The Super Landlords of Disneyland

As your social media feeds drown with Houst adverts, the Evening News led this week with a story by Jolene Campbell revealing that nearly a tenth of private rented properties in Edinburgh are owned by just 15 “super landlords” (‘New figures reveal tenth of private flats in Edinburgh owned by ‘super landlords’ amid growing fears about soaring rents’).

The report – the result of a FOI – exposed what Bella has long been arguing, that the Short-Term Lets (STL) sector – and in particular Air BnB – has destroyed communities and exacerbated an already terminal housing crisis.

The Evening News revealed that just fifteen registered landlords own around 5,300 private rented properties across Edinburgh. One landlord owns 1,010 properties while over a dozen others own more than a hundred properties each, according to a Freedom of Request (FOI).

While the article caused consternation much of it was of the “How could this have happened?!” variety there was scant awareness that this was a policy and a strategy that has been encouraged for years. The Scottish Government’s economic strategy is heavily weighted to growing tourism. In their tourism strategy, drawn up in conjunction with ‘industry partners’, ‘Scotland Outlook 2030: Responsible tourism for a sustainable future’ details plans further growth. Tourism is viewed as an ever giving ‘cash cow’: “In 2018, spending by overnight tourists and day visitors in Scotland was around £10.4 billion. This generated around £12 billion of economic activity in the wider Scottish economy and contributed around £7 billion to Scottish GDP”.

Edinburgh, is central to these growth plans, given its the country’s key ‘visitor attraction’. Both the Festival and Fringe have long acted as a tourism draw. Perhaps no surprise then that the Fringe boasts Airbnb as an ‘official partner’, and the city-plan focuses on enabling further tourist growth.

The housing crisis the Evening News reports isn’t some mistake, some accident, it’s the logical consequence of that policy, it’s the plan. The “Super Landlords” aren’t an aberration they’re a class.

This is not a regulatory failure rather it’s an ideological triumph.

Definition: Rentier capitalism is a term currently used to describe the belief in economic practices of monopolization of access to any kind of property (physical, financial, intellectual, etc.) and gaining significant amounts of profit without contribution to society.

But as Brett Christophers, professor in the department of social and economic geography at Sweden’s Uppsala University, puts it:

“The main problems with rentier capitalism are twofold. First, rentiers are inclined to sit on and sweat their income-generating assets, rather than innovate; it is a recipe for economic stagnation. And second, because incomes accrue disproportionately to the asset-owning elite, it is an engine for growing inequalities of both income and wealth. You only have to look at the London housing market to see that process in action.

Rentier capitalism is not unique to contemporary Britain. It exists, and has existed, much more widely, geographically and historically. But, courtesy of policies that have been almost unimaginably rentier-friendly since the 1970s, the UK is rentier capitalism’s apotheosis, where its prototypical ills – vast inequalities combined with entrenched stagnation – are on full display.”

We know this is a deliberate policy because they told us.

Gordon Robertson, chair of Marketing Edinburgh, elected by nobody, has called for the “Disneyfication of Edinburgh” a process which is well under way.

Robertson says: “Having been in Disney this year with my family, I’m not so sure Disneyfication is a bad thing? At least they’ve invested in their sites, they have a plan, it provides thousands of jobs, their well-trained staff provide a fantastic experience and they’re extremely profitable which is used to invest back into the product.”

Adam McVey, Leader, City of Edinburgh Council spells it out for you across the scenes of a destroyed public space:

“Nostalgia doesn’t create good policy. Nostalgia dragging you back to a year that is gone and a place and time that is gone doesn’t give you a good way of looking to the future. The only thing that gives you a good way of looking to the future is looking at what you want to achieve and taking meaningful action on how to get there.” 

The capital’s housing crisis is a lucrative one. It springs from an entire city-wide strategy which is designing a city for people who don’t actually live there. The Airbnb publicity mantra “Live like a local”, thus rings hollow when there are now in many places no locals.

One of the central concerns against over-tourism is the knock-on effect on the physical infrastructure of the city – from the planning obsession with high-end hotels – to the infestation of Airbnb that means that people who already own a house buy a second, or third property solely to rent it out. Whole stairways that used to support mixed communities now find that they have become an unregulated hotel block courtesy of Airbnb – resulting in a permanent turnover of party tourists with no commitment to, or interest in those living around them. It’s not their fault, but the unregulated short-termism of this phenomenon blights and changes whole neighbourhoods. It’s telling that in the data visualisation of Airbnb below (click to enlarge) the only blank areas you can make out – are the remaining public spaces – the Meadows, Princes Street Gardens and the Castle.

When you pare it all back you realise that the council has basically sacrificed ‘housing’ to allow fifteen people to engorge themselves in grotesque profit.

If you do a very basic ‘back of the envelop’ calculation each of these 15 landlords , if we assume an even split, owns 353.3 houses. With the current average house price in Edinburgh standing at about £293, 406, then each of these holdings average to just under £157 million.”

