Holiday letting report – what really happened

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The cast of political comedy The Thick of It

If strata living is politics in its rawest form – and trust me, it can be – what really happened this week when the government responded to the Coure report on holiday letting, was the “art of the possible” in one of its purest manifestations.

The cast of political comedy The Thick of It

Out of the 12 recommendations that emerged from the inquiry chaired by Nationals MP Mark Coure, nine of them had the words “qualified support” next to them.

Observers who don’t possess a boxed set of Yes Minister, The Thick of It or Veep will have focussed on the word “support”. The rest of us can see only the word “qualified”.

Or to put it another way, how strong is the support and how extensive are the qualifications? And, in my opinion, in some cases the answer is “not very” and “extremely”, in that order.

To be fair to Mark Coure, he was building a sand castle in a dust storm.  He was tasked with bringing together the views, needs and aspirations of many highly diverse groups and individuals, both self-interested and community minded, from areas as geographically disparate as seaside holiday towns and inner cities.

And while his committee was consulting and deliberating, Airbnb was growing exponentially, rocketing Sydney to number four in its global city hit parade.  Meanwhile, previously passive strata communities woke up to find that, potentially, they were about to have short-term holiday lets foisted on their buildings whether they wanted them or not.

It would be no exaggeration to say that there has been more public discussion about this issue – certainly in relation to apartment living – in the six months since the committee issued its report than in the previous 18 months during which it sat.

And so we find ourselves last week being presented with not a White Paper on holiday letting but instead, a promise of more consultation and a discussion paper in about a month.

This is a good thing. It’s all about the ministers – Roberts and Kean – taking back control of the issues that their departments are going to have to legislate and manage.

They didn’t trash the Coure Report – that would have been disrespectful to a fellow member of the Coalition – but it’s safe to say that many of its recommendations are currently circling the plug hole.

The key phrases in the statements this week by Ministers Roberts and Kean were about matching the benefits of increased tourism with the rights of everyone, especially apartment residents, to the safe and peaceful enjoyment of their homes.

There was no reference to the potential earnings of owners or renters who let out rooms or whole homes.  Zero.  Zilch.

However, key phrases like “we must find a balance between providing options for accommodation and residents being able to go about their daily lives” (Roberts) signalled a shift in thinking from what the holiday letting industry wants to what the community needs.

“The inquiry recommendations make sense, but the regulation of short-term letting needs broader engagement with the industry and the community to establish a model that enables it to continue to flourish and innovate whilst ensuring the amenity and safety of users and the wider community are protected,” Mr Roberts continued.

“It’s sensible to take time on a complex issue like this, which is why we are releasing an options paper next month.”

Appropriately, Matt Keen whose portfolio includes strata, expanded on the theme of community responsibility.

“We need to find what will work best for the people of NSW, which is why we’re issuing an options paper for discussion with relevant stakeholders,” he said.
“We don’t want a holiday accommodation market that’s so over-regulated it puts people off coming here but the rights of residents who live near these properties must be considered too. While short-term holiday letting, if properly managed and respected by all parties, can be a boost to the local economy, the need to protect people’s rights to the quiet enjoyment of their own homes is equally important.”

Now, while just about every other journalist I read last week was saying this was a green light to short-term letting in Sydney apartment blocks, I am not so sure.  In fact, I think the government has just pulled the handbrake on a booming industry that was in danger of getting out of control. Where this is headed now is anyone’s guess, so I will put in my two cents worth.

In the final shake-out, online “home sharing” letting agencies like Airbnb will get what they say they want – that anyone should be allowed to share their home with paying guests, albeit with a limit on the number of nights a year before it’s considered a business.

But I’m guessing, perhaps wildly, that there will be a caveat for apartments whereby the host has to be in the unit for the duration of the stay.

Whether an apartment can be let in its entirety while the owner isn’t there will be subject to approval by the block’s owners corporation, probably with a “family and friends” exemption. Hey, someone has to feed your cat while you’re enjoying your Airbnb pad in Paris.

Is this overly optimistic? Both Ministers’ Kean and Roberts “get” apartments in a way few of their predecessors ever have. So perhaps now, at last, we can move past all the spin, hype, claims and counter-claims and get some solid facts and figures.

This will please neither the no-way-Jose anti-holiday let lobby, nor the multi-unit owning (or renting) commercial hosts. But, saying that, restrictions on the commercial exploitation of whole homes in our cities have attracted support from a couple of surprising sources.

Earlier this month online holiday letting agency Stayz and the hoteliers body Tourism Association of Australia issued a joint statement saying, among other things, that they backed bans on whole home holiday lets in metropolitan areas.

And Ben McConaghy,  a spokesman for Airbnb, said before this week’s announcement: “So long as regulations protect the rights of house and apartment owners to share the homes they live in, we’re supportive of steps which discourage Sydney properties from being used exclusively for short term rentals in urban Sydney.”

The sands are still shifting  … but the worst of the storm may be over.

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