Airbnb & social tenancies

Introduction

Short term “holiday lets” through companies such as Airbnb, Booking.com and HomeAway are increasingly common, and their use (and overuse) has attracted the attention of legislation and legislators, particularly in London.

On the social housing front, there has been much comment of late concerning a county court case in which the City of Westminster obtained a possession order against one of its (former) tenants because of his use of his local authority property (he had been reportedly advertising the local authority property on the Airbnb website since 2013, and indeed had received more than 300 reviews). Permission to appeal that decision was refused.

The two issues which attracted most publicity were:

(a) The size of the unlawful profit order (UPO) subsequently made, frequently misreported as a ‘fine’.

(b) The fact that the sub-letting alleged and proved was by way of the Airbnb bookings, rather than the more “usual” and “traditional” longer-term tenancy arrangement.

Unlawful Profit Orders

To enable a UPO to be made in a secure tenancy case, section 5(3) of the Prevention of Social Housing Fraud Act 2013 (“the 2013 Act”) provides the requirement that the tenant:

“(a) in breach of an express or implied term of the tenancy, has sub-let or parted with possession of—

(i) the whole of the dwelling-house, or

(ii) part of the dwelling-house without the landlord’s written consent,

(b) has ceased to occupy the dwelling-house as the tenant’s only or principal home, and

(c) has received money as a result of the conduct described in paragraph (a).”

In other words, in the Westminster case it must have been sufficiently demonstrated (as well as the obvious receipt of money from the Airbnb activity) that:

  1. The tenant was no longer living at the demised premises as their only or principal home.
  2. His use of Airbnb represented either a sub-letting (which the reports of the case suggest) or a parting with possession.
The issue

It is the second of those issues that has for some time led to questions as to whether such activity as allowing Airbnb-style activity is sufficient to constitute sub-letting or parting with possession. Or indeed whether the occupants are rather lodgers of sort or licensees. The reason for such questions often surrounds the short-term nature of the individual booking, and whether that impacted upon the nature of the occupation (see Koumetto below, and paragraph 57 of the court judgment).

It should be remembered at this point that in a different factual scenario, such as where a tenant allows an Airbnb-style “guest” to stay in the premises at the same time as them, or even where they move out for the period of one or more bookings without having any other “principal home”:

(a) There may still be a breach of tenancy condition (or even perhaps a sub-letting, if only of part, though see the “lodgers” section below), allowing for a possession and/or injunction claim – social landlords may well wish to bring their tenancy agreements ‘up to date’ to expressly address this form of property use, if they haven’t already done so, where existing terms are insufficiently clear. To illustrate the benefits, in Koumetto (see below) the Australian case of Swan v Uecker [2016] VSC 313 was cited, and Croft J there ended a judgment with these concluding remarks at [80] (emphasis added): 

“…the context provided by the terms of the particular apartment lease are important. Although this apartment lease is a residential lease, many commercial leases restrict the tenant from sub-leasing, assigning the lease, granting any licence to occupy all or part of the leased premises or otherwise parting with possession without the landlord’s prior consent. Broad terms such as this would prevent, for example, sub-letting or licensing without the landlord’s consent and would avoid the need—as in the present case—to characterise the nature of the same arrangement like the AirBnB arrangement for occupation of the whole of the leased premises as a sub-lease or a licence 

(b) No criminal offence is committed under the 2013 Act – section 1 (secure tenancies) or section 2 (assured tenancies) – unless the tenant no longer lives at the demised premises as their only or principal home.

(c) Similarly, no (section 5) civil UPO is available if the tenant still lives there as their only or principal home (see above for the secure tenancy UPO conditions).

(d) Where there is sufficient evidence to show that the tenant has in fact moved out, and no longer lives at the subject premises as their only or principal home, then the only benefits in seeking evidence of parting with possession/sub-letting as well are:

  • It could help in demonstrating a criminal offence had been committed.
  • It would allow a UPO to be sought.
  • It avoids the possibility of the tenant preventing the termination of their tenancy following the service of a notice to quit by returning to live at the premises prior to its expiry: Hussey v Camden LBC (1995) 27 H.L.R. 5 at 7, and sections 93(2) and 15A of the Housing Acts 1985 and 1988.
Lodgers

If a tenant has a lodger, this will not be treated as a sub-letting, and by definition the tenant remains at the property and cannot therefore ordinarily be said to have parted with possession (though see the reference to the case of Stening below).

Woodfall, Landlord and Tenant says at 1.028:

“The occupier of apartments is not a tenant unless the premises are exclusively let to him, which distinguishes such a person from a lodger…The use of the expression “lodger” connotes that the lodger must lodge in the house of another person and lodge with him; if a householder retains to himself the general control of a house, with the right of interference, a person who occupies a part of that house would seem to be a lodger. The word interference simply means that the householder must retain sufficient control of the accommodation as to prevent the lodger from having exclusive possession.”

By way of example, in Monmouth BC v Marlog (1994) 27 H.L.R. 30, where a person shared a council house with the tenant, each having their own bedroom, under an informal rent sharing arrangement, the Court of Appeal held that the natural inference to be drawn from this was of a licence rather than sub-tenancy.

In Aslan v Murphy [1990] 1 W.L.R. 766 Lord Donaldson said at 770F-G:

“The occupier has in the end to be a tenant or a lodger. He cannot be both. But there is a spectrum of exclusivity ranging from the occupier of a detached property under a full repairing lease, who is without doubt a tenant, to the overnight occupier of a hotel bedroom who, however up-market the hotel, is without doubt a lodger. The dividing line — the sorting of the forks from the spades — will not necessarily or even usually depend upon a single factor, but upon a combination of factors.”

(Secure tenants have an unconditional (statutory) right to take in lodgers, and can also sub-let part with consent: see section 93(1), Housing Act 1985.)

