Airbnb hosts who made illegal home rentals earned at least $19,000 over 5 weeks

The prosecution is seeking to fine Terence Tan En Wei (left) and Yao Songliang with a $20,000 fine for each of the four charges, or a total of $80,000 each. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - Two men who ran a business providing unauthorised short-term stays earned at least $19,000 over a period of five weeks, a district court heard on Tuesday (Feb 27).

Terence Tan En Wei, 35, and Yao Songliang, 34, pleaded guilty to four charges on Tuesday and the prosecution is seeking a fine of $20,000 for each charge, or a total of $80,000 for each man.

This is the first case of prosecution for a breach of URA's rules on short-term rentals. Rules making home sharing illegal kicked in on May 15 last year.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Selene Yap told the court that while the offences took place between May 15 and June 21 last year (2017), the total profits reaped by the duo were likely to be much higher as they had been renting flats at d'Leedon in Farrer Road since late 2015.

They did so by setting up companies - bearing names like Bluewater IT Solutions, Jim Hunter Pte Ltd and CyberCars Prime Workshop - through which they rented four different units at the condominium.

Though the rental contracts stated that the flats could not be sublet, Tan and Yao, who were both property agents with Savills Residential, regularly advertised these flats on home-sharing sites like Airbnb and Homeaway as well as Web portals like Craigslist.

Their licences have since been revoked by the Council of Estate Agencies.

In one instance, the duo pocketed £2,455(S$4,406) by renting out a 59 sq m flat to two guests for 23 nights. They earned 38,823 Philippine pesos (S$1,039) by renting out another flat of the same size to six guests for five nights.

In all four cases relating to the charges, the guests booked their stays and made payment through Airbnb.

The prosecution also said the duo "used deception and evasion" to hide their activities such as by leading guests to a different unit to wait out suspicious security guards who had followed them, or asking guests to lie about the actual unit they were staying in.

Ms Wong Soo Chih, who represented the pair, sought for her clients to be fined $5,000 on each charge, or $20,000 each.

The maximum fine is $200,000 for each charge. District Judge Kenneth Choo delayed sentencing to April 3, and asked both sides for further submissions on suitable starting points for sentencing on future cases.

Last February (2017), an Urban Redevelopment Authority guideline against any short-term accommodation of less than six months in private residences, in place since 2009, was incorporated into the Planning Act - making any such short-term stays illegal.

Then the bar was lowered to under three months for private homes from June 30 last year. For HDB flats, the minimum stay is still six months.

While both Tan and Yao committed the offences before the three-month bar set in, the durations of their tenants' stays were still much shorter than either requirement.

In a statement, Airbnb head of public policy for Southeast Asia Mich Goh said: "We believe that an individual should, minimally, be able to share the private residence that they live in; and that no individual should be criminalised for sharing their home."

She added that the company has "repeatedly committed" to working with the Government to find a legislative solution that suits Singapore.

A consultation paper that sets out a regulatory framework for short-term accommodation will be released before April, the Government has said.

Correction note: This story has been edited for clarity.

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