Long-term pain in short-term shame

An odd little coincidence occurred in the past few days.  In the same week that we discovered, almost tragically, that students and young tourists were being housed in shipping containers in Erskineville, it was three years to the week that one of the most blatant cases of unapproved short-term lets in Sydney was first reported to City of Sydney officials.

And while there is much hand-wringing at Town Hall about the “shipping containers of shame”, very little has been done about the Bridgeport building in the CBD where, as Fairfax media exclusively reported recently, more than one third of the apartments are allegedly being let as short term rentals in a building that is zoned “permanent residential only”.

What’s the connection?  Let’s say an average apartment houses two adults.  And the average shipping container?  Who knows?  Maybe six? Ten?

So if you take the fifty or so short-term lets in the Bridgeport out of the market, and allow for the 100 long-term tenants who would normally rent them having to find accommodation elsewhere, the trickle down effect from that building alone is 10 containers of exploited kids.  Erring on the generous side, that’s maybe 5 grossly overcrowded flats in other buildings in the city.

So how have the Bridgeport Owners Corporation got away with ignoring City of Sydney warning notices for so long?  Surely it’s not just because three senior Government MPS sit on its executive committee, along with a legal eagle whose employers claim is one of the top 30 property lawyers in the world.

The good and the great of Bridgeport justify their “interpretation” of the zoning by invoking advice given by the late Barry O’Keefe, QC, that, since the Development Authority says that lets that don’t come under the Residential Tenancy Act are illegal, then – by implication –  any that do must be legal.

And that’s why when you go online to a hotel website to book your rooms in the Bridgeport (for as little as two nights) you are told your booking form is both a tenancy agreement and a notice to quit.  The zoning expressly forbids holiday lets which might explain why you are also asked to sign a statement that you are not there on holiday.

This Lionel Messi-like side-stepping of council zoning may still merit a hefty tackle , according to Fair Trading, who point out that there are a whole lot of other requirements attached to the Residential Tenancy Act that would need to be observed  before any agreement would be fully compliant, not least the question of bonds and periods of notice to quit.

Undaunted, the executive committee blithely tells City of Sydney that the zoning restrictions don’t apply to their flats.  Meanwhile it is proposing to raise a special levy of $200,000 to run legal action against one of the owners who brought this bizarre situation to the attention of the authorities  The action will allegedly be for bringing the building into disrepute as well as posting pictures online of holidaymakers cluttering up the foyer and corridors with their suitcases.

But if the majority of owners in this building are happy with short-term lets there, what’s the problem? Talk to anyone in the hotel and backpacker hostel trade and they will tell you their businesses are being gutted by opportunist apartment owners who ignore their local council zoning and their own by-laws to rent their rooms as “executive rentals” or holiday homes.

Web-based letting services have made it a lot easier for individual owners to slip under the short-term lets radar. Meanwhile theres’s a lot of buck-passing going on. The government says it’s up to local councils to police.  The councils leave it to the owners corporations and otherwise cherry-pick the buildings that they will go after.

Meanwhile, in another scary coincidence, NSW Fair Trading has been running a campaign about the dangers of dodgy phone and tablet chargers after a young woman was killed when her USB booster went seriously awry and caused an electrical backfire. Think about all those unapproved phone and laptop chargers attached to multi-socket power boards in over-crowded flats. (See this post)

Illegal short-term letting is a cancer in Sydney strata.  Every time some self-interested landlord decides they are entitled to make as much money as they can from their investment, and to Hell with the by-laws of their building and its zoning, that’s one less property available for people who just want somewhere decent to live.

The smouldering shipping containers of Erskinville are just the more obvious signs of Sydney’s rental shame.

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