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Exclusive: Banned rogue landlord under council investigation for listing properties on Airbnb

Holiday lettings firm removes listings after Cable investigation uncovers evidence showing Naomi Knapp’s homes have been available to let on its website, via a third party.

Investigations

At least nine Bristol properties owned by a woman banned from operating as a landlord in the city have since been let out for months on Airbnb via a third-party agent, the Cable can reveal.

Naomi Knapp, who owns around 30 properties in Bristol, mostly in the south of the city, was banned from operating as a landlord in August 2022. The banning order of five years, which Bristol City Council applied for, came after Knapp was convicted of a series of breaches, including poor upkeep of communal areas and fire safety, and fined £22,000 in 2021.

After Knapp’s unsuccessful attempt to appeal the banning order, her third-party property management companies – RentRight and Next Home Solutions – issued tenants of at least 11 houses with section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions in September, in order to empty her properties by 1 December. 

I was one of those tenants that had to scramble for somewhere new to live, despite local opposition councillors calling for a Special Interim Management Order to be put in place to avoid evictions. 

But now the Cable can reveal that at the same time Knapp was banned from taking on new tenants and was required to evict existing tenants, she was advertising her properties on Airbnb through a third-party host. 

Knapp’s properties, some of which had previously been found to be in substandard condition, were listed on the holiday lets site at least as far back as July, when she was still allowed to operate as a landlord, but not bring in new tenants. 

It remains unclear whether using Airbnb is a breach of the banning order, or an unfortunate loophole that landlords can exploit. Bristol City Council is now investigating a potential breach of Knapp’s banning order after being informed about the Airbnb listings in August. 

After the Cable approached Airbnb for comment on this issue last week, the company investigated and has now removed the listings from the site along with the profile of the host, who as of earlier this month had around 70 listings. 

‘She shouldn’t use them as Airbnbs – they’re not suitable’

“While I was living there, there was a leak in the bathroom and it made the ceiling collapse on one of the rooms.”

Bee is one of Knapp’s former tenants. Between January 2022 and the end of June this year, they lived at 29 Aubrey Road in Bedminster, while working full-time for finance company Hargreaves Lansdown. The property on Aubrey Road is one of the properties that was the part of Knapp’s conviction as a rogue landlord due to substandard living conditions.

As part of the banning order, Knapp was forbidden from taking on any new tenants. It is perhaps because of this that less than a month after moving out, Bee’s former house appeared on Airbnb, advertised by a third-party agent. Data from Inside Airbnb, a website that collects stats on listings in cities around the world, shows that the first review for the Aubrey Road listing was posted on the site on 30 July.

“It was being advertised for [around] £200 a night… so much money,” Bee says. “In the winter there was black mould, which just made everyone in the house quite ill. We had an inspection in the house which found that one of the walls was 34% damp,” which is more than double what is considered healthy.

“She shouldn’t use them as Airbnbs – they’re not suitable,” says Bee.

The Aubrey Road property as listed on Airbnb this summer – not long after long-term tenants left.

As of 12 October, the property on Aubrey Road was being advertised for £362 a night. Bee’s rent was raised from £460 to £510 a month during the course of their tenancy, despite what they describe as a refusal to fix the house at the same time as the increase. 

Bee and many of their former Aubrey Road neighbours complained to Airbnb about the house appearing on the site, and its proximity to Ashton Gate stadium made them concerned about attracting overly rowdy crowds to the residential street. 

Through cross-referencing photos from the Airbnb profile with Google Maps images and confirming property ownership on the land registry, the Cable found a further eight of Knapp’s properties advertised on the same Airbnb profile.

A room in one of Naomi Knapp’s properties in Bedminster listed on Airbnb.

These were on Lynton Road, Merionreth Street, St Dunstans Road, Russell Road, Fitzgerald Road, Dartmoor Street, Wingfield Road, and St John’s Lane. With the exception of Russell Road, all are in Bedminster. The properties on St John’s Lane and Dartmoor Street were the sites of various banning order offences that led to the application of the banning order.

