Stuck at home in the UK during the pandemic, Tim Pritchard was thrilled to accept a friend’s invitation to his Spanish villa to spend a few days relaxing in the sun.
Like many in these financially testing times, Tim hoped that renting out his three-storey North London home on short-term letting agency Airbnb while he was away would cover the cost of the break.
So when he was contacted by ‘Josh’, a 24-year-old graduate who said he needed somewhere to sleep while visiting relatives for three days, and who transferred over the £400 payment via Airbnb, Tim left the country believing his home was in safe hands.
But just as he started to de-stress by the pool on the second day of his trip, he got the sort of text no one wants to get on holiday. ‘Did you know there was a massive party in your house last night?’ read the message from a neighbour. ‘Police called. Neighbours understandably very unhappy.’
Tim Pritchard, 55, was faced with the nightmare of a short-term tenant trashing his house with a party of 160 friends while he was on a short break to see friends in Spain
The message was followed up with a link to a BBC news story that included a video taken by another neighbour. It showed more than 50 police spending two hours trying to break up a party attended by more than 160 people. The saga carried on until 3am.
‘First I felt shock,’ says Tim, 55. ‘Then gut-wrenching concern. It looked like a zombie apocalypse. At the back, my garden was crammed with young people. There was no social distancing and none were wearing masks. At the front, they were arguing with police officers who’d issued a closure notice and had to cordon off the street.’
Tim returned home two days later to find his home in the quiet, well-to-do street littered with alcohol bottles, drugs paraphernalia and used condoms, as well as an estimated £3,000 worth of damage to his carpet, furniture and garden.
But what’s also concerning about the recent spate of parties like this, made possible on short-term letting platforms, is the unseen damage to Covid-19 infection rates.
Tim left the country believing his home was in safe hands with 24-year-old graduate ‘Josh’. But on the second day of his trip, he was sent horrifying footage of 50 police officers trying to break up a party attended by more than 160 people at his house
As the Government enforces three-tier restrictions across England to limit the spread of the virus, Tim is one of many homeowners who have found their properties used as hit-and-run party venues.
These gatherings are illegal under Covid-19 rules because they rapidly spread the virus among young people, who are most likely to pass it on due to a lack of symptoms and a cavalier attitude to social distancing.
Yet with pent-up youngsters having spent seven months largely unable to socialise with their friends amid lockdown, curfews, nightclub closures and the Rule of Six, some fear the latest restrictions — which mean millions are no longer able to even visit a bar or restaurant with anyone outside their households — could further encourage such behaviour.
In August Airbnb, which is based in San Francisco, announced ‘a global party ban’, in the form of an occupancy cap of 16 and a bar on under-25s renting properties near where they live, though the company has not yet given a definition of ‘near’.
‘First I felt shock,’ says Tim, 55. ‘Then gut-wrenching concern. It looked like a zombie apocalypse. At the back, my garden was crammed with young people. There was no social distancing and none were wearing masks’
Tim returned home two days later to find his home in the quiet, well-to-do street littered with alcohol bottles, drugs paraphernalia and used condoms, as well as an estimated £3,000 worth of damage to his carpet, furniture and garden
The move came after authorities in cities including Toronto and Cincinnati, blamed raves at Airbnb-hired properties for stoking local infection rates. In New Jersey, the firm removed 35 ‘party houses’ from its listings after there was a 28 per cent rise in cases driven by young people. One outbreak of 65 cases was traced to a single party at an Airbnb-rented home.
Yet in this country, which has had up to 750,000 active Airbnb listings, there does not seem to have been the same level of decisive action by the platform, despite the fact the UK is just behind the U.S. for per capita coronavirus deaths.
An outbreak in Midlothian last month has been linked to a party with more than 300 people at a £1,600-a-night Airbnb mansion. Two weeks after the event, cases in the district went from zero to 54.
In response, Airbnb says the property was privately rented that night, has not been rented via them for seven months, is for hire on other short-term rental platforms, and they have removed ‘party houses’ from their listings. However, this week, the house was still for hire on Airbnb, along with dozens of other large properties in the region.
Another property hired through Airbnb in Carlisle Street, central London, was turned into a pop-up nightclub for three illegal parties on three weekends in July. Council officers closed it down and Airbnb now says it has ‘removed these guests from the platform’.
Nevertheless, local authority enforcement officers have still been playing a game of whack-a-mole to close down illegal gatherings.
In July, Westminster alone dealt with 30 complaints of illegal parties at properties hired from short-term letting sites, some of which appear to have been organised as money-making events. In August, they dealt with a further 12. Nor is it easy to break up such parties, which often expose council workers to guests who have taken drugs and take up valuable police time.
A father in Coventry complained that the smell of cannabis from parties in flats in his block hired through Airbnb was giving his asthmatic son, who was shielding from Covid, breathing problems.
These gatherings are illegal under Covid-19 rules because they rapidly spread the virus among young people, who are most likely to pass it on due to a lack of symptoms and a cavalier attitude to social distancing
Yet in areas of the UK placed in ‘high’ and ‘very high’ tiers, such as Northumberland, Newcastle and Greater Manchester — where different households are not allowed to mix indoors — entire properties are still available to hire on Airbnb for up to 16 guests.
The same week the Mail contacted Airbnb, they finally posted a warning on the UK pages, saying travel restrictions apply with a link to the UK Government website — but did not answer any further questions about the timing of this notice, despite repeated requests.
Airbnb initially also said the Rule of Six allowed for cases where a single household or support bubble was larger than six people, ‘meaning it is acceptable for a family of six or more to be together.’
