Late last week, when NSW Planning finally released the new regulations on short-term holiday letting – aka STRA, aka “airbnb” – there was something to annoy everyone.
The proposals would have completed the missing part of the regulations announced last year, including the creation of a register of STRA properties and an “exclusion register” (or blacklist) of miscreant hosts, properties and guests.
Released on made on what is often known as The Friday Dump – or as TV show The West Wing called it “Take Out The Trash Day”, when unpopular policies are revealed so they can do least harm in the media – the plan would also have extended limits of 180 nights a year from Greater Sydney to some regional areas and cities.
The proposals included stringent – critics might say crippling – fire safety measures, and allowed apartment owners and tenants to let their units for up to 180 nights a year, regardless of by-laws banning holiday lets, provided it was their principal place of residence.
All of that, you will notice, is in the past tense because late on Tuesday night the government caved in to pressure from all sides and put the implementation of its plans on hold till November.
Part of the reason for the extreme reaction, both from supporters of stricter controls on short-term holiday lets and those who wanted looser restrictions, was the confused messages coming from Planning.
The Owners Corporation Network – the peak NSW body for apartment owners and committee members – was incensed that it appeared that the government had opened up Affordable Housing to be drawn into the holiday letting pool.
“The Minister has legalised Airbnb in the Affordable Rental Housing SEPP, disguising the mass transfer of critical housing to the tourist market,” said Owners Corporation Network spokeswoman Jane Hearn in an angry Press release.
However, in another day of confused messages, a Planning NSW spokesperson said that Affordable Housing could not be used for short-term lets but didn’t explain why the SEPP had been changed in a way thatseemed otherwise.
Even so, the OCN hit out at the government for facilitating the creation of “quasi-hotels”.
“It takes some chutzpah to give in to Airbnb and Expedia in the middle of pandemic, with house prices soaring, homelessness and housing shortages increasing. Meanwhile, licensed tourist accommodation is going to the wall.”
“The Government has capitulated to Big Tech, stripping Councils of planning powers”, Ms Hearn said. “The 180 day cap is excessively generous by world standards, but these Big Platforms are still complaining.”
“Let’s make no mistake, the fight over short term letting has never been about ‘home sharing’. The Airbnb behemoth sees no role for Local Councils or local communities. It’s being given free access to all our housing.” she added.
“This policy will not stop “quasi-hotels”.
At the same time holiday letting platform Stayz, owned by the aforementioned international holiday booking giant Expedia and whose key market tends to be in regional and seaside properties, described the proposed regulations as “bungled” and “a slow-moving wreck that will hit the state’s fragile tourism economy.”
Stayz was furious that the proposed 180-nights per year limit on holiday lets that was always slated for Greater Sydney had been extended to a couple of regional cities and several holiday areas.
Newcastle and Dubbo would have been the biggest towns to feel the squeeze but Ballina, Bega Valley, and specified areas of Clarence Valley and Muswellbrookwould also have had limits placed on them. Byron Bay would have been the next cab off the rank but not before early next year. There the council is pleading for a 90-day limit so that local people aren’t priced out of living in their own town.
“As a result of the NSW Government’s bungles, Stayz is calling for a six-month delay to the new short-term rental rules to allow for further consultation and trials of the regulatory framework,” a spokesman said.
They got their wish: “In the interest of conciliation, and to give the policy the best chance to succeed, we’re happy to extend the date for implementation to November 1,” the Planning Minister said late on Tuesday night.
Whether this will lead to a change of policies remains to be seen.
Mr Stokes said the government’s position was that it wanted to provide as much consistency as possible for short-term rental accommodation across the state.
“The councils would love the capacity I think to regulate everything,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald. “The platforms I think would love the opportunity to regulate nothing. So the government has got to try to find the right balance between those two positions.”
“We have been warning the NSW Government for more than a year about the risks of a rushed and disjointed introduction of these new necessary regulations,” Stayz Corporate Affairs Director, Eacham Curry said earlier in the day.
The government was assailed from the opposite direction with the Owners Corporation Network claiming that it had “capitulated to Big Tech, stripping Councils of planning powers.”
“The 180 day cap is excessively generous by world standards, but these big platforms are still complaining,” said Jane Hearn. “Let’s make no mistake, the fight over short term letting has never been about ‘home sharing’. The Airbnb behemoth sees no role for Local Councils or local communities. It’s being given free access to all our housing.”
“Airbnb has already driven thousands of residents out of city apartment blocks. It has turned apartment buildings into cheap hotels, destroying the security and quality of life of residents,” she said.
“The Register is a step forward, but this is now behind a wall of secrecy. It hides the extent of commercialised tourist letting. It’s taken four years to deliver a ‘one size fits no one’ policy,” she added. “The councils must be able to set a lower cap and impose development conditions that prohibit Airbnb in our apartment buildings.”
Exactly why NSW Planning had taken Affordable Housing controls away from councils and apparently added them to the pool of potential holiday let properties seemed bizarre, although property and tourism lawyer Tony Cordato told Flat Chat it was to achieve the opposite of what it seemed.
By bringing Affordable Housing under the STHL umbrella, the government could prevent it as the properties would have to be listed on the register.
“It is designed to prevent normal housing from being used as STRAs,” says Mr Cordato. “Normal housing is not just ‘affordable housing’, it is most suburban housing in Residential Zones.
“What the Councils really want to achieve is to limit STHLs to Business Zones or Neighbourhood Zones or General Zones, where they (a) do not disturb the neighbours and (b) where they must obtain Council Approval through a DA. ”
Whatever the reason for involving Affordable Housing in the plan, Planning NSW failed to explain its thinking, and that led to anger and confusion that helped fuel the backlash.
Now the good parts of the policy – the much-needed limits on short-term holiday lets, the register of hosts and properties, the proposed blacklist of miscreants, the fire safety measures, insurance requirements and limits on excessive letting of residential properties, are all in tatters
Only the onset of winter and the lingering threat of the pandemic will save NSW from a season of holiday chaos.
However, it’s worth noting that there was one voice absent from the chorus of disapproval and howls of derision. But then, it’s business as usual for the company that usually has the loudest voice of them all … Airbnb.