Flat Bandits

More than a thousand journalists from all over the world gathered in the Italian city of Perugia in April 2022 for the International Journalism Festival. We used the opportunity to find out if they fell prey to “flat bandits” – landlords profiting off tourists while robbing students and others of affordable housing.

By Marc Engelhardt and Sophia Stahl

When you walk through Perugia, even during festival season, it's impossible to miss the fact that the city is home to thousands of students. About 26,000 of them are enrolled at the University of Perugia. Despite the student community, the Umbrian city's population is aging. Over the past 30 years, the number of inhabitants over 75 has doubled. The elderly who spent most of their lives in the old town have left the labyrinthine and steep centro storico and moved to the outskirts. But their empty apartments remained. So a new generation of inhabitants, including students, seized the opportunity: “It took me three weeks to find a flat of 90 square metres in the centre that costs me 500 Euros a month”, said Luca Ferrero, a journalism major. “The rental market is relaxed.”

His flat had previously been rented through AirBnB. But when tourism all but collapsed during the pandemic, Ferrero’s landlady decided to rent to someone long-term again. Today, with the easing of pandemic regulations, visitors are once again flocking to Perugia. The same is true for students, who will have to compete for the same flats. The large number of vacancies in Perugia could also attract investors who see apartments as pure investment opportunities. So we decided to investigate: Are vacation rentals offered online driving residents out of the city centre?


Booking a place for the night while travelling is inextricably tied to a few online portals. That is also true for Perugia. AirBnB, for example, lists about 300 accommodations in the city, ranging from a couch in a local’s living room to entire villas on the outskirts. During the International Journalism Festival, only four accommodations within a 30-minute walking distance from city centre were still available. Another website, Booking.com, usually offers more than 150 accommodations during off season. During the festival, 96 percent of those were booked, according to their website.

While festival organizers reserve hotel rooms for those speaking at the conference, other attendees must arrange their own accommodation. The fact that more than 400 AirBnB and Booking.com listings were reserved during the festival suggests that many conference goers found accommodation through those sites.


Through a CrowdNewsroom addressed to participants of the #IJF2022, we set out to learn more about the state of short-term flat rentals in Perugia. Among survey participants who booked a flat or room in a flat, almost everyone said that they had their accommodation to themselves and that no one seemed to live there permanently. Most of those respondents said their flats were devoid of personal belonging or attributes. In several cases, there was no name on the buzzer and the flat lacked basic kitchen items such as a cutting board and knife, pots and pans, salt and pepper or cooking oil – key indicators that a flat is used solely for touristic use. Photos from respondents confirmed their responses.

On average, people paid over 80 euros per night, with prices ranging from 39 euros for a simple room to 180 euros for a stunning apartment in Perugia’s old town. These rates show why renting to tourists is a lucrative affair: In many cases, property owners can make more money in a week renting to tourists than in a month renting to people living, working or studying in Perugia. As a result, they deprive the latter group from places to live. Which is why we call them “flat bandits”.

 

60% of the landlords don't live in the city

Dario Nardella, mayor of Florence

In many Italian cities, flat bandits have taken over large swaths of the historical old town. In Florence, mayor Dario Nardella said he deplores the “aerification” of his hometown. According to him, 20% of the flats in historical Florence are rented to tourists, creating fierce competition for long-term residents as well as for established hotels. A 2017 study commissioned by the city found over 8,000 such flats, more than in any other Italian city. “And I like the fact even less that 60% of the landlords don't live in the city”, Nardella said in a recent interview. “They make money off of what was built in the past without contributing to the city's wealth.”

Nardella's hands are tied because the practice is not illegal. That being said, the city of Florence made a deal with AirBnB which requires landlords to pay a 20% city tax. A new law will also require all Italian flats rented for touristic purposes to be registered in a central government database and for their landlords to pay the relevant taxes. As of April 2022, the law is not yet in effect.


Participants of the Perugia CrowdNewsroom also told us about specific challenges they faced. One respondent described their flat as “smelling badly” and “full of mold” and said that the pictures online did not reflect the state of the apartment. Another participant booked a flat online only for no one to show up for their check-in. They then had to find one of the few hotel rooms left. 

The Perugia CrowdNewsroom lasted three days. Had it been a long-term investigation, we would have delved further into peoples’ stories and questions of building ownership. We would have sleuthed for the types of patterns that reveal systemic issues, like we did for the “Who owns the city?” investigation.

However, we restricted our research to the length of the festival, in part to show festival participants how a crowd-sourced investigation works from start to finish. It was conducted in English and Italian. The results are not representative. 

Although the 2022 International Journalism Festival is over, you can still log into the Perugia CrowdNewsroom to experience how it works. You don’t need to be in Perugia, simply tell us about your latest experience staying in a flat rented through the internet. If you would like to know more about CrowdNewsrooms happening in the future, you can share your email in the survey or sign up for updates on our homepage.

 

With contributions from Christiane Bueld Campetti, Florence, and editorial support from Max Donheiser.