Sitting at her kitchen table, a shellshocked Cherylyn Houston reflects on an ordeal that is finally over. It all started in September 2021. Houston, a 42-year-old secondary school teacher, opened the door to find her landlady on her doorstep. “She said: ‘I’m really sorry. My circumstances have changed and I need to give you six months’ notice. I can get four times as much money on Airbnb and I’d like you to leave, ideally by March, so I can start the new season.’”
At the time, Houston was living in a four-bedroom cottage in the village of Dinorwig, in the county of Gwynedd, north Wales. Houston, her two teenage children and their stepfather had lived there since January 2020 and never been late on their £800-a-month rent. She pulls out her phone. “Christmas was heaven,” she sighs, pausing on an image of the spacious kitchen with a flagstone floor and log-burning stove. “You’d just snuggle down and close the curtains.”
Dinorwig is just 15 miles from the foot of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon), Wales’s highest peak, which draws at least 600,000 visitors annually. Gwynedd is a landscape of craggy peaks and mirrored lakes, coursing waterfalls and heather-covered hills, a place where the beauty of the natural world is underpinned by a shared reverence for the region’s mythology, history and language. About 77% of the population speak Welsh, the highest percentage in the nation. The fourth branch of the Mabinogi, the 11th-century prose collection generally acknowledged to be the earliest in British literature, is set in Gwynedd. The medieval Welsh giant Rhita Gawr, felled fighting King Arthur in battle, is said to be buried under a cairn of stones on the summit of Snowdon.
Houston knows all too well the astonishing appeal of this part of the world. She grew up in the nearby village of Tregarth and spent her childhood camping and foraging in the surrounding countryside. “I wanted my children to grow up here, not in the safety of a trampoline park,” she says. “They need to know the dangers of fighting your way through a bog to get home.”
But the allure of this region, so steeped in Welsh history and culture, is also why the landlady knew she could quadruple her income if she evicted Houston and her family. And she was far from alone. Exclusive analysis from the Guardian, using data collected by the campaigning project Inside Airbnb, reveals that Gwynedd has some of the highest concentrations of Airbnbs in Great Britain*, after well-known hotspots including north Devon, Cornwall and the Lake District. The Abersoch area, for example, has the seventh-highest overall, with 14 Airbnbs for every 100 properties.
Houston was devastated to be asked to leave her home – she had planned to live there until the children finished secondary school – but she was initially hopeful she would find another rental quickly. After all, she and her husband, a self-employed builder, had a budget of between £800 and £1,200 a month for a three-bedroom house, and strong references. Their only criterion was that the children would be able to get a single bus, or walk, to their school.
Between September and February 2022, Houston viewed at least 20 properties. She applied for anything within budget and near enough to her children’s schools. She was turned down again and again – from every property. On Facebook, renters in similar situations counselled her to offer 12 months’ rent upfront, or go £300 a month over the asking price. This wasn’t an option: she had only enough for a security deposit and £1,200 was her absolute limit.
In desperation, Houston lowered her standards. “You start to doubt yourself and think: ‘Maybe I’m just really stuck up and expect too much,’” she says. She began bidding for properties that were in poor condition. “Gardens with waist-high grass and doors with punch holes in them.” But even these attempts were unsuccessful. Houston came to the end of her tenancy in March 2022 with nowhere to go. “It was terrifying,” she says.
This is how Houston, her daughter, 16, her son, 13, and her husband found themselves in a situation they had never dreamed of – in emergency accommodation in a dilapidated B&B. Houston and her husband slept on a sofa and single bed in the kitchen-living room, while her children took the bedrooms. There was dried vomit on the carpet and no hot water or washing machine, so for four months the family showered at a nearby gym and gave their laundry to family and friends.
Her ordeal ended only in mid-June, when Gwynedd council offered the family a three-bedroom council house in the village of Deiniolen. “We’ve come through it,” says Houston, sighing with relief. I visit days after the move. The house has been freshly painted and re-carpeted. There are stacks of boxes in the master bedroom, waiting to be opened, and piles of freshly folded laundry.