But it seems no other changes have been made to the site other than a link to the Government website and limiting guests to 16.
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist from the University of Reading, has questioned why the company is not taking more responsibility.
‘Anything that allows or encourages the mixing of larger numbers of people is a potential source of spreading the virus. The more people you have gathered together, the greater the risk, particularly if they are younger people because this age (group) are more likely to have the virus at this moment in time.’
When Airbnb launched in 2008, the idea was simple. Hosts would advertise their property with pictures. Guests would pay them per night and Airbnb would earn a fee from both. But, from the start, the system was exploited. First came reports of property owners finding out their homes had been used as pop-up brothels.
According to the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Airbnb properties have also been used as covers for thieves to sell puppies bred from stolen dogs to make them look like they come from respectable, caring homes. And while there have been strict limits on tourist accommodation for guest houses and B&Bs recently, Airbnb landlords have been able to operate more freely.
According to David Weston, chairman of the Bed and Breakfast Association, Airbnb’s lack of responsibility in allowing the rental of ‘party houses’ puts guests, hosts and communities at risk. ‘It is about time these global platforms took responsibility for the safety of their guests, and their accommodation, and showed some respect for local communities,’ he says.
‘Airbnb claims not to be party to the contract between hosts and guests. But of course they do control the platform and who is on it, and they take, or enable, payment. Throughout lockdown we were hearing reports of Airbnb properties still hosting guests, while B&Bs and hotels were closed.’
Tim’s experience is proof that Airbnb’s existing cap of 16 and restrictions on under-25s are not enough to prevent chaos ensuing; Josh lived more than 60 miles away, and had simply chosen Tim’s home as a convenient location for all of his friends.
‘I have hired my house out around six times before on Airbnb and had no major problems,’ Tim explains. ‘I also checked Josh out on Facebook before I accepted the booking. He had a degree, a job in hospitality, looked OK in his photo and looked like he was in his late 20s, though I later learnt he had hired my house for his 25th birthday weekend.
‘When I messaged him, he was polite and said all the right things with all the correct spelling and grammar. In his emails, he said he wanted to use the house as “a retreat”, and claimed there wouldn’t be more than three people staying — himself and two cousins — and they’d be out visiting family most of the time.’
Tim admits he even felt sorry for him, knowing that young people have found lockdown and the consequent restrictions particularly difficult. ‘As it was post-lockdown, I assumed he and other young people like him just wanted to be able to get out of their homes and enjoy somewhere with a bit more space and a garden.’
Unfortunately, he was not to be rewarded for his kindness. ‘When I arrived home, I was reassured that the house was still standing and the computer speakers and music system were still there,’ he says.
‘But although there had been some attempt to tidy up, there were piles of empty alcohol bottles and dozens of overflowing bin bags. Then I start to notice other details — boot print marks all over the sofa, sodden mud and chewing gum-stained stair carpets.
‘There were weird bottle marks burnt into the kitchen table, broken garden masonry and decking, as well as drug wrappers and joints littering the garden. Inside, there were used condoms in the bathroom, and mud-stained bed sheets. Bottles and McDonald’s wrappers littered the street too.’
But while Tim assumed the fact the illegal party had made national headlines would mean Airbnb would bend over backwards to help make good the damage, so far he’s been proved wrong.
While Airbnb immediately agreed to pay to change the locks, send in a cleaner and offered him a hotel room for the night if he felt unsafe, what has followed has been a lengthy wrangle with the company to recoup the £3,000 of damage Tim says was done. So far they have paid £1,700.
‘The surprise for me has been how little responsibility Airbnb have been prepared to accept,’ Tim says. ‘This was traumatic not only for me but for the neighbours. This was as clear an example as you can get of guests abusing someone’s home — there was an horrific video, national press coverage and detailed photos of the damage.’
Yet perhaps what is even more concerning was Josh’s lack of remorse. As soon as he was told about the party, Tim desperately tried to get hold of him.
‘At first I was also terrified it was a scam and that he’d taken all my computers and cleaned out my bank accounts,’ he says. ‘So I kept ringing and finally he answered.
‘He sounded a bit dopey and kept saying it had been a small private do that had got out of hand because his friends hadn’t seen each other for a long time.
‘Word of the party had “just spread” and more people turned up than he was expecting, like it was nothing to do with him at all.’
Josh was equally insouciant about his guests lack of masks and social distancing. Tim says: ‘Although some of the guests did come with masks, he said they took them off because most of them knew each other. He told me, “Because most of us knew each other and we’d been in quarantine we all knew we were healthy”.’
As the party was in August, Josh looks unlikely to face a fine — which now stands at £10,000 for organising an event of this type.
Meanwhile Tim faces an on-going battle with Airbnb to get all the compensation he is claiming.
And as the UK tries to avoid a second total lockdown, across the country there may be more trouble ahead. ‘Given that we are not supposed to congregate in groups, it seems odd that Airbnb are still prepared to allow this on the platform,’ says Dr Clarke.
But when it’s so easy to flout restrictions on such platforms, it seems this won’t be the last we hear of Covid parties.
In response to the Mail, Airbnb says: ‘Airbnb is built on trust. Parties are banned on our platform and we have zero tolerance for antisocial or illegal behaviour, which is why we recently introduced new booking restrictions.
‘We will take steps against anyone who violates our policies, which may include legal action.’
In the week the Mail approached Airbnb it added this warning to the UK listings bookings page: ‘Travel restrictions: Due to Covid-19, there are Government restrictions in place, including limits on group sizes’ alongside a link to UK Government guidance.
- Josh’s name has been changed.