About two years ago, I got a phone call from two of my editors at the Sydney Morning Herald. I should say “former editors” – none of us work there any longer.
They had received a delegation from Airbnb complaining about me. Apparently, I had at that point published 33 negative pieces. Airbnb’s people said I was an activist, not a journalist.
Oh, the sleepless nights I endured after I heard that!
I mention this partly because recently the Herald published this story, claiming Airbnb is devastating the residential rental market in key areas of Sydney and, again, puncturing the myth that the service is all about people renting rooms in their homes.
It quotes Dr Laurence Troy, a housing policy expert at UNSW, who co-wrote a study last year that found nearly one in seven rental properties in popular Sydney and Melbourne suburbs had been taken out of the residential rental market and converted to Airbnbs.
Ironically, one of the many reader comments on the Herald article was “what took the Herald so long to catch on?” Mate, just because you didn’t notice something doesn’t mean it didn’t exist.
Back to the Airbnb delegation. What had finally got up their corporate nose after 33 articles which may or may not have been critical of them (let’s be honest, they were probably critical), was that I hadn’t bothered to ask them for a response to the latest attack on them.
Instead, I had written something like: “Usually at this point I would ask Airbnb for a response but, instead of addressing the issue, they will say that they are all about letting ordinary people make a little bit of extra money by renting a room in their home, so they can save money for a holiday … or a hip replacement … or pay off their student loan etc etc.”
The reason I wrote that admittedly jaded line was because I was tired of the monolithic mega-corporation presenting like a social service when it seemed to me that all it really wanted was to make profits with little apparent regard for the communities here and all around the world that were being ripped apart as residential rentals were being converted to holiday lets.
I was also tired of them condemning their critics for using “inaccurate figures” while, at the same time, they refused to let anyone see their own numbers on the grounds that they were protecting the privacy of their users.
According to Murray Cox, whose website InsideAirbnb.com is the go-to source for Airbnb figures, if his numbers are wrong, it’s because he errs on the conservative side. Chances are the real figures are worse than even he says.
Airbnb and their frenemies in the holiday letting business will be less that pleased with this latest article in the Herald. With a state election on the horizon, Airbnb is already mobilising its “constituency” (their word) to try to scare off NSW voters from supporting Labor who have committed to bringing in a registry of short-term holiday letting properties.
Why doesn’t Airbnb want a registry? Perhaps because it might flush out thousands of illegal lets – including sublets of apartments the owners aren’t even aware of – and tax dodgers. They may well complain about red tape and privacy, but the real concern might just be the potential hole in their profits.
And make no mistake, Airbnb can mobilise a lot of support. Their slick spin doctors manage to conflate residents who let a room in their home to a visitor (a very small amount of their business), with the multiple-unit hosts who never even meet the guests with whom they are “sharing”.
They confuse public support for maybe some day being able to rent an apartment in Paris with approval of apartment blocks here in Australia where one-third of the units are listed as holiday lets.
Airbnb’s political power – apart from their Trumpian relationship with the facts – is that they have a level of access to their “hosts” through the internet that politicians can only dream of.
And if that sounds paranoid, look at what they did during the consultation phase before the new holiday letting laws were announced, when 5000 virtually identical emails were posted demanding no restrictions on holiday lets.
Now, our politicians aren’t stupid (well, not very stupid). They can spot an Astroturf (fake grassroots) campaign when they see one. But they are also a timid bunch and when they see their seats are in danger from a campaign – fake or not – they are going to take note.
As has been recorded elsewhere, the government has stepped in to help a Coalition candidate in Byron Bay by limiting holiday lets to 90 days a year so that more local people can live locally.
The sitting Greens MP, Tamara Smith, on a majority of only 3.1 per cent, must be spitting ships that her long-running campaign for limits on holiday lets had been hijacked in this way.
So allow me to launch my own genuine, home-grown grassroots campaign: anyone who lives in an apartment block should be supporting any local candidate who’s prepared to stand against a free-for-all in holiday lets. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as they know what you’re voting against.
It may be that Labor’s proposed registry is the only hope for some blocks although it may already be too late for many. If you don’t already have a by-law in place, it could get very tricky to raise the 75 percent vote required once the “me first” holiday letting hosts get their collective act together.
This may be our last chance to inject some honesty and decency into the whole holiday letting shemozzle.
Most of us who bought into or rented in residential apartments did so in the belief that, not withstanding the ups and downs of community life and all the compromises required, we were buying or renting a home, not a suite in a de facto hotel (only without all the security and supervision a real hotel provides).
But the real tragedy of all this is that the coming battles over holiday letting are going to rip fledgling communities apart. We will end up with a two-tier apartment community where the apartment owners who have been paying attention have already shut the door on holiday lets.
Meanwhile the residents of all the others – owners and renters alike – will be left to deal with the floods of families in “fun” mode and party animals who chose a short-term let so they can do all the things a hotel would never allow.
Have a look at the SMH article – it’s well researched and written. Then have a look at the comments. Most of the pro-Airbnb remarks are boilerplate, cut and paste “I’m a retiree saving for a new wooden leg …” type.
But there’s clearly a serious push-back from a variety of apartment residents who may never have read any of my 33 original articles but are still angry and motivated.
If you’re interested in what I’d been writing to earn a complaint, click on the Airbnb link in the header of this page and all will be revealed.