After so many months without a home, or basic amenities like a washing machine, the property feels miraculous. “It’s ridiculous,” she says. “Just seeing washing on the line and washing my hands in warm water feels like heaven.” She cried the first time she hung clothes to dry in the garden. But trauma does not evaporate with the scent of laundry detergent. Houston is on sick leave from her school, due to the stress, and at times as we speak appears close to tears.
“We were pushed to the point of desperation … it still hasn’t quite hit me. I cry every now and then. It’s gradually working its way out of my system.”
The Airbnbs of Gwynedd are not hard to spot. Locals look out for combination lock boxes outside former fisher’s cottages and converted chapels. Windows are unadorned by the ordinary stuff of family life: there are no toys, framed photos or heirloom candlesticks. Instead, the properties have winsome, if implausible, names. “You know what gets me,” says Craig ab Iago, reversing at high speed down a single-lane road bounded on each side by drystone walls. “There’s no willow here, but it’s called Willow Cottage!” Ab Iago is taking me for a tour of the village of Talysarn. “Every other house on this road will be an Airbnb or a second home,” he says.
Talysarn and the neighbouring villages of Penygroes and Nantlle were once the centre of the slate industry. In the 1850s, horses pulled railway carriages to the harbour at Caernarfon, for export by sea. But with the collapse of the industry and the flooding of the quarries in the 1970s, the area fell into economic decline. The descendants of former quarrymen migrated for work and their cottages were bought cheaply as second homes. Now, the second tranche of out-of-towners hoping to snap up a two-up, two-down cottage for a song has arrived in Talysarn: the Airbnb landlords.
“Every year, hundreds of thousands of tourists come here and queue to go up that mountain,” says ab Iago, gesturing in the direction of Snowdon. “And there isn’t necessarily any respect shown to us. A house goes on the market that would be perfect for a local couple and instead it’s Airbnb-ed in a second.” Ab Iago is Gwynedd council’s cabinet member for housing, responsible for a £77m, seven-year housing plan that aims to tackle Gwynedd’s escalating housing crisis. “It’s like sticking a plaster on a gaping wound,” he admits.
Pre-Covid, ab Iago would get a phone call once a month from a constituent asking for help with their housing situation. Now, it is every day, as 3,800 people wait an average of two years for a property on the social housing list. “Most of the time, they’re being kicked out of a private-rented house so it can be used for an Airbnb,” he says. Those in a position to buy often find themselves gazumped by capital-rich investors hoping to diversify their incomes with an Airbnb property. “No one here can afford to buy a house,” says ab Iago. “There are no family homes available. And when they are available, they go for £300,000.” The average salary in Gwynedd is about £28,000.
That day, I had visited ab Iago at home in the nearby village of Penygroes. I tell him that my bemused taxi driver had asked me what could possibly bring me to this part of the world; there was nothing, he insisted, worth visiting in Penygroes. (After the collapse of the quarrying industry, the town’s largest employer was a toilet roll factory, which went bust in 2020.)“Nobody wants to come here,” agrees ab Iago, explaining that, for a short time in 2016, the village was notorious for the murder of a young mother. Only, now they do. There is an Airbnb on the same road as ab Iago’s family home, a sloping street of pebbledash houses unlovely other than for their expansive views of the mountains and the Irish sea. “If it’s in Penygroes, it’s everywhere,” he says, sighing.
He insists that he is not anti-Airbnb, per se: “Anyone who complains about Airbnbs and is a tourist themselves is a hypocrite. Airbnb is a really useful way for someone to rent out their house. But not in an unregulated system where we’re not building any houses.” And it is certainly true that Airbnb is not the only platform to enable short-term holiday rentals in north Wales. Ab Iago is trying to buy back properties sold off cheaply by the council through the right-to-buy policy. “It’s depressing,” he says. A council that has to justify each purchase to the public on the basis of value-for-money cannot compete with cash-rich private investors. “A house goes on the market,” says ab Iago. “We look into it. It’s bought that day by someone on the internet, for cash. They haven’t ever seen it. We can’t compete with that. Unless we control the planning side of things, we are just swimming against the tide.”
