The spread of short-term holiday letting into residential homes could be a significant local factor in the up-coming state election, according to Independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich.
And, depending on how tight the race is elsewhere, pro or anti-holiday letting voters could determine the balance of power in the NSW parliament come April, if candidates dare to make that vexed question an election issue.
“The threat of having neighbouring units turned into quasi hotel-rooms has activated apartment communities like never before,” says the Sydney MP. “Last year we saw apartment communities successfully engage in intense campaigning and lobbying of State MPs that was stronger, more genuine, and more effective than the multi-national short-term letting platforms. Apartment residents have proved that if politicians take them and their votes for granted, it will be at their own peril.”
He has a point. Considering the polls are predicting a 4.3 percent swing against the Coalition, bringing the strong possibility of a minority government subject to the whims of cross-benchers like the Shooters and Fishers and the Greens, specific but emotive issues like holiday letting in residential homes take on increased significance.
Alex Greenwich, whose constituency probably has the highest number of Airbnb lets in NSW, if not the country, is in favour of strict limits on commercial lets of residential apartments, but supports genuine sharing, where the hosts are still in the home when the guests visit.
He was very active in pushing the NSW government towards its last-minute compromise of allowing apartment block owners to pass by-laws restricting holiday lets.
This was a significant blow to Airbnb which wants no limits on any form of “sharing”, not least because, in high-tourist areas, the letting of whole homes and especially strata apartments is where they make most of their money.
Mr Greenwich, who led the successful same-sex marriage referendum campaign in 2017, is pretty safe in his seat, having increased his majority since he took over from Sydney Mayor Clover Moore. So where else would this be a factor?
Seats like Coogee, where there is a high number of holiday let properties, and a small margin of 2.9 per cent held by Liberal MP Bruce Notley-Smith. By an odd coincidence, the number of whole-home Airbnb listings in that area is almost the same as the margin of votes between Notley-Smith and his Labor challenger Paul Pearce.
Could it be an easy target for a Labor candidate who ran hard on the idea that locals were suffering the negative effects of short-term holiday lets while outside investors – and a foreign company – were getting all the benefits. On the other hand, this is exactly the kind of area where Airbnb has run its scare campaigns in the past, both here and overseas. Either way it would be a shock if STHLs were not a factor in the election.
I would guess that neither of the major party candidates in Coogee will willingly campaign on holiday letting – it’s too volatile and emotional – but a third-party candidate could make a big impression on voters, and the final result, if they took it on.
In truth, it’s almost impossible to predict precisely where holiday letting would be a significant enough issue to sway the vote, but areas that could be targetted by any candidates brave (or desperate) enough to take on Airbnb include Tweed (Nationals 3.2%), Upper Hunter (Nats 2.2%), Ballina (Greens 3.1%) and Lismore (Nats 2.9%).
On the other side, if you accept that Labor is making noises about protecting residential homes from the spread of holiday letting, its seats that could be targeted in an STHL scare campaign include Gosford (0.2% majority), The Entrance (0.4%), Strathfield (1.8%), Granville (2.1%), Prospect (3.4%), Port Stephens (4.7%) and Rockdale (4.8%).
And let’s not forget the independent seats that could go either way, including Orange (Shooters & Fishers 0.1%), Ballina again (Greens 3.1%) and Balmain (Greens 4.3%).
By the way, I have included the last three because in the case of Orange, the margin is so small that just about anything could tilt the result, and Ballina and Balmain because, not only are they high-tourism areas, but the Greens have pretty much fudged the whole short-term letting conundrum.
One can understand why the Coalition parties are pro-Airbnb – maximising investor profits with scant regard for the social consequences is pretty much in their DNA.
And you can understand why Labor MPs are less enthusiastic. Reduced housing availability and increased rents – proven effects of short-term holiday letting in areas most popular with tourists – go against the grain for them.
But with the Greens, it’s hard to plot what they are in favour of, or why. It’s probably unfair, but many anti-Airbnb campaigners won’t have forgotten that it was Jamie Parker, the Greens MP for Balmain, who first raised the issue in parliament.
Mr Parker was concerned about constituents who had been threatened with massive council fines for genuinely sharing their homes under the original, now largely irrelevant, concept that made Airbnb so popular in the first place.
His action led, indirectly, to the near-miss of NSW’s proposed, then rapidly abandoned laissez-faire legislation, similar to the laws in Victoria that effectively handed every apartment block in Melbourne over to potentially unrestricted holiday rentals.
Having covered this issue for the past three years or more, I honestly couldn’t tell you where the Greens as a party, or as individual MPs, stand. Caught between the largely fictional hugfest of “sharing” and the rampant commercialism of multi-unit whole-home sub-tenancies in apartment blocks, they hardly seem fired up about the issue.
If you dig deeply enough into the NSW Greens website, you’ll find a commitment to restricting the use of residential dwellings for “visitor accommodation in tourism localities” while “monitoring and implementing compliance actions in relation to residential dwellings used for tourism purposes.”
It’s hardly a cry to person the barricades, either for or against short-term holiday lets, and in both Balmain and Ballina the Greens could be wrong-footed by aggressive campaigns by major party candidates.
Those two constituencies are both prime examples of the two very different kinds of areas that are affected by holiday lets.
Ballina includes Byron Bay which has long been the touchstone for holiday letting opponents, given that locals were being forced out of town by massively inflated holiday rents long before Airbnb was even dreamed up.
Online booking and the growth of support industries have merely made it easier for ordinary home owners and tenants to become holiday landlords.
Balmain is trickier. Trendy and Lefty, it may well be, but even its sandal-wearing, brown rice chomping residents can get just as irritated by a stream of drunken yahoos moving in and out of the houses or apartments next door.
The above list of constituencies that might see holiday lets emerge as an election issue is restricted to seats where the margin is less than 5% and where tourism is a factor – both positive and negative. The Entrance and Gosford are clearly in the frame on both counts.
Add to that the possibility that the people benefitting from tourism may not live in the constituency and those suffering disruption, reduced housing availability and inflated rent increases obviously do, and you can see where the battle lines could be drawn.
And then there’s the internet where Airbnb exists and thrives in a way that most politicians don’t. Its customer base is its constituency, easily contactable at the click of a computer key and they tend to be committed and loyal.
The Astroturf (fake grassroots) campaign that saw 5000 virtually identical submissions sent to the NSW government, objecting to proposed restrictions on online holiday letting in residential homes, was an impressive flexing of their digital muscle.
The fact that so many MPs took it and other Airbnb campaigns seriously is a reflection on the calibre of elected representatives that we have in this state.
Alex Greenwich gets it, though. He is relatively safe in his seat – Airbnb campaign or not – but his predecessor and erstwhile mentor, Sydney Mayor Clover Moore, was relatively slow to take up cudgels on behalf of apartment resident who don’t want their blocks turned into holiday hotels.
Even now, her officers tend to drag the chain when it comes to prosecuting clear and blatant breaches of the council’s own planning regulations forbidding lets of less than 30 days in residential buildings.
Their excuse – like other local councils in NSW – is that they are waiting for the new STHL laws to fully come in, when responsibility for pursuing for these planning breaches will be passed to strata committees and the Tribunal (NCAT).
But that’s assuming that the laws remain in place after the state election. And if Airbnb lets become a significant issue in swing seats, that is hardly guaranteed.