The Straits Times says

Long and short of home rentals

One should not foreclose the growth of the "sharing economy" because new technology to support peer-to-peer economic interaction might yield valuable uses and opportunities. But in some areas, like lodging and transport, where large operators (backed by venture capitalists) dominate, notably Airbnb and Uber, it's better to call it a "digital matching economy". By setting aside the favourable connotation of "sharing", one might be able to take a truly hard-headed look at just how to regulate this phenomenon in one sector (like home rentals) and how to offer more leeway in another area (for example, private-hire car services).

Public policy requires the authorities to take a more cautious approach to residential housing because of conflicting interests, possible harmful influences and changes to the tone of living spaces. Social order and public peace might be disrupted if droves of transient occupiers and tourists are attracted to cheaper rentals in public housing estates, condominiums and other types of housing. The ease and efficiency afforded by technology could make it hard to monitor such rental activity, raising the risk of social friction. Whereas in transportation, high-tech means of reducing the ownership of private cars (for example, by sharing the use of vehicles) would be welcome.

These considerations explain why the authorities here have strengthened the rule against short-term home rentals (less than six months) by enhancing enforcement powers. However, there is no doubt some flexibility will help to address the needs of certain groups like foreign patients recuperating from medical treatment obtained here, skilled workers from abroad engaged in a project over months, foreign tertiary students doing modular courses, or even locals whose homes are, say, undergoing renovation or not yet built. The use of a specified category of private homes for short-term rentals would benefit them, as well as home owners who wish to unlock the value tied up in brick-and-mortar assets.

Homes suitable for short-term rentals could be apartments in the central business district or bustling, mixed-use areas like Balestier, which are close to medical facilities and commercial services. Shoebox apartments could also be suitable as these are typically not used by families. The minimum period could be flexible, with scope for the management corporation of a condominium to determine the duration or to disallow such rentals altogether if the majority of owners wish to protect the condo's ambience. Building managers might wish to make provisions to recover costs due to breakage and accelerated wear and tear of facilities, to maintain safety and hygiene standards, and to prevent overcrowding. While giving the access economy room to grow, one should also strike a balance between competing interests.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2017, with the headline 'Long and short of home rentals'. Print Edition | Subscribe