However, when moving away from the traditional concept of lodgers and considering use of the premises for one or more licensees whilst the tenant lives elsewhere, in Stening v Abrahams [1931] 1 Ch. 470 Farwell J cautioned against a simplistic take that a licence cannot be a parting with possession at 473:

A lessee cannot be said to part with the possession of any part of the premises unless his agreement with his licensee wholly ousts him from the legal possession of that part. If there is anything in the nature of a right to concurrent user there is no parting with possession. Retention of a key may be a negative indicium, and the authorities on the whole show that nothing short of a complete exclusion of the grantor or licensor from the legal possession for all purposes amounts to a parting with possession. The fact that the agreement is in form a licence is immaterial, as the licence may give the licensee so exclusive a right to the legal possession as to amount to a parting with possession.

The conclusion I would draw from the above is that, subject to the precise terms of the Airbnb or similar arrangement, it cannot readily be concluded that the “guest” is occupying by way of being a lodger even where the tenant remains in occupation. That view is compounded by my conclusion on the issue of sub-letting or parting with possession.

Sub-letting or Parting with Possession?

As therefore for whether an Airbnb-style arrangement can be seen as a parting with possession or subletting, and acknowledging the case-law ‘background’ of Stening outlined above, at paragraph 32(5) of the judgment of Ward LJ in Clarence House Ltd v National Westminster Bank plc [2010] 1 W.L.R. 1216, referring to a series of judgments, including Stening and Lam (see below), the basic principle was set out as follows:

“This stream of cases is consistent with the notion that a leasehold covenant against parting with or sharing possession is concerned with the question of whether the tenant has allowed another into physical occupation with the intention of relinquishing his own exclusive possession of the premises to that other.”

Sir Harry Gibbs had said as to such general principles behind parting with possession, in Lam Kee Ying v Lam Shes Tong [1975] A.C. 247 at 256C:

“A covenant which forbids a parting with possession is not broken by a lessee who in law retains the possession even though he allows another to use and occupy the premises. It may be that the covenant, on this construction, will be of little value to a lessor in many cases and will admit of easy evasion by a lessee who is competently advised, but the words of the covenant must be strictly construed, since if the covenant is broken a forfeiture may result”.

Demonstrating the potential difficulties in demonstrating either sub-letting or parting with possession, Stening and Lam were again (as with Clarence House) both cited in the Court of Appeal authority of Hussey already referred to above, a case where the local authority sought possession on sub-letting grounds – the tenant living away from his flat at times, whilst third parties were conversely in occupation of the flat on occasions too. Leggatt L.J. said in delivering the main judgment of the Court in allowing the tenant’s appeal, at p. 11:

Airbnb use was expressly considered in Bermondsey Exchange Freeholders Ltd v Ninos Koumetto (as Trustee in Bankruptcy of Kevin Geoghehan Conway) [2018] 4 WLUK 619, an appeal against an injunction granted to prevent the use of a leasehold flat for short-term rental or commercial hire. HHJ Luba QC, who I understand heard the permission to appeal application in the Westminster case, said in obiter remarks (given that the relevant lease clause below prevented allowing others into possession, as well as the more formal sub-letting, etc):

“56. Despite Mr Hanham’s attractive submissions that a decision that there had been an ‘underletting’ was not open to her, I am not satisfied that there were the necessary features here to displace the presumption from Street v Mountford that the provision of exclusive possession of premises to another for a period and for payment for that period constitutes a letting.”

The Judge was, at that part of his judgment dismissing the appeal, dealing with the clause of the subject lease which provided that the tenant covenanted:

“Not to part with or share possession of the whole of the Demised Premises or permit any company or person to occupy the same save by way of an assignment or underlease of the whole of the Demised Premises”

Crucially and typically HHJ Luba QC addressed the particular nature of Airbnb head-on, as he followed on from paragraph 56 of his judgment cited above:

57. Neither the short duration of the arrangement, nor any notional provision for ‘services’ (such as leaving the flat stocked with material from which to assemble a breakfast or other meal), nor reservation of a right of entry, nor any combination of those features, displace that presumption from applying to an Airbnb-style arrangment.”

The district judge at first instance had found that the arrangement represented a parting with possession and HHJ Luba QC therefore rejected the appellant’s argument, as set out at paragraph 48 of the judgment:

“As to the first limb of the sub-clause, he contended that the Judge had been wrong to find that the nature of the arrangements made with occupiers had been lettings akin to holiday lets. He submitted that the arrangements that had been in evidence were those entered into with Airbnb and they did not amount to tenancies but only licences. There had thus been neither parting with ‘possession’ nor sharing of ‘possession’. The Judge had been wrong in law to hold that the arrangements amounted to lettings or any parting with or sharing of ‘possession’.”

Subject to the precise terms of arrangement it seems to me that there is a strong argument against characterising the occupation of any such ‘guest’ as a mere licensee such that there could be said to be no sub-letting or parting with possession.

Conclusion

Congratulations are rightly due to the City of Westminster and their legal team in obtaining possession in the case which opens this blog. What the above shows however is that the housing/legal status of an Airbnb or similar booking is not without some uncertainty and argument.

Whilst there may ultimately be a case on this issue in the higher courts, the reality for a local authority or private registered provider of social housing (or registered social landlord) is that their concerns will focus on those tenants moving away from their properties with a view to raising money by such arrangements as took place in the Westminster case (though that is not to say that “tenant-remaining arrangements” should not and do not justify vigorous investigation, and raise related issues such as benefit fraud, property condition and anti-social behaviour).

They may secure possession of the relevant property, as already explained, without needing to show a sub-letting or any parting with possession. But should they choose or need to adopt the Westminster route then with the usual caveats there are positive indications that such action could be taken, and taken successfully.