Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor

If URA reviews short-term stays, should HDB be far behind?

The sharing economy is here to stay in Singapore.

When Singapore regulators step in to “review” and then “regulate” something, you know the innovation is halfway home to becoming a part of daily life here.

From saying it doesn’t regulate taxi apps a year ago to introducing a regulatory framework on 21 November, LTA went the whole hog to join the app party with its own Taxi-Taxi@Sg app on Dec 17.

Never mind that it rapidly became the butt of jokes - what’s the point of a taxi app that shows where cabs are but doesn’t let you book one? It showed one thing: if you can’t beat them, join them.

It made me wonder if the Urban Redevelopment Authority is next. On Dec 17, The Straits Times reported that URA is conducting a survey to gather feedback on short-term rental.

URA said: "Given the current public interest (in) the matter, URA will be carrying out a public consultation to assess if there is a need to review the policy."

Under current rules, you can’t rent out a Housing Board room or flat for short-term stays.

You can lose the flat if caught. HDB said in June it repossessed the flats of two people who rented out HDB rooms to many tourists for $25 to $75 a night. One more flat owner was let off with a warning. Last year, the HDB investigated 184 cases of short-term leasing, up from 106 the year before.

As for private homes, URA rules do not allow short-term rentals of below six months. The penalty is a fine of up to $200,000 and a jail term of up to 12 months.

With Airbnb and room-rental sites taking off globally - and over 2000 listings of Singapore rooms on such sites - it was always a matter of time before the regulators here wake up to the promise and perils of the home-sharing economy.

App companies have been innovative in matching buyers and sellers - whether it’s a widget you’re after, a caregiving service, a ride, a room in a foreign city.

Uber, having taken on taxis, is going after buses, reported the Financial Times this week. Drivers can offer rides in their cars to strangers going along their route.

Those concerned about sharing car space with a stranger in a car need only think about the hundreds of thousands who invite strangers to room in their homes for a fee - mostly without incident.

In any case, app companies like Airbnb are ingenious in developing peer checks. Those booking rooms invariably check hosts’ feedback before; and room hosts can also check guests’ social media profiles. GrabTaxi verifies taxi drivers’ identities. Airbnb verifies guests’ identities by asking for IDs to be scanned.

It got me wondering if URA, having dipped its toe into looking at room sharing, will go beyond reviewing, to regulating, and eventually emulating and releasing its own rooming app?

Imagine. With more high-end properties remaining vacant, there could be an app called Luxe-Luxe@Sg, showing vacant units in Sentosa Cove and Marina Bay and other posh areas. You can’t book the units of course, but you can at least drool.

On a more serious note, it’s easy to ignore emerging trends, and far harder to step in to figure out how to make sensible rules to protect different interests. URA should be commended for stepping in to study this.

Its move raises some interesting issues. If URA develops rules that allow condo-owners to rent out their rooms for income, how about HDB flat-owners, who arguably need the income even more?

And as for the argument that HDB flats should be “homes” and not be used as sources of income, that argument went out the window the moment HDB let flat-owners buy and move into private property and keep their flats for rental.

LTA first. Then URA. Should HDB be next to review and regulate the sharing economy?