Edinburgh five years ago was well aware of what was coming given the Airbnb issues reported in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin and Paris. But rather than trying to set in place provisions to limit its impact, both the city and government welcomed it with open arms. Now Edinburgh is riddled with such a clandestine network of housing scams and businesses feeding off the massive STL industry it’s difficult to see any change to this disastrous policy. Scottish Government regulation has arrived very late in the day, perhaps explained by their overriding ambition to further feed of the ‘cash cow’ that is tourism. The notion of retrospective action against such landlord interests now seems fanciful.

The emergent housing system is now destroying the entire city, but then housing is merely representative of the grotesque levels of inequality that have been allowed to grow in our society. But housing does play a key role here given it’s position as a store of untaxed wealth.

Comments (20)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    I have been reading Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights by Juno Mac and Molly Smith (Verso, 2018) which is interested in how legal regimes affect power relations (such as landlord’s rights) and sex worker safety (like the ability to share flats without falling foul of anti-pimping criminalisation). So ‘Disneyland’ is not the first thing that came to mind when I read about concentrations of flat ownership. Apparently legal changes in places like the Netherlands can result in oligarchies of rich brothel owners. Anyway, I sought out what Edinburgh Council might have to say about such things, and there is a section beginning with Another Way in some Covid-effects notes:
    I note that Mac and Smith were critical of the exit services they described. Anyway, their major point, well made, is that in their primary focus, women sell sex largely (and as a survival strategy if poor and marginalised) because they need resources; and one of those resource needs could be housing. And reducing the availability of (or increasing gatekeeper power to) housing is one way in which these women will become more desperate or pressured to sell sex (I think Blindboy devoted an episode to housing injustices like sex-for-rent). I have no idea whether sex tourism is part of Edinburgh’s allure, I just went there for the book festival, the beer and the protests. Of course, Disneyland surely has its dark underbelly too.

  2. Graeme McCormick says:

    Very interesting article. The issue is that short term lets have been allowed in residential tenements. If there was a prohibition on STLs accessed by common closes that would have a major impact as only main door and basement flats with separate entrances would be SLTs.

    The new regulatory system should have that prohibition. That would mean that a lot of flats would come on the market for self occupation.

    Another point is that many basement flats in traditional tenements are so small that the size of the bedrooms don’t comply with current minimum building standards but they do meet the size for hotel bedrooms. So there is a logic to allow STLs in basement flats .

  3. Doghouse Reilly says:

    A very fair assessment of the situation and not just in Edinburgh. Our politicians and policy makers are complicit (many are also landlords).

    The Scottish government has agreed that “one decent home per household takes priority over second homes and investment returns on property” (housing to 2040 vision and principles).

    They have also published a draft rented sector strategy for consultation, the principle quoted above gets no mention.

    Unless the demand to break the power of landlords and property becomes utterly overwhelming nothing will change.

    Hard to hear for some I’m sure but if you rely on the Scottish government’s apparent commitment to a “fairer Scotland”, our housing system and our economy will continue to serve only the wealthy.

    Time, as Conter has recently suggested, to stop making excuses and take the Scottish government and for that matter one or two councils to task.

  4. BSA says:

    Nostalgia ? Is that as good as their case gets ? How has a moron like McVey ended up running Edinburgh ?

    1. Wul says:

      Leader of the Council McVey said:

      “The only thing that gives you a good way of looking to the future is looking at what you want to achieve and taking meaningful action on how to get there.”

      If the people of Edinburgh (whom McVey represents) decided that they wanted to achieve living neighbourhoods over life in a theme park, what “meaningful action on how to get there” might they take? Would McVey support them?

      1. 220219 says:

        The city government has a long track record of consuming independent neighbourhood initiatives, which look at what they want to achieve and take meaningful action towards achieving it, through its funding regimes. We won’t get local democracy until we get participatory budgeting, whereby citizens themselves decide directly how to spend the public budget in their neighbourhoods.

    2. 220219 says:

      He got to be leader of the city government because the people of Edinburgh elected an SNP administration.

      “Spending by tourists in Scotland generates around £12 billion of economic activity for the wider Scottish supply chain and contributes around £6 billion to Scottish GDP, representing about 5% of total Scottish GDP. The tourism industry in Scotland supported more than 217,000 jobs in 2015, accounting for around 8.5% of employment in the country.

      “[The Scottish government has] identified tourism as a growth sector in our economic strategy (2015) where we can build on existing advantages to increase the industry’s productivity and growth.”

      Cllr McVey is just following the party line in growing Edinburgh as a tourist destination.

      But none of this matters; the priority is surely Independence. All these issue can be sorted out once we’ve secured the Magic Ticket.

      1. BSA says:

        Strategy and operation are different things and local government should be capable of delivering national strategic objectives without creating a situation such as afflicts Edinburgh. You have it from the horse’s mouth that McVey thinks opposition to the creation of such a waste land is just nostalgia, an opinion so asinine that I doubt the Scottish Government would own it. A change in ScotGov’s attitude to local government would be a better response here than some crude determinist connection between SNP/independence and every local disaster.