Last week, the Cable sent a request for comment about our findings to various parties, including Knapp and Airbnb, which said it would investigate the issues. A few days later, between 8 and 11 December, the profile listing the properties disappeared from the site. The Cable understands that Airbnb removed both the listings and host profile. 

A loophole for landlords?

Because of the recent implementation of landlord banning orders, it remains unclear whether landlords switching to the largely unregulated world of Airbnb is legal or not. The Cable spoke to a number of housing law academics, but there was a lack of consensus on whether using Airbnb would represent a breach of the banning order.

The banning order, under the Housing and Planning Act 2016, prohibits Knapp from “letting housing in England; engaging in English letting agency work; and engaging in English property management work”. It also bans Knapp from being involved in any “body corporate” that carries out any of the above, or acting as an officer for such bodies.

The banning order does not specify whether engaging with short-term lets such as Airbnb are permitted or not. As of August this year, the council seemed similarly confused. 

This case perfectly demonstrates the ability of rogue landlords to exploit the largely unregulated field that is short term lets

Nick Ballard, ACORN

In response to an email from a resident to the council about 29 Aubrey Road appearing on Airbnb from early August this year, a council officer said: “We are aware of the listing on the website Air BnB website and are currently seeking legal advice on whether this activity is included within the limits/scope of the legislation that the Banning Order was made under.” 

The Cable asked Bristol City Council whether advertising properties on Airbnb represented a breach of the banning order, what the authority had done to investigate this, and if it would be taking any action. 

The council declined to comment and said it was unable to provide information relating to Knapp’s banning order because it was currently in the process of investigating potential breaches.

This comes amid much local discussion of Airbnbs in the city. There are nearly 1,700 empty homes being rented out on the site, according to the latest data collected by Inside Airbnb. This represents almost two-thirds of the total listings across the city. 

Last year, the Cable investigated residential landlords switching to short-term lets – both on Airbnb and rental listing websites like RIghtmove. One example was a family of experienced landlords who were renting five luxury flats on Fishponds Road on a short-term basis that were listed for a combined total of £18,500 a month. The landlords had previously become the target of a campaign by community union ACORN after one of their tenants had to move out of one of their flats after severe damp and mould made them ill. 

Chris Bailey is the national campaign manager at Action on Empty Homes, a group that has been calling for greater regulation of the growing short-term lets market. He told the Cable: “It’s often said that Airbnb and short lets are the Wild West end of the rental market. With no regulation of safety or standards and the opportunity for landlords to make huge returns while housing no one.

“So it’s no surprise that we see landlords who don’t care about creating homes taking property out of residential use to let on Airbnb. What might surprise readers is that landlords banned from renting property still seem to be able to make money out of renting on short let platforms like Airbnb.

“This illustrates why it is so important that we see a robust national register of short-lets with the opportunity for councils to access all the data on landlords, properties and  earnings – so that local enforcement can be meaningful and have teeth. 

“As it stands we risk creating false incentives for the most unethical and exploitative landlords to move to short let platforms to hide from the scrutiny of local council licensing and regulation, taking more housing out of residential use in the process; and worsening the housing crisis in Bristol and across the country.

The government is currently drawing up regulations for implementing new powers to regulate short-term lets in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act.

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Nick Ballard, head of ACORN housing union, said: “This case perfectly demonstrates the ability of rogue landlords to exploit the largely unregulated field that is short term lets.

“As part of our campaigning around this issue, ACORN is calling for mandatory licensing for short term lets by local councils, supported by proper funding and resourcing from central government. This would allow councils to identify issues such as this one, meaning they could prevent banned landlords from continuing to make money from renting out properties when they shouldn’t be.

The Cable contacted Knapp about the findings of this article, but did not receive a response. 

Have you been affected by this issue? Contact the Cable in strict confidence: matty@thebristolcable.org

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