In 2021, Gwynedd council imposed a 100% council tax increase on second homes, with the intention of dampening the second homes market. (This will increase to 300% from April 2023.) But most Airbnb owners simply designate their home a small business and pay small-business rates, which can work out lower than council tax. “We have to accept that,” ab Iago says, darkly. “Our planning system is just crazy.”
A fortnight after we first speak, Wales’s first minister, Mark Drakeford, sets out a package of planning reforms. The Welsh government will introduce three new planning use classes – primary homes, second homes and short-term holiday lets – by the end of the summer. Local authorities will be able to require planning permission to change a property from one use class to another. Airbnb owners will have to apply for a licence to run a holiday let.
When I call ab Iago for his take on the proposals, he is less euphoric than I expected. “The fact that we’ve got the government agreeing with us that there’s a problem, that’s a massive difference, isn’t it?” he says. “It’s the difference between no hope and some hope. But do I think it’s enough? No, I don’t.” What is also needed, he says, is more social housing and genuinely affordable properties for first-time buyers. “We’re in a housing emergency,” ab Iago says. “And this isn’t the response to an emergency.”
Across Gwynedd, Ian Wyn Jones watches over passing traffic. His smirk is adorned on for-sale signs outside terrace houses and static caravans, new-build flats and 1950s bungalows. But despite his ubiquity – I spot a sign every few miles in my drive around the county – the man himself is in poor spirits.
“It’s having a major impact here,” Wyn Jones fumes. “It’s not good. He needs to sort himself out. I’ll be honest.” He is referring to Drakeford’s recent announcement, which is already dampening the second-home and holiday-let market across Gwynedd. This time last year, says Wyn Jones, who runs his own estate agency, he sold 90% of the properties he listed within a month. This year, half haven’t sold. Other estate agents, says Wyn Jones, are similarly affected. “A lot of people are selling up because they’ve had enough,” he says. “I know what Mark Drakeford is trying to do, but he’s not doing it right.”
We are meeting in Wyn Jones’s office, in an industrial estate on the outskirts of the city of Bangor. His face also stares at me from headed letter paper and a billboard above his desk, so that I have the feeling that I am interviewing not one Wyn Jones, but several. He insists his objections are not motivated solely by self-interest, but concern for the wider good. “I am thinking about the whole economy,” he says. “Without tourism in north Wales, we have nothing. All these new regulations are just hurdles. People will think: ‘I’ll look elsewhere. I won’t be bothered.’” (Tourism contributes at least £1.4bn to Gwynedd’s economy annually and supports 18,244 jobs in the area. However, only 16% of all enterprises in the county are tourism-related.)
Pre-planning reforms, it was all going well for Wyn Jones. “The market has been absolutely crazy since Covid,” he says. About 20% of all the properties he sold, says Wyn Jones, were for Airbnb purposes. “They were just flying out,” he says. “People weren’t even seeing them.” Last year, he put on the market a four-bedroom property in Llanberis, the hugely popular village used as a base for walkers climbing Snowdon, for £350,000. It sold within the day, to be used as an Airbnb property. Another property, a three-bedroom for £200,000, “sold in three hours to an Airbnb person”, Wyn Jones says. “They drove right across from Manchester to see it.” It is not uncommon for properties to go for £30,000 or £40,000 above the asking price.
Not all Airbnb properties go to English investors, however. Wyn Jones says that he often sells to people from north Wales who are looking to develop a second income. Wyn Jones connects me with one, who is trenchant in the face of criticism. “It’s here to stay now,” says Adam (not his real name), a 45-year-old investor who owns two Airbnb properties and is in the process of buying a third. “It’s not going anywhere. The people who complain about it – why don’t they try to profit from it? I have friends that clean Airbnbs. They can get £50 a shift. People just want to complain, don’t they? The people who complain don’t do anything.”