        1. 220220 says:

          Indeed, a change in ScotGov’s attitude to local government would be welcome. Local government shouldn’t be about ‘delivering national strategic objectives’; it should be about delivering local priorities as determined by the people who elect those governments.

          And of course McVey – and the SNP/Labour minority coalition more generally – is culpable for the situation that afflicts Edinburgh. He’s indeed made a pig’s ear of delivering in Edinburgh his party’s national strategic objective of increasing the tourist sector’s productivity and growth by prioritising that objective over local needs.

          The people of Edinburgh will have the opportunity to remove him and his administration at the upcoming local elections. It will be interesting to see whether they do or whether the national strategic objective of making ScotGov independent of UKGov will trump the desire to restrict rentierism in the Edinburgh housing market.

          1. BSA says:

            What will trump local government and any desire to restrict rentier capitalism in Edinburgh is the fact that the British parties have made successive successive local government elections very loudly and deliberately about the constitution because they have no policies at any level for Scotland. That was not the work of the SNP but they will be the beneficiaries in Edinburgh and everywhere else. It is just facile to blame every problem on the SNP’s independence objective as if any long overdue challenge to the British State was somehow deviant and an attack on the natural order of things. Labour’s failure to challenge the British State is the major reason for their long term failure. Whether you like it or not there will not be much fundamental progress until the constitutional issue is settled.

          2. 220221 says:

            ‘…there will not be much fundamental progress until the constitutional issue is settled.’

            That sounds like passing the buck. There’s much Edinburgh’s SNP/Labour administration could do to address the housing issue in the city regardless of whether Scottish government is independent of UK government or not; the constitutional issue is a bit of a red herring in that respect.

            Sadly, however, the constitutional issue does tend to dominate even local politics, to the neglect of almost everything else. Maybe it’s a distraction we do need to get out of the way before any progress can be made on more immediate local issues.

  5. Jon says:

    Without an organised alternative, the same people will keep getting elected to the council and the same things will keep happening. Is there time for a new ‘party’, focussed on solving the city’s housing crisis to appear on the council election ballot papers? Independents are all very well but to be significant in council decision making this alternative would need to stand in several, of not all, of the city’s wards. Too fanciful an idea?

  6. Graham Colville says:

    You mean…when you pare it all back…(pare not pair).

  7. David B says:

    “The notion of retrospective action against such landlord interests now seems fanciful.”

    Can anyone clarify this? Reading the STL control area consultations, it looks to me that ALL residential property STLs, including those currently operating, will require a change of use planning application. However someone I was talking to (who lives in the proposed Strathspey control area) seemed to think it was only properties that change after the control area is introduced.

    1. Doghouse Reilly says:

      It’s complicated, but my understanding is that there is nothing in the licensing scheme that can be used to reduce numbers. In fact the existence, or otherwise, of other short term lets in an area isn’t taken into account in deciding on a licence. But the suitability the property for use as STL could be a factor though it’s not clear if that extends to the built form. Basically most councils will approve the licence applications of all the STLs currently operating. They won’t have a lot of choice and both the platforms and the SG in the form of the Cabinet Secretary have made it clear they don’t see any need to look to hard.

      The planning consent is slightly different in that planners can treat flats differently from houses in some circumstances but as a rule planning activities with an “established use” can’t be challenged later.

      Some existing STLs are likely to be covered by this. But more pertinent, any owner, or thier platform will be able to challenge every individual decision in the courts. Council can’t make blanket policies, they have to treat every application it’s merits. They may be able to say that flats in closes will usually be considered unsuitable. But they are likely to have to defend any individual decision in court.

      Do not expect the STL platforms to give up without a fight. There is a great deal of money to be made and they see no reason why the housing needs of others should get in the way of that.

      1. David B says:

        Thanks, that’s a really useful explainer.

  8. Niemand says:

    Excellent article which succinctly nails the problem. And it is a big one, from city to country and increasingly, the world over. I remember when AirBnB first appeared and it was then mostly people advertising a sofa or their spare bedroom via the site for a quick city stay. How times change so quickly once it is realised big bucks are to be made. Casting the ‘Disneyfication’ of Edinburgh as a good thing says it all when the word ‘describes the processes of stripping a real place or thing of its original character, and represent[ing] it in a sanitised format . . . In the case of physical places, this involves replacing the real with an idealised, tourist-friendly veneer’ (Wikipedia), something that is actually in process in the city. Though the truckers in Ottawa are hardly a model, a mass blockade of Edinburgh during Festivals’ season with the cars of such locals that are left would be interesting . . .

    Small point – I could not enlarge the data-visualisation AirBnB image but that might just be my browser.

  9. Stephen Cowley says:

    The 15 landlords may not be “fifteen people”.

    Some may be pension fund vehicles, directly or indirectly (like Blackrock in the USA, which also invests in property).

    In which case you can “blame the Boomers”.

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