New private home category for short-term rentals under study

The Ministry of National Development is studying the option of creating a new category of private apartment owners who would be allowed to rent out their place for a short period.

National Development Minister Lawrence Wong announced this yesterday as Parliament passed legislation that forbids these owners from renting out their whole flat or rooms for a short period on websites such as Airbnb.

The prospective category would encompass existing properties as well as new residential sites that may be designated specifically for the building of short-term rental properties.

Until then, the Planning (Amendment) Bill states that it is illegal to do such rentals for less than six months, unless the owners have obtained permission from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

It also limits the number of unrelated tenants in private apartments to six, down from the current eight.

Those with more than six will be treated as dormitories and will require URA's approval.

"Private residential properties should not be used for other purposes without planning approval, as there is a need to safeguard the living environment of residents in the neighbourhood," Mr Wong said during the debate on the Bill.

The changes to the law arose from growing complaints last year about short-term rentals.

The URA received 608 complaints, 61 per cent more than the 377 in 2015. There were 375 complaints in 2014.

The new law will allow the URA to "make sure the issue does not worsen further", Mr Wong said.

It also gives URA powers to impose conditions on developers to make new buildings more liveable and friendlier to pedestrians through the provision of public spaces and covered walkways.

These features account for only a small component of development costs and will not reduce the development potential of sites because they are excluded from the overall floor area, Mr Wong added.

URA officers will also be given more powers to investigate breaches of planning regulations, including summoning witnesses for interviews and entering premises for inspections.

Those who set up unauthorised dormitories will also face stiffer penalties, including a jail term. And the maximum fine for those who tear down conserved buildings, both partially or fully, will go up from $200,000 to $500,000.

In addition, property owners will be held responsible for unauthorised works by their tenants or contractors, unless they can show they have taken precautions to prevent them.

During the debate, four MPs spoke up strongly on the problems caused by short-term rentals, as they called for rules to govern them.

"I have many residents complaining to me about tourists on their floor, moving luggage in and out at all hours of the day, disturbing their rest," said Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC).

Said Mr Saktiandi Supaat (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC): "A Singaporean can, if there are no rules in place, wake up one day and find himself being stared at by someone from another country staying next door and a new one every other week or month or so."

An Airbnb spokesman in Singapore said the new law lacks details. He noted that it has been nearly two years since the URA started public consultations on short-term home rentals. "It is disappointing that the discussion has not moved forward," he said.

Mr Wong said in Parliament that the URA is still consulting stakeholders, and will provide more details soon. "We do see a role for home- sharing platforms to continue operating in Singapore so long as they are properly regulated and so long as there is a level playing field between them and similar entities that provide short-term rentals like hotels and service apartments," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 07, 2017, with the headline 'New private home category for short-term rentals under study'. Print Edition | Subscribe