Airbnb’s days really are numbered

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Out-of-control Airbnb accommodation has threatened to hollow out cities like Sydney, Paris and San Francisco. Some regulators are fighting back.

How big a number is 180?

That’s the question residents of Australia’s most populous state, NSW, are being asked to ponder as the state moved last week to crack down on out-of-control Airbnb accommodation that has threatened to eat the heart and soul out of cities like Sydney, the way it’s threatened to hollow out cities like Paris and Venice.

Or, depending on what one thinks of the number 180, it’s not so much a crackdown on Airbnb that’s being contemplated in NSW as an acquiescence to the rapacious Silicon Valley property rental company, which would have wanted that number to be 365 but must be thanking its lucky stars it’s not 90, or even 30.

You may have guessed that 180 refers to the number of nights per year which home-owners will be allowed to rent out their entire property on Airbnb or on other platforms such as HomeAway, should new Short Term Rental Accommodation (STRA) laws being contemplated by the NSW government come into effect.

Those laws were summarised in a discussion paper which the government released last week.The number only refers to Sydney, Airbnb’s biggest rental market in Australia. Elsewhere in the state (with the exception of a few holdouts like Ballina Shire, Muswellbrook Shire and Lake Macquarie, all of which have requested a 180-day limit – the lowest limit NSW will permit), the number actually is 365.

Provided they meet fire safety standards, and provided they’re not in flood or bushfire-prone areas, regional and rural NSW residents will be allowed to rent out their entire homes year round on Airbnb, and be exempt from residential zoning laws which might prohibit such activity without local council approval.

On the scale from 0 to 365, 365 is clearly a big number. But what of 180?

As it happens, that’s a big number, too, even if you ignore the number 21, which is the size of the loophole NSW wants to build into its 180-day limit. Arguing that Airbnb guests staying 21 days or longer won’t be as offensive to the neighbours as guests staying fewer than 21 days, NSW has added a provision that means stays of 21 days or more won’t be counted towards the 180-day limit.

In the City of Paris, where one residence in four is no longer available to residents, and where the mayor Anne Hidalgo has been fighting to say “non” to “those who make money preying, destroying residential housing and risking making Paris a museum city”, the number has been set to 120 with no such loophole.

San Francisco knows as well any city the devastating effect that greedy technology companies can have on urban amenity.

Since 2017, Parisians who want to rent their property out on an online platform have had to register with the city, pay taxes on the rental income, and ensure that they don’t rent the property out for more than 120 days when they’re not present.

(Renting out your property while you’re still in it is a whole other kettle of fish. Courts are generally less inclined to find that you’re engaged in an illegal commercial activity when the property in question is clearly your primary residence, and, besides, it’s likely you’re still going to maintain a semblance of order, minimising the risk that your guests are going to run amok and disturb the neighbours with loud house parties.)

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the city that knows as well any the devastating effect that greedy technology companies can have on urban amenity (Airbnb is from there, after all), that number has been set to 90, just half the Sydney limit.

Like the proposed NSW law, the San Francisco law requires that anyone renting out their property via an online platform first register it with the city, in San Francisco’s case paying a registration fee of $US250 every two years.

The introduction of that law in 2018 gave rise to another interesting number: almost 50.

Almost 50 per cent is what the number of Airbnb listings fell by the moment the San Francisco law came into effect, suggesting that a lot of properties on the platform weren’t being listed by their occupiers (that being the original idea behind Airbnb when it was dreamt up in 2007) but rather by absentee landlords who were using the platform to avoid having to register themselves as businesses.

Almost 50 per cent is also what the City of San Francisco says is the fraud rate for people applying for that $US250 permit. Almost half of the property owners applying to rent out their homes on online platforms lie about the property being their primary residence, suggesting that the problem of Airbnb being used to illegally operate a commercial accommodation business is even bigger than it first appeared.

And then there’s Amsterdam, where the limit on unattended Airbnb rentals has been set to 30: a number which is proving difficult to police, given the way some Amsterdam residents appear to be doubling and tripling it by simply de-listing their property, and re-listing it again, once they hit their numbers.

There are those, of course, who would like to see the number set to zero. Opponents of NSW’s proposals argue that current zoning laws, which prevent you from accidentally living next door to what amounts to a commercial flophouse, should simply be enforced  rather than amended in Airbnb’s favour.

Arbitrary changes to those laws – changes which could see the amenity of houses and apartments plummet when entire streets or floors are given over to hitherto illegal Airbnb operations – could amount to the state illegally acquiring proprietary rights, anti-Airbnb activists argue.

If they’re right, there could be another number in dispute: the dollar value of the compensation bill for extinguishing the right to not live next door to an Airbnb dosshouse.

Written by John Davidson for afr.com

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