Regarding the Airbnb boom in the region, the Stornoway-born politician said: “The Highlands and Islands have rightfully made a name for itself as a beautiful destination to visit and long may that continue, however, it has led to a stark increase in the amount of holiday homes and Airbnb in the region.

MSP Rhoda Grant.

“This has led to locals being priced out of the market and good homes laying empty for most of the year.”

She believes the short-term licensing scheme “is a good step forward,” but would like to see “more done on balancing the amount of Airbnb with permanent homes.”

Similarly to Ms Roddick, she believes the Highlands need more social housing.

“Availability of land for social housing is an issue I would like to see addressed,” Mrs Grant concluded.

Could Airbnb lets be limited?

Conservative MSP Tim Eagle argues he is “sympathetic” towards the idea of limiting Airbnb in some towns in the Highlands and Moray.

He explained: “Findochty is a good example of this as many houses are second homes and Airbnb, which is causing issues for local families, and we are seeing the school role drop and impact on the shop in the town; there does need to be something done to address this.

“I’ve been contacted by doctors and trainee doctors who would like to work at Dr Grays in Elgin, but they cannot do this as no suitable rental accommodation is available.”

However, he thinks part of the problem with attacking Airbnb is that “huge amounts of the Highlands and Islands are reliant on tourism for jobs and local economy.”

MSP Tim Eagle. Image: Jason Hedges

When asked if he thinks the number of Airbnb should be restricted, he said: “Possibly yes, but I’m not sure what scheme needs to be put in place.

“It might be a better idea to find a support scheme for locals buying houses in popular communities for their own use rather than limiting Airbnb.”

Regarding the other causes of the housing crisis, he highlighted the increase cost of construction and the burden on landlords, which, he said, has caused many to leave the industry.

‘We need more affordable housing’

Scottish Green Party MSP Ariane Burgess said lack of access to affordable housing across the region “is a significant feature of discussions with constituents.”

The Edinburgh–born politician believes that “there is a place for short-term lets as tourism is a key part of the local economy.”

However, she added that “a balance needs to be struck between providing accommodation and creating homes for the workers needed to support that and other sectors.”

MSP Ariane Burgess.

The 58-year-old explained the introduction of control areas is a “key change” and said the legislation has been welcomed by short-term-let operators.

However, she admitted the new law was not welcomed by Airbnb.

She said: “Airbnb is the biggest player in the short-term lets market and lobbied strongly against the introduction of the legislation.”

‘Hundreds looking for homes’

Meanwhile, MSP Inverness and Nairn Fergus Ewing explained that he and his team have had “hundreds of cases of people looking for a flat or home.”

“There is no doubt that there is a real shortage of available properties,” he said.

However, he believes the lack of flats for rent is due to the new legislation being unfavourable to landlords.

MSP Fergus Ewing Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

He said: “The current lack of flats for private rent is partly because of a number of changes made to regulations: Tax reliefs have been removed, and rent controls introduced.

“This means many private landlords have chosen to withdraw from the market.”

The 66-year-old thinks building more flats would help solve the housing crisis in the region.

He said: “Over the next decade, the Highland Capital will see many major developments – roads, grid improvements, pump storage, renewables developments – all of which will see thousands more people looking for homes here.

“More new flats need to be built”.

An Airbnb spokesperson said: “The typical Airbnb Host in Scotland shares their home for just less than four nights a month and nearly half say the extra income helps them afford rising living costs.

“Since the licensing scheme has been in place, data has shown that rental and hotel prices have increased, tourism is expected to suffer, and families have lost a vital source of flexible income.

“Airbnb has worked with governments across the world to balance the benefits of short-term rentals with local housing concerns, and we hope to work with Scotland on policies that benefit everyone.”