It was late in the afternoon on Friday, April 3 that we got the tip-off … the long-awaited, much-discussed and hugely haggled-over Code of Conduct for short-term rental hosts had been pulled from the list of gazetted regulations and, depending on who you spoke to, had been either repealed or shelved.
To those of us who’ve been watching the exponential growth of illegal short-term holiday lets in NSW, especially into the lucrative apartment block market, it came as no surprise, although the timing was exquisitely bizarre.
Not only had it been pulled at the very last minute on a Friday night, which is where politicians go to bury their less worthy actions from the Press, it might have been more appropriate if it had been happened a couple of days earlier on April 1.
But some of us could see something like this coming. The new rules, if enforced, would have shut down the worst hosts and cost the others a lot of money.
But the short-term holiday letting lobby has way too much influence in Australian politics, having managed to get planning laws that have evolved over decades wiped because a lot of people can make a little money, and a few people can make a lot of money, and the online letting platforms can make shiploads.
I was alerted to the U-turn by a former member of the Code of Conduct planning committee who had been otherwise distracted by trying to stop potential coronavirus cases being shipped into apartment block short-term rentals.
And this is where we stumble over one of the sad ironies of the whole Airbnb BS-fest. For years, they’ve been telling us that they are all about “sharing”. Really? Well, sharing is pretty much in direct violation of the intent, if not the letter of lockdown laws.
But the short-term letting industry moves with the shifty agility of a dodgy watch salesman on a busy city street (remember them?). First, hostsweren’t sharing after all, they were offering ‘self-isolation packages’ for the potentially infected.
Then, when they were jumped on for that, they were providing homes away from home for people who weren’t allowed to go and work in their offices.
The simple fact was that hosts were trying desperately to fill their properties, suddenly empty now that tourists are being turned away like refugees, and locals had been ordered to stay at home.
The fact that they were trying to squeeze potentially infected individuals into apartment blocks where they didn’t know the rules, nobody knew who they were and no one was monitoring their movements or behaviour was of zero interest to the disruptive heroes of the holiday letting industry.
Back to the Code of Conduct. On Monday I contacted my Man at the Ministry (Better Regulation) and asked him what the skinny was. Have they killed it off?
“No, definitely have not abandoned the code. Given the current climate it was decided to hold of releasing it to avoid sending mixed messages to the community,” he wrote back.
“And there was the thought was that there was not going to be a real demand for short term letting in the short-term, so we’re better off picking a time when people’s minds are turning back to travel etc.”
OK, sounds fair. But it does seem like a bit of a coincidence that this occurs when short-term holiday letting agencies are at their lowest ebb, with hosts abandoning their properties or, at least, putting them back on the residential letting market where they belong.
The picture above is garbage thrown on the street by, neighbours claim, an Airbnb host who wanted to clear out his flat so he could let it, unfurnished, on the normal rental market. There are three “key safes” attached to a nearby lamppost.
I digress. Getting back to the Code of Conduct, which would have established safety and transparency regulations, it had suddenly been shelved.
Later on Monday, journalist Sue Williams (my co-host on the Flat Chat Wrap podcast) pitched the story to the Sydney Morning Herald Domain section and asked someone at Better Regulation about the Code of Conduct.
Same answer: shelved not repealed.
And how about reports of high-risk coronavirus carrier backpackers, who’ve been kicked out of hostels in Bondi, moving into short-term holiday lets there?
Not possible, was the reply. Staying in Airbnbs is illegal.
Boom. The story was published, the internet went nuts, and Sue got a phone call from the Man from Ministry, saying that wasn’t what he said.
Now, Sue is old school when it comes to journalism. She takes her notes in shorthand and hers have been decreed as “the equivalent of a tape recording” by an expert appointed by the Supreme Court of NSW. And there it was, in squiggly hieroglyphics: Staying in Airbnbs is illegal.
After some wrangling, and to and fro, statements issued by the Minister, then withdrawn, then reissued with identical wording, it was agreed that what he’d meant was that, while short-term holiday lets weren’t illegal per se, under NSW stay-at-home laws, you’d better have a good reason for travelling to one.
OK, so what happened to the Code of Conduct? And the Bondi backpackers? Lost in translation, I suppose. Anyway, before we could get a clear answer on either question, another couple of examples of Airbnb BS landed on our desks today.
Firstly, they are now offering front-line health workers free accommodation in their properties left empty by the tourism slump. Considering the health workers don’t want to go home because they, themselves, are rightly worried about infecting their families, should we be concerned that they are being invited into our apartment blocks?
Look, these medics are heroes, no question. And that’s just one reason we shouldn’t let the goodwill and gratitude they have earned the hard way be hijacked by a PR stunt from an overseas corporation that’s suddenly in serious decline … especially when it puts our collective health at unnecessary risk.
Meanwhile, the charmers at Airbnb’s head office (in Ireland) have jumped on the thing that’s killing them – the coronavirus – as maybe the same silver bullet that will rescue them, in NSW at least.
As of this week, apartment blocks in NSW will be able to pass by-laws banning short-term holiday lets from their buildings.
However, Airbnb is advising hosts in the state that, since coronavirus restrictions mean owners won’t be able to have meetings in person, and since we can’t have meetings electronically unless that has previously been agreed at a physical meeting, any strata scheme that hasn’t already agreed on online meetings won’t be able to pass by-laws banning Airbnb from their blocks.
Is this true, that you need to have agreed by normal processes before you can vote electronically? Yes.
Is it a bit snaky? You be the judge.
But don’t worry, I have a cunning plan.
Watch this space.