Before he got into Airbnb, Adam rented out his properties to locals. “I had a heroin addict in one house,” he says. “Never again.” With Airbnb, he says, “you get your house back in a few days, usually in a good condition”. He is dismissive of the argument that Airbnb investors are pricing out first-time buyers. “The people who complain, they want to live in Llanberis,” Adam says. “Why don’t they buy a house in Deiniolen for £80,000? You can get a 95% mortgage as a first-time buyer. If you can’t find £4,000, you aren’t trying very hard.” (According to data from the website On the Market, the average price paid for a property in Deiniolen was £146,000, up 25.5% in the past year.)
Wyn Jones is more sympathetic to first-time buyers. “When we were first-time buyers, we were scared to get an £80,000 mortgage,” he says. “Now, they’re looking at a £150,000 to £250,000 mortgage straight away. That’s scary.” Is he part of the problem? “To be honest, this is how I look at it,” Wyn Jones replies. “I dread to think. I have a son; he’s 15. How is he going to get on the property market?” But his solutions appear contradictory. “I want to protect the first-time buyers, but I also want to make sure the Airbnbs can come on the market,” he says. I suggest those might be irreconcilable ambitions. “Yeah,” Wyn Jones shrugs. “That’s the problem. The Welsh government needs to do more. They need to help the first-time buyers more.”
The Welsh government’s efforts to tamp down the Airbnb market through planning reform have attracted blowback from predictable quarters. “Policymaking must acknowledge that not all accommodation providers are the same and not all forms of tourism are created equal,” said the tech giant in a statement. “There is a big difference between buy-to-let speculators and hosts who occasionally share their homes on Airbnb to afford the rising cost of living.” It pointed to a 2020 Airbnb-funded study that found that Airbnb visitors supported more than 3,500 jobs in Wales. “The majority of hosts in Wales are everyday families who share their primary home and rent their space for just three nights a month on average,” the statement went on. “More than four in 10 hosts in Wales say they host to afford the rising cost of living, and over a third say the additional income helps them make ends meet.”
“It’s giving people in the local community work,” says Zoë Males, a 43-year-old Airbnb host from Newtown, in Powys, mid Wales. “I use a local guy to deliver my firewood. My cleaners are local; they live literally in the next village.” We are sitting outside the two-bedroom property in Trefor that she rents out for £819 a week. The property lies on a picturesque street of stone cottages, bisected by a burbling stream bounded by verdant foliage. Ten minutes’ walk away is Trefor beach, which lies on the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula, a designated area of outstanding natural beauty.
Males bought the cottage at auction last year for £86,000 and spent £10,000 renovating it. Within 48 hours of launching the listing in June 2021, it was booked out for the summer. She is sanguine about the Welsh government’s planning reforms. “I think if it means we regulate all the houses that are sitting empty, then it’s a good thing,” she says. She is likewise unfazed by the requirement for Airbnb owners to apply for a licence. “We expect that in a hotel, don’t we?”
As we sit outside the cottage in brilliant sunshine, listening to the stream, I ask Males whether she worries that this street might one day be entirely Airbnb rentals. “If there was a half-and-half mix, even, that would be fine,” she says. Has she experienced any pushback from the community? “Everyone’s been really lovely,” she says. “I haven’t had anyone being funny or grumpy about it.” She appears taken aback by the question and asks me where the criticism comes from. Mostly Facebook, I respond. “I think with Facebook, the people who are sat there all the time just moaning and whinging, it’s because they’re not doing anything else,” Males says, brightening. “I’m really busy.”
There is one thing that everyone I speak to agrees on, whether estate agents or locals: no one wants a repeat of Abersoch. “Abersoch is somewhere that has been destroyed, not by Airbnb, but by second-home owners,” says Wyn Jones. “Go there in winter and it’s a ghost town.”
He is referring to the Llŷn peninsula village where a four-bed detached house can fetch £2.2m and beach huts have been known to go for £191,000. In 2020, 46% of the housing stock in Abersoch consisted of second homes or holiday lets. This year, Gwynedd council closed the village’s primary school, because there weren’t enough locals to justify its cost.
