Guerrilla warfare warning over holiday lets in apartments


Oh, you said 'guerrilla' warfare. I thought you said ... never mind

Oh… ‘guerrilla’ warfare? I thought you said … never mind

Bogus by-laws, sneaky shut-outs and strangulation with red tape are all likely to be employed to keep holiday lets out of apartment blocks that don’t want them, say Sydney’s building managers.

Even outright vandalism is being predicted should the NSW government follow through on proposals to force apartments blocks to accept short-stay rentals such as those organised by online agencies like Airbnb and Stayz.

Building managers, strata managers and committee members say they know this is going to happen – because it already is.

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“Any apartment block that really doesn’t want holiday lets can stop them, regardless of what the law says,” said one building manager who, for obvious reasons, asked not to be named.

Under current strata laws, owners corporations can only legally ban short-stay lets if their buildings are zoned residential. But the government is considering a proposal that would make holiday lets exempt from zoning restrictions, specifically including apartments as well as stand-alone houses.

However, hundreds of apartment blocks are already blocking holiday lets, even though their by-laws may not be strictly legal and some buildings aren’t even zoned residential only.

One tactic is to cancel electronic access keys to doors and lifts “for security reasons” whenever one set of guests moves out. They are only reactivated when, for instance, the owner shows up to sign obligatory “change of lease” forms and the new guests have provided photo ID.

This is all, of course, dependent on someone being around who has access to the computer to reactivate the keys. Clearly, the general idea is to make life as difficult as possible for the holiday guests and, by extension, the landlords, so that they eventually give up.

There are other, more subtle, tactics too.

“The majority of owners made it clear that they didn’t want holiday lets so they passed a by-law that says only permanent residents could use the facilities,” says the manager of a zoned mixed use multi-storey block on the North Shore.

“We then cancelled the electronic key access to the swimming pool, gym and car park for everyone except resident owners and long-term tenants.

“Holiday guests turn up having been promised resort facilities but they can’t use them.  Then they go online and give the host or the building a bad review.”

The hosts soon get sick of people complaining that they aren’t getting what they paid for, says Jeff, who adds that the building’s other residents and on-site staff happily provide angry tourists with the host’s phone number and email address.

“We had one landlord, he was going to take us to the Supreme Court and get us all sent to jail. He was going to get a strata manager appointed, he was going to sue for loss of income, whatever.  But whenever the case got close to the Tribunal, we delayed and deferred and generally dragged our heels.

“Eventually he had lost a lot by not having any tenants in at all, even residential ones, so he gave up, sold out and took his business elsewhere.”

Jeff admitted he believed by-laws blocking access to common property facilities were “probably invalid” but it was up to the holiday let landlords to prove it.

The temptation for apartment landlords to convert to holiday lets is huge, with rents of three times or more achievable, especially in peak holiday periods.  But if the vast majority of owners don’t want them in the building, life can get very uncomfortable for them and, especially, their guests.

“I’ve heard of one building where they even cut off access to the lifts to non-residents on so-called security grounds,” said a strata manager who also declined to be named.

“Can you imagine a family getting off a plane and being told they have to take 10 or 15 flights of stairs.  Welcome to Sydney.”

One senior manager of a firm of on-site managers of several large buildings around Sydney told Fairfax Media that having spent years chasing bad owners around various tribunals, the shoe was now on the other foot.

“We’ve become experts in finding loopholes and dodging orders because badly behaved residents have been doing it to us for years.

“When my people get landlords screaming at them, they tell them there’s nothing they can do and they should take it up with the committee. The committee says they believe they have the right to do such and such, so take it to the tribunal. It usually stops there.

“If it did go to the tribunal, the owners might change the by-laws – they might even change the committee – but the result would be the same,” he laughed.  “When it comes to ducking and diving and finding loopholes in the law, we’ve learned a lot over the years from bad owners.”

The changes proposed by last year’s parliamentary inquiry into updating holiday letting legislation included suggestions that apartment owners could be given additional avenues to pursue bad short-stay tenants and their hosts.

But critics say that puts all the onus and, especially, costs on to the owners corporation to police the problem while the holiday letting hosts are making all the money.

“The strata committees, who are untrained volunteers,  would need to police it, take photos, note dates, keep financial records, issue warnings and start actions in NCAT,” says Catherine Lezer a director of strata management umbrella body Strata Communities Australia NSW.  “This is unreasonable to expect of volunteers with no training.

“A sense of community is one of the joys of strata living; some buildings do this well, some do not.  But by forcing neighbours to spy on neighbours the state government is creating the environment for a breakdown of the sense ‘community’ within strata blocks.”

Meanwhile, it is by no means set in stone that the government will pass legislation compelling apartment buildings to accept holiday lets.

“This issue has generated a range of competing interests and our job is to navigate an outcome from those interests,” Victor Dominello, Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, who also has strata matters in his portfolio, told Fairfax Media last week.

“The Committee that oversaw the Inquiry into short-term holiday letting recommended a number of changes to strata law which we are currently considering.”

Asked about growing demands that the majority of owners be allowed to ban short-stay lets from their buildings, an Airbnb spokesman said: “We respect the right of individuals to do what they want with their homes.”

Regardless of whatever law changes are made this year, it’s clear that some buildings will do whatever it takes – legal or otherwise – to keep holidaymakers out of their hallways.

One long-time former Eastern Suburbs strata committee chairwoman told us that chasing absentee owners and long-gone tenants through the Tribunal process was time-consuming, frustrating, costly and had no guarantee of success. She said that, as a result, neighbours could be tempted to take matters into their own hands, some going as far as criminal damage.

“When it comes to stopping holiday lets, superglue in a lock works faster and more effectively than any laws or by-laws,” she warned. “It’s going to be open warfare in some buildings.”

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