Airbnb furious as tenants claim survey was misconstrued

This image is fake … like the Airbnb campaigns.

by Jimmy Thomson and Sue Williams

The influential tenants’ group behind a study frequently used by Airbnb to justify the spread of short-term holiday letting in NSW says  its research has been misconstrued by the online letting agency.Tenants Union of NSW officials accused Airbnb of cherry-picking the findings to support  its case and denied that they see no problem in the spread of Airbnb-style holiday lets into the residential market.”We do feel that Airbnb and others are reaching the wrong conclusion from our research,” says executive officer Julie Foreman. “We have consistently in our blog posts and research called for regulation and identified impacts on tenants.”The union said Airbnb’s presentation of the survey’s findings was skewed to make it seem that tenants had no problem with increasing numbers of whole-home holiday lets.

“Our position has always been to limit personal use to a reasonable amount – our research suggested 60 days – and ensure commercial operators (everyone else) are regulated through planning,” Ms Foreman says. “We are also open to other methods of regulation such as registrations.”

It comes as Airbnb faces tougher regulations in NSW that will allow owners’ corporations (body corporates) to adopt a by-law – with a 75 per cent majority – preventing short-term letting in their block, introduce a mandatory code of conduct, and give NSW Fair Trading the power to police online platforms and letting agents. Hosts or guests who commit two serious breaches of the code within two years will be banned for five in what NSW Minister for Better Regulation Matt Kean said were “the toughest laws in the country”.

An Airbnb spokesman denied from Singapore that it had misinterpreted the findings of the Tenants Union report.

“The tenants’ union’s and the Grattan Institute’s reports independently and separately found Airbnb not to have a material impact on rental market housing affordability,” the spokesman said.

“While we have a different perspective about some of their recommendations, we do share the view that there needs to be fair and innovative regulations in NSW, and we’d encourage people to read both reports in their entirety.”

The spokesman suggested The Australian Financial Review contact the author of the tenants’ union report, Leo Patterson-Ross, for a first-hand perspective.

Mr Patterson-Ross, when contacted, said the tenants’ union stood by its executive officer’s statements.

The Tenants’ Union of NSW and Airbnb have been at odds in a number of critical areas. Sixty-day caps on the number of days whole homes can be let, and registration of whole-home lets, are both vehemently opposed by the American multi-billion-dollar agency.

Mr Kean had been swaying between limits of 180 days (three times the tenants’ union proposal) and no cap at all.

The organisation Our Strata Community, Our Choice – set up to campaign for apartment owners to have the right to decide whether they will accept short-term rentals into their buildings – says the tenants’ union’s newly-stated position is a significant setback for Airbnb.

“This is a body blow to Airbnb’s credibility to have the people who wrote a report they rely on so regularly to invalidate criticism of their operations publicly distance themselves from the conclusions they draw from it,” says spokesperson Stephen Goddard.

“They quote that report so regularly, saying the tenants’ union finds no problems with their operation. But now the tenants’ union has come out to say that’s not their position at all.”

Mr Goddard cites a more recent report from the University of Sydney. “That says the number of Airbnb properties potentially removed from Sydney’s permanent rental market with an average vacancy rate of around three per cent amounts to approximately half of the available rental properties, and also risks driving up property values and making homes even more unaffordable.”

Ms Foreman also directed the Financial Review to the Tenants’ Union of NSW website where a blog defends the survey findings but adds: “There will still be a need to regulate the short-term letting sector.”

The blog says that with various examples of third parties offering their services to manage short-term letting operations, there is a huge risk the practice will grow, particularly in high-demand tourist areas already struggling with affordability issues.

“This is clearly a problem,” it says. “A commercially operated short-term letting business should only be allowed subject to local government approval, and there should be clear guidelines as to what constitutes a ‘commercial operation’ and the conditions under which it will be approved.”

It is also scathing about “Airbnb’s oft-quoted claim” that the majority of hosts are everyday people sharing a spare room for extra cash or having their home looked after while on holiday or out of town for work.

“As far as a corporate narrative goes, it’s not a bad one,” it says. “But it clearly sidesteps some of the problems that are created or exacerbated by this highly profitable business. If they were genuine about the claim, they could very easily make it true by limiting the number of bookings a host could solicit via their online platform.”

This story first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.

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