Aussie home owners risk penalties over Airbnb use

Local councils cite safety concerns in seeking fines, even ban as rental service booms

Airbnb is booming in Australia but some home owners trying to make extra cash have been threatened with harsh penalties after the local authorities expressed concerns about safety and disruptions to local residents.

The popular Internet-based home rental site opened an office in Australia only a year ago, but there are now about 50,000 listings across the country, including an estimated 15,000 in Sydney - a figure that has doubled in 12 months and continues to soar.

But the rules surrounding the service in Australia vary across the country and the sudden advent of the short-stay rentals has been greeted by a mixed response in local communities.

Local councils in some areas have welcomed the influx of tourists, but others have taken tough action.

In the state of Tasmania, a 76-year-old pensioner who put up an apartment on Airbnb for A$90 (S$90) a night was reportedly warned earlier this year to stop or face fines of A$84,000 for failing to comply with local building and planning laws. Such cases have occurred across the country, though hosts have tended to stop or entered negotiations with councils before fines were imposed.

In Perth, two councils - the Shire of Peppermint Grove and the City of Bayswater - are considering banning Airbnb rentals.

The chief executive of Peppermint Grove shire, Mr John Merrick, said rentals via Airbnb were banned under the council's laws. He told The West Australian newspaper this week the council was examining closing Airbnb down but was awaiting legal advice.

In Sydney, the city council has reportedly threatened some Airbnb hosts with A$750 fines or ordered individuals to undertake costly renovations to comply with zoning laws governing short-term rentals.

A spokesman for the City of Sydney told The Straits Times the laws governing short-term rentals were outdated and needed updating.

The spokesman said rules should be developed for Airbnb-type rentals, such as limits on how many days the property can be rented out and the maximum number of guests. "The desire of property owners to offer short-term rentals, using online services such as Airbnb, needs to be balanced against the reasonable expectations of neighbourhood amenity and visitor safety," the spokesman said.

In Australia, local councils oversee short-term accommodation rentals such as bed and breakfasts. Such rentals are subject to strict regulations and include rules such as separate floors and lifts for tourist accommodation in residential buildings.

Airbnb's Australian general manager Sam McDonagh said Airbnb tried to encourage hosts to comply with council regulations. "But one of the things we consistently hear from councils themselves is that the rules are often hard to interpret and outdated," he told Fairfax Media.

In New South Wales, the dispute between Airbnb and local councils has led to a state parliamentary inquiry, which is examining whether new laws are required.

The inquiry, which finished taking public submissions last month, could result in new local taxes for hosts or limits on the number of days people can rent out homes.

The Accommodation Association of Australia said Airbnb hosts should be forced to comply with safety and building rules which apply to other properties used for accommodation.

"Airbnb takes the position that it is the hosts' responsibility to comply with regulations, but they can't just wash their hands" of the matter, a spokesman for the association, Mr Richard Munro, told The Straits Times.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 19, 2015, with the headline 'Aussie home owners risk penalties over Airbnb use'. Print Edition | Subscribe