Exclusive by Jimmy Thomson
A backlash against commercial holiday lets being forced on strata buildings could see home shares and holiday swaps banned completely from high-rises in NSW, warns a state MP.
In an exclusive interview with Jimmy Thomson for Domain in the Sydney Morning Herald, independent MP for Sydney Alex Greenwich says there needs to be a middle ground between ordinary residents sharing their homes through online agencies like airbnb and Stayz, and commercial holiday lets in residential blocks.
And, he warns, and “all-or-nothing” approach will fail as Sydney could follow the lead of other world cities and bans whole-unit holiday lets from residential buildings.
Underlining his point, 11 of Sydney’s most prestigious apartment buildings have this week launched a campaign to persuade the government to rethink proposals to remove strata owners’ ability to choose whether or not they want holiday lets in their blocks.
Over 75 per cent of Mr Greenwich’s constituents live in strata and he said that while he didn’t favour a blanket ban on short-stay letting, neither did he think NSW needed to “roll out the red carpet” to holiday letting agencies.
He added that he’d had an “amazing” amount of support from apartment residents after publicly saying he believed a majority of owners should still be able to ban whole-unit short-stay lets in residential buildings, as many do now.
“It’s not a case of all or nothing,” he said. “That’s not what people want. Most apartment residents are fine with people letting out a room while they are there, or letting the flat they normally live in while they are away on holiday.
“But the vast majority who wrote to me said they didn’t want their homes being turned into holiday hotels where they wouldn’t know from one week to the next who their neighbours were.
“Apartment buildings are not hotels – they are communities that are designed for a different purpose. It’s a complicated issue that requires a graduated response.”
Currently strata buildings that are zoned residential can ban short-stay lets through by-laws, and any changes to by-laws would have to be supported by a 75 per cent vote. The parliamentary inquiry’s report into holiday letting legislation proposed that owners’ corporations should no longer be allowed to make that decision.
“This is not a case of black or white. Every community has its own standards and some may want more or less access to holiday lets than others,” Mr Greenwich explained. “We need to let the majority of owners in these buildings decide for themselves. If they get it wrong, they only need to change their by-laws – they won’t need a whole new Act of Parliament.”
Mr Greenwich warned that trying to force all apartment blocks to accept holiday lets was going to result in a massive backlash that could, ironically, see online letting agencies like Airbnb and Stayz locked out of the state’s apartment blocks entirely.
“Every major city around the world where online holiday letting agencies have tried to force a change in the law, they have ended up being blocked,” Mr Greenwich told Domain. “If they hold that hard line, the same could happen here.”
Coincidentally, two days after he spoke to Domain, Airbnb dropped legal action against the city and state of New York where it was challenging laws that forbid whole residential apartments from being rented as short-stay holiday lets.
Closer to home, last month the Legislative Council in Victoria rejected a law that would have forced strata schemes to accept holiday lets. Ironically, the proposed Victorian legislation was a cornerstone of law changes proposed by the NSW inquiry.
Meanwhile a consortium of high profile high-rise Sydney apartment buildings has called on unit blocks across the city to help fight the holiday letting proposals.
A group representing strata committees in the Altair, Elan and Horizon in Darlinghurst, Encore and Gazebo in Elizabeth Bay and the Ikon in Potts Point, plus the Highgate, Observatory Tower, Stamford Marque, Stamford on Kent and the Georgia in Millers Point, has issued a joint call to arms.
They are asking secretaries of other buildings in the city to write to Premier Mike Baird, Planning Minister Rob Stokes and Innovation and Better Regulation (and Fair Trading) Minister Victor Dominello urging them to rethink proposals to open up apartment buildings to holiday letting against the majority of owners’ wishes.
“To preserve the privacy and amenity of our apartment homes we must persuade the government that every residential strata needs the right to accept or reject short-term letting using by-laws approved by a vast majority of owners,” says an open letter to other strata schemes from Harold Kemp, chairman of the Highgate.
“This also preserves the democratic right of any stratas wishing to permit Airbnb to do so. It would be a win-win situation for all residential stratas in the state.”
The Owners Corporation Network – the peak body for strata owners in Australia – is also supporting strata owners’ right to choose what’s best for their community, asking why, for instance, 75 per cent of owners can force the other 25 per cent to sell their homes but the same majority can’t stop short-term lets.
“In 1961 the state created what is often called ‘the fourth level of government’, with all the attendant responsibilities,” says Executive Officer Karen Stiles. “What owners want now is the right to decide on the use of their buildings.
“Who better to know what works for their community? Certainly not the parliamentary committee that said short-term letting in apartment buildings had a very real, serious and disturbing impact on long term residents, but who want to open the floodgates anyway.”
“This issue requires a building by building, nuanced response,” agrees Alex Greenwich, “and there is no one better placed to provide that than their owners corporations.”
We spoke to a representative of Airbnb but he declined to comment on the record.