Airbnb info government doesn’t want to know

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There is a significant question missing from the form that operators of short term rental accommodation now have to complete in NSW.

The online Airbnb (to give it its street name) application form that you will need to fill in if you are going to list a property – and you need to do that if you are going to stay in business – will ask what type of accommodation you are offering or if you are a company.

It will ask if you are a tenant, and if so, it will ask you to prove that you have your landlord’s permission.

But even if your property is an apartment in Greater Sydney, it doesn’t ask whether or not your strata scheme allows short-term lets or, more crucially, bans them via its by-laws.

We raise this now because two major changes occurred in travel last week, and they affected apartment owners and residents, both as tourists and the neighbours of holiday let properties.

On the same day that travel restrictions were eased in NSW, and we could all travel to the WA border (but no further) the government imposed its register of Short-term Rental Accommodation (STRA), as in Airbnb and the other holiday rental online platforms.

Ten days out from the implementation of the Register, just over 12,000 properties had signed up. By STRA-Day, November 1, that had more than doubled to over 26,000 and it’s easy to see why – if your NSW property isn’t registered, platforms like Airbnb and Stayz can’t list it.

But what percentage of the available properties does that initial surge in registrations represent? Not as many as you might think.

Airbnb is notoriously coy, to the verge of obsessive secrecy, about providing actual figures and many hosts list on multiple sites, confusing the issue, but one reliable estimate puts the total of holiday lets in NSW at about 70,000.

It’s an estimate because the government doesn’t know and the holiday letting giants aren’t telling. Go on the Airbnb website and it will tell you that it has “more than 300” properties in NSW. Cute.

InsideAirbnb.com, which uses web-scraping technology to monitor the holiday letting monolith’s activities in cities all over the world, has found about 36,000 properties available in Sydney and the Byron Bay areas alone.

“There is currently no reliable and accurate source of data on the number of short-term rentals operating in NSW,” aspokesperson for the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) told Flat Chat.

“One purpose of the register is to provide this data so that councils can understand how many are operating in their areas.”

But if we accept the estimate of 70,000 pre-pandemic properties – and that might be on the conservative side – even if only just over one third of the available properties in NSW have signed up, the reduction is less than Japan’s clear-out in 2018. 

There listings dropped by 80 per cent as soon as its registry system came into force, allegedly due to tax-dodgers and unapproved sub-letting tenants fleeing the sector.

There was also the fact that multiple shared room lets were exposed for the dangerously overcrowded properties that they were.

We have our share of tax cheats who, along with NSW’s many sneaky sub-letters – people who rent apartments and houses specifically to list them on holiday letting platforms, often without even the knowledge of the homes’ owners – will be flushed out by a requirement to upload proof of their landlord’s permission.

Meanwhile the estimated 60 per cent shortfall in previous hosts may be because previous operators are waiting for overseas tourism to take off or have residential tenants whose leases haven’t run out.

But there is another significant brake on STRA listings; the Code of Conduct which, by around Easter next year, will also have a fire safety provision attached.  NSW Planning held off from implementing that to give hosts a chance to install all the emergency signage, smoke alarms and fire extinguishers that the code demands.

Those demands could be the last straw for casual holiday hosts who, if unsure about signing up to the registry, may ultimately baulk at having to fix escape route maps to the backs of their bedroom and front doors.

Failure to comply could see hosts and properties banned for up to five years.  More serious breaches could lead to fines of up to $22,000.

It’s fair to say that NSW not only had the most STRAs in Australia it now has by far the most restrictive short-term letting regulations in the country.

For a start, strata schemes in greater Sydney can pass by-laws forbidding short-term lets. Sydney and Byron Bay hosts are limited to 180 nights a year.

Hosts of genuine “share” accommodation, in those apartment blocks where STRAs are otherwise banned, must be present in the apartment while they have guests.

The effects of all of this have been delayed by the pandemic, but the immediate result of the Japanese purge  and reduced availability was to push tariffs up.

In NSW any listings clear-out should mean that responsible hosts who follow the rules and respect the laws (and their neighbours) will have a distinct advantage when the illegals are de-listed, availability decreases and demand goes up.

And perhaps in Victoria and Tasmania, where the effects of STRAs have been hugely damaging to residential lets, their state governments will see you can have restrictions without killing the golden goose.

Meanwhile, NSW DPIE assures us that anyone who missed out on the November 1 deadline can still easily register online before they list their properties.

And there is some good news for hosts at the niche end of the market – caravans, tents and tiny houses on wheels don’t need to be registered.

A shorter version of this column appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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