The next Abersoch will most likely be in Morfa Nefyn, just 12 miles away, on the north coast of the Llŷn peninsula. Nefyn Bay is calm and clear, as beautiful as any beach in Cornwall or Devon. Overlooking the water is a golf club where elderly English ladies drink tea in the morning and gin in the afternoon. When I visit at 5pm, dog walkers traipse up from the beach and fishers haul in their whelk catch. A mile to the east lies the more affordable village of Nefyn. “People in Abersoch are selling properties and purchasing in Morfa Nefyn,” says Rhys Tudur. “So people in Morfa Nefyn are forced into Nefyn and young people in Nefyn are forced out of the area completely.”
Tudur is a member of Gwynedd council and a former chair of Nefyn town council, in addition to being a member of Hawl i Fyw Adra, a housing activist group whose name translates as “the right to live locally”. A 31-year-old solicitor, Tudur was born and raised in Morfa Nefyn, but no longer lives there, as property is too expensive. About 22% of homes in the Nefyn area are second homes or holiday lets. Nefyn residents, says Tudur, have had enough. “They are extremely pissed off. But it’s directed more towards the authorities than anything else. Because they have the power to change the situation.”
Tudur has brought along his fellow campaigner Gruffydd Williams, 63, who is also a member of Gwynedd council and was born and raised in Nefyn. The two men make an unlikely double act. Tudur is smartly dressed, in a shirt and pressed jeans, and speaks carefully, like the solicitor he is. Williams is a freewheeling presence in wraparound shades, a former art student and squatter who likes to joke about the English, but always caveats these jokes by pointing out that his mother is English.
In the afternoon, they had taken me on a tour around Morfa Nefyn, talking over each other as they pointed out the Airbnbs and second homes. “This one is called Ty Clyd, which means ‘cosy house’,” said Tudur, bitterly, of one holiday cottage. “It’s not a cosy house for anyone local.” Outside a three-storey block of flats with glass-fronted balconies, Tudur looked disheartened. “I don’t know anybody who lives here, to be honest.”
There are 805 properties listed around Nefyn or Morfa Nefyn on Airbnb, but no properties available online for long-term rent. “The rented accommodation in the private sector is all getting converted to Airbnb now,” says Williams. “People get served a section 21 notice to quit and the painters and decorators move in and, lo and behold, it’s turned into an Airbnb.” Tudur rejects the argument that Airbnb rentals pump cash into rural communities. “It pisses me off … there should be a distinction between sustainable tourism and tourism that deprives local people of a home,” he says.
What becomes apparent from speaking with both men is that Airbnb is simply the latest iteration of a crisis that has plagued Gwynedd for a half-century, albeit tech-enabled for a digital age. This is a part of the world that has always been beloved by English second-home owners. In the mid-70s, Williams took part in student protests against holiday homes in the village of Rhyd. “We’d smash in and do a sit in,” he says, dreamily. “The cops would come and mishandle you and throw you into the back of a black Maria [police van].”
In the late 70s and into the 80s, the Welsh nationalist group the Sons of Glyndŵr committed a string of arson attacks against English-owned second homes. “One of the first properties to go on fire was up there,” says Williams, standing on a bench and pointing at the hillside above Nefyn. I ask Williams whether he remembers watching it burn. “No,” he says with a grin. “I wasn’t here. Nah. It was nothing to do with me.”
Even if Airbnb has simply accelerated an existing trend, that is not to say that this moment does not feel particularly urgent. Both men, committed Welsh nationalists, see the platform as an existential threat to their identity. These are the Welsh-language heartlands, where Welsh is taught as the primary language in schools. Or at least they were – everyone is anxious about what the 2021 census will reveal about the percentage of Welsh speakers still resident in Gwynedd. “It’s all we’ve got left really,” says Williams. “The language.” When he hears children speaking in English in the playground, it pains him.
“In 10 years, will this be an Airbnb village?” says Tudur, as soft light sets over Nefyn Bay and children with wet hair gambol on the beach. “I hope not. That’s why we’re fighting as much as we can to preserve what we’ve got. Language is the most important aspect of our culture, of the Welsh identity. We will do our utmost to preserve it.”
*The data analysed by the Guardian was for Airbnb whole-property listings, as listed as of May 2022 and council-tax registered.