Short-term letting: may the Astroturfing wars begin

The key word in the coming months of argy-bargy over the various options in the holiday letting proposals is Astroturfing – meaning a fake grassroots campaign.

In an Astroturfing campaign, MPs, journalists and “influencers” will be inundated by highly organised letters and emails, social media posts and in some cases even postcards from overseas, to try to convince them that failing to support one position or another will result in a surge in unemployment, mass starvation and riots in the streets.

Or, at the very least, the end of tourism as we know it.

Do they have a point?  It doesn’t matter when it comes to  Astroturfing, which Wikipedia defines as ‘designed to create the image of public consensus where there is none.”

Astroturfing campaigns are fundamentally fake.  They purport to represent more people expressing their opinions; but more often than not they are broadcasting pre-digested messages to create an illusion that larger  numbers of ordinary people than really exist care a lot more about a subject than they really do.

With Astroturfing, the size of the message is more important than the logic of the argument.  It’s quantity, not quality, and it all happens behind closed doors with group sessions, email chains and material sent to MPs that we don’t even hear about.

Supporters are given email and physical addresses, content from pre-ordained scripts to suggested themes, materials including stamped and addressed envelopes and post cards, and in some cases, the telephone numbers of decision makers such as politicians and local councilors, as well as journalists.

Earlier this year, just before the ill-fated Coure report was tabled in parliament, Sydney MP Alex Greenwich was inundated with postcards from Airbnb hosts and guests from as far away as Ireland urging him to support their “home-sharing.”

“Only five of them were from my constituents, so I sent the rest back to Airbnb head office,” he told Flat Chat.  I’m guessing he won’t be getting a Christmas card from Airbnb central – although he could be getting thousands from Airbnb hosts.

Alex Greenwich was concerned enough about the potential for Astroturfing to issue a statement this week.

“The options paper clearly identifies that short-term letting in apartment buildings can cause impacts, and this is why strata communities want the right to be able to grant permission or not, or impose specific conditions,” he said.

“I encourage my parliamentary colleagues, apartment residents and people affected by short term letting to actively participate in providing feedback to the paper; it’s clear there will be a concerted corporate campaign from those whose business model benefits from lax regulation including denying apartment owners the right to set the rules for their building”

“Reform must be about more than just stopping party houses, but ensuring that communities are protected and housing affordability doesn’t further erode from buildings and neighbourhood turning into hotel precincts dominated by ever changing holiday makers.”

That’s just one, albeit prominent and respected, voice. But here will also be hundreds of thousands of dollars – possibly millions – spent on advertising to convince us all that, among other things, the best way to pay your levies is to piss off your neighbours by staying with your friends at weekends and letting your apartment to tourists, bucks parties and football outings.

Do I exaggerate?  Only a little. I asked Airbnb this week if they planned a campaign against the options in the paper that would restrict their hosts ability to let their homes or part of their homes on Airbnb.

“Our hosts are scared by unfair and hurtful calls to rob them of their right to respectfully share their homes, whether they’re houses or apartments,” said a spokesman.

“Our hosts rely on Airbnb as their economic lifeline, and want to protect their rights and have their voices heard. The Government has asked for public input, and Airbnb is determined to make sure our hosts’ interests and voices are heard loud and clear by their elected officials.”

Good Lord, Airbnb is now an “economic lifeline”? How far out to sea are those multi-unit owners and head tenants who have so many properties on Airbnb that they have to hire subcontractors to manage them?

With their well-practiced misdirection, bordering on conjuring, Airbnb will continue to hammer their rather hollow message about poor people being able to get by, pay off their mortgage and have a holiday of their own by renting a room in the home they live in to tourists from other towns and countries.

Aaaah! Who could argue against that? Thing is, they are probably going to get this anyway and they know it.

But what they really, desperately want is for apartment owners and tenants to be allowed the freedom to boot out residential tenants and replace them with much more lucrative short-stay lets, regardless of what permanent residents in their building want.

They present that as “supporting the right of a home owner to do as they wish with their home.”  (Hey, I’d like the right to do as I wish with my car.  I mean, I own it  … and you should see my parking fines.)

That’s why they are very annoyed that the government is still even considering allowing 75 percent of owners to pass by-laws that restrict or even prevent short-stay letting.

Over on the other side of the playing field another, smaller global entity in Stayz has teamed up with the hotels-based Tourism Association of Australia to argue that, yes, there should be more restrictions on holiday lets in our city centres – but not so much in the coastal and rural areas.

They have a point.  There is a tradition in this country of holiday homes in seaside towns that pre-dated the internet by many, many decades.

But the Internet has changed everything and now the booming businesses in places like Byron Bay and Coffs Harbour have one problem – their workers, as well as teachers, nurses and cops – can’t afford to live in town.

There has to be a balance and that’s a concept I suspect Stayz is yet to fully embrace.

What about the apartment owners?  Will they be Astroturfing? Is their vested interest more worthy than the billions of dollars earned every year by online holiday letting agencies?  Are the letter-writing campaigns proposed by the Owners Corporation Network, Our Strata Community, Our Choice and Neighbours Not Strangers any more valid than lobbying efforts by Airbnb and Stayz?

I look at it this way – it’s the difference between the desire to make money and the fundamental need to protect your home.

Which brings us back to Airbnb.  Globally their message of “live like a local” is somewhat tainted by reports from towns in Europe – and beach-side suburbs of Sydney – where rising rents have forced the locals out to the suburbs to make way for tourists.

Maybe Airbnb should provide maps showing where the locals now live.

You can download the report HERE. NSW residents and stakeholders have until October 31 to make a submission via the government’s online portal planning.nsw.gov.au/STHL.

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