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Airbnb on shaky ground amidst COVID-19 crackdown

Short-stay accommodation platform Airbnb continues to find itself in the firing line of social distancing measures which come on the back of new changes to strata laws in NSW being rolled out this week.

Under the new coronavirus regulations, people should be staying at their own accommodation. Exemptions are in place for those who are required to use short-term accommodation for work.

While it is technically not illegal to offer short-term accommodation, theoretically guests would be breaking the law to get to the accommodation.

On top of the issues with social distancing, Airbnb has been fighting the NSW Government’s new strata laws, set to come into place on April 10, that could severely limit short-term accommodation in Sydney.

The proposed new strata law gives apartment buildings the legal right to ban investor-owners from short-term letting their apartment. However, a general meeting must first take place to adopt the new law.

Rumours have circulated recently that Airbnb sent out an email to its NSW hosts stating that the strata laws won’t be effective in stopping apartment owners short-term letting because building owners cannot meet in-person to adopt the law.

The move has drawn criticism from many camps with strata lawyer Amanda Farmer, of Sydney legal practice Lawyers Chambers, suggesting Airbnb’s message to hosts is disgraceful and would appear to be a transparent attempt to prioritise profits over the safety of residents in strata schemes.

“I have seen Airbnb’s email sent out to hosts today. It is deplorable. It tells hosts that current NSW Fair Trading guidance is to avoid in-person meetings and that meetings can only be held electronically if a resolution is first passed in-person permitting this,” Ms Farmer said.

“Reading between the lines, this looks like Airbnb is telling apartment owners that they have nothing to worry about and can keep letting their apartments via the platform despite this new law and despite the government’s Public Health Order directing people to stay at home.”

Ms Farmer, who has now been pushing for weeks for stricter COVID-19 guidelines when it comes to rules for strata properties, said AirBnb had no place attempting to educate apartment owners on the intricacies of strata law.

“This is a complex area of the law,” she said.

“Some of the statements in Airbnb’s email are just plain wrong.

“Clearly, they are panicked and in their panic it seems they have overstepped.

“Their incorrect statements are going to cause confusion for apartment hosts, apartment buildings and residents generally, at a time when anxieties are already significantly heightened.”

Sydney strata manager Reena Van Aalst from strata management group Strata Central, who along with Ms Farmer co-hosts the Your Strata Property podcast, said the recent proliferation of offering short-term rentals as quarantine accommodation had caused some anxiety in the buildings she manages.

“These quarantine apartments have been very concerning from many of our strata schemes and have caused much anxiety for residents,” Mrs Van Aalst said.

“In some apartment buildings there are many elderly residents as well as immunocompromised residents who have been battling cancer.

“Now they are even more increased risk with occupants who are quarantined.”

Reuben Schwarz, who runs BnbGuard – which monitors short-term rental accommodation websites for ads in apartment buildings and reports on booking activity and by-law compliance – said they had recently found around 150 listings in the Sydney Council area advertising self-isolation accommodation with taglines such as “one-bedroom apartment available for self-isolation”.

Mr Schwarz said the offering of short-term quarantine apartments had been a “whole new can of worms” in the short-term rental space which was already a problematic issue for strata buildings prior to COVID-19.

“Many of these are apartments and usually the neighbours are not aware that someone is self-isolating next door, for example by being careful when meeting them in the corridors.”

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Rowan Crosby

Rowan Crosby is a senior journalist at Elite Agent specialising in finance and real estate.