When fashion designer Matthew Eager was ordered to stop his $40,000-a-year business renting out the spare rooms of his three-bedroom apartment in Katoomba on Airbnb, he hired a lawyer to fight the decision.
One of his neighbours in the seven-unit complex had complained to the local council that their building’s bushfire zoning did not allow commercial lets, and the authorities agreed. But after months of arguing and $2000 in legal fees, the council backed down and he finally won the right to resume.
“But the whole situation is just crazy now,” says Mr Eager, 50. “While I won the right to do it, no one knows if they can or they can’t. Some strata committees say yes, some say no, sometimes they’ve been overruled and sometimes the councils have different rules.
“It’s a complete shit fight. I just wish the government would show some leadership on this issue so people have some certainty about Airbnb and what they can and can’t do.”
It’s a cry that’s now being echoed on both sides of the bitter debate about short-term lettings in apartments, involving companies such as Airbnb and Stayz.
A recent controversial decision by the NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal, which ruled on a case in Woollahra that building bylaws prohibiting short-term letting are invalid has only added more confusion, anger and threats of legal action.
“We understand there is even a potential risk now that strata bodies could be sued for lost tourist revenue by short-term letting hosts,” says strata lawyer Stephen Goddard, spokesperson for Our Strata Community, Our Choice.
“This could potentially expose apartment owners for simply trying to exercise their democratic rights, voting not to allow short-term lets in their blocks.
“This situation brings into sharp focus the urgent need for the NSW government to act, give apartment owners the right to decide on short-term letting and clear up all the uncertainty that’s now plaguing the sector. Short-term letting, through platforms like Airbnb, is growing exponentially, but apartment owners are in limbo about their rights and it’s undermining confidence in strata living.” Related: Airbnb making Melbourne hosts thousandsRelated: NSW tribunal overturns Airbnb bylawRelated: Creating an Airbnb-able space
The NSW government has been considering the legalities of short-term letting in apartments for two years now and when, in April, most expected them to come forward with legislation on the issue, it instead started a lengthy consultation process. With many councils also now choosing not to enforce their own planning and zoning regulations or police infractions, the whole area has become a void.
The recent landmark NCAT decision came when Sydney teacher Peta Etsens took action against her apartment building when she was told its bylaws didn’t allow her to rent out her unit on Airbnb during her school holidays.
It ruled that bylaws, even when they’re in line with local council residential-only zoning, are secondary to the strata law principle that they cannot “prohibit or restrict” the operation of a lot, igniting fresh rows about the future of short-term rentals in units.
Airbnb’s -New Zealand head of public policy, Brent Thomas, says urgent change is needed.
“Our host community tells us they are struggling to navigate arcane and confusing rules for home sharing that were often written before the internet even existed,” he says.
“No one should be forced to get a lawyer to simply defend their right to share their own home. Just like when we went from the horse and buggy to the car, we need new rules for new technology. Put simply, we need change now to put an end to the existing regulatory uncertainty.”
Mr Eager who, says there is a real necessity for clear rules. “The current situation is stupid; we need certainty,” he says.
“I make $40,000 a year out of renting out my rooms so it was worth the outlay of $2000 on a lawyer, but people are plucking different rules out of thin air and changing them as the mood takes them. We need the government to make a decision on this, rather than being paralysed into inaction for fear they might upset someone.”