SINGAPORE: On popular home-sharing site Airbnb, a search for homes in Singapore returns more than 300 listings – many flaunting pictures of perfectly manicured bedrooms and unbroken sea views.
The chances are, a good number of them are breaking the law.
Between 2014 and 2016, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) investigated more than 1,000 private residential properties for breaching the minimum stay duration. This equates to an average of about 330 properties a year.
In contrast, URA has already investigated about 600 properties from January to September this year, almost double the number investigated for each of the past few years.
The minimum rental period for private homes in Singapore is three months, meaning typical short-term lettings on platforms like Airbnb are prohibited. This protects the “living environment of neighbouring residents”, URA said.
“When residents suspect such misuse in their estates, they would provide feedback to URA,” a spokesperson told Channel NewsAsia. “The increase in public feedback could be partly due to heightened public awareness of the regulations in place.”
The spokesperson said a majority of these offences take place in condominiums.
“URA is informed of potential infringements either through feedback received by neighbouring residents who have been affected by the unauthorised use or by a condominium’s managing agent or management corporation,” the spokesperson added.
“All feedback will be investigated and URA works closely with the managing agents and management corporations on the investigations.”
An Airbnb host, who gave her name as Tina Tan, said she has been “questioned by condo management about the comings and goings of guests”.
“However, since we are the owners and are not breaking any rules, the questions have not escalated,” added the business development executive, who is in her 30s.
Ms Tan said she takes precautions to ensure her guests do not disturb her neighbours. This includes addressing any complaints relayed through the management.
“We are very careful in who we accept as guests and we also make it very clear that there should be no parties and no disturbances to the neighbours,” she added.
“At the end of the day, if we received strong opposition from management or neighbours, we would shut (the listing) down.”
While Ms Tan said the authorities have not come knocking on her door, she remains cautious.
“We are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” she noted. “If the risks start to outweigh the benefits, or if we receive a warning from the authorities, we will de-list it.”
On an Airbnb forum, host Andrew said last month that he was “invited to tea at URA, except none was served”.
“As far as I'm aware, as long as you stop and desist, I'm not aware of any follow-up enforcement action,” he wrote. “Once the complaining stops, URA moves on.”
In the majority of cases, URA said, offenders have complied after being served with enforcement notices, taking away the need for further action.
“In considering the appropriate enforcement action to be taken, URA will take into account the specific circumstances of each case,” the spokesperson added.
“If the offenders are recalcitrant or fail to comply with our requirements following enforcement actions, they are liable to be charged in court.”
Under the Planning Act, it is an offence to convert the use of a property for short-term accommodation without URA’s approval. Offenders may be fined up to S$200,000 and/or imprisoned for up to 12 months.
GUESTS WORRIED, EXPERT REACTS
This has sparked concern among Airbnb guests on the forum.
One of them, Janina from India, asked if she could be fined as an occupant. “I don’t want to get in trouble with Singapore law,” she said.
Vu from Vietnam said he booked four nights at an Airbnb in Singapore, but was unsure if he would be questioned by immigration officers. “Can I show the booking?” he asked. “Will they accept it?”
When it comes to enforcement, owners are “primarily responsible” because they have caused or allowed the offence to occur, URA said.
“While the occupants are not directly responsible for the unauthorised use of the property, they may also be subject to investigation,” the spokesperson added. “If found to be complicit, enforcement actions can be taken against them.”
Despite that, tourists here need not worry about ruined holidays, said Dr Michael Chiam, a senior tourism lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
“So far, we have not heard of any tourists being inconvenienced by the investigation,” he noted. “I guess the authority is also very tactful when it comes to carrying out their duty and dealing with the tourists.”
As for the hosts, Dr Chiam said most Singaporeans are “law-abiding citizens” who will not break the law.
“But there are some who take the risk,” he added. “They might feel that it helps to promote tourism through sharing authentic experiences with visitors.”
AIRBNB WANTS LEEWAY
Airbnb’s head of public policy for Southeast Asia Mich Goh said Singapore has a “thriving host community” that uses the platform to meet people from across the globe.
The increase in properties investigated, she noted, points to the need for a “clear framework for short-term rentals” that respects local needs.
There is some progress. In February, the Government said it was looking at creating a new class of private homes that would be approved specifically for short-term rentals.
Four months later, it cut the minimum rental period for private homes from six to three months.
However, a public consultation on short-term stays started more than two years ago has produced little else, with URA saying that it intends to conduct another public consultation on the reviewing of guidelines.
To that end, Ms Goh acknowledged that neighbour disturbances remain a key consideration in Singapore.
Therefore, residents can contact Airbnb directly through its neighbour tool if they have complaints about hosts or guests in their building, she said.
Then there is the friendly buildings programme, which lets building managements know when its residents are hosting guests and how much they will earn from it.
Building management can also request for a cut of its residents’ profits before allowing Airbnb bookings. “This means that home sharing is transparent, suits a building’s terms and provides extra income for both hosts and the building,” Ms Goh added.
Host Ms Tan said private home owners should be able to use their property as an alternative way of getting income.
According to Ms Goh, Airbnb hosts in Singapore earn an average of S$5,000 a year from bookings.
“We would prefer long-term rentals as it is less hassle,” Ms Tan added. “But after putting the apartment on the market for several months with no takers, we decided to try Airbnb to help us cover costs.”
TO LEGALISE OR NOT
Still, the fact remains that short-term rentals are illegal in Singapore.
Ms Shirley Tee, course manager of Nanyang Polytechnic’s Diploma in Hospitality and Tourism Management, said these regulations are in place to ensure the use of assets like property does not cause disorder.
“Regulations, like the economy, do need to evolve periodically to stay relevant, especially so in the face of application of technology in an increasingly complicated and interconnected world,” she added.
Ms Tan lamented Singapore’s “inconsistent approach” to Airbnb, referring to how the country hosts the company’s Asia Pacific headquarters and its increasing emphasis on an innovation-driven economy.
“If Singapore is really serious about outlawing Airbnb, it should enforce a three-month minimum booking for Singapore (homes) on the site, rather than going after thousands of individual hosts,” she said.
Analysts have argued that while Airbnb rentals here are low and its impact on the hotel and housing sectors is limited, any new legislation should be introduced sooner rather than later.
Nevertheless, Ms Goh urged hosts and guests to check local laws and regulations before listing or booking a property on Airbnb.
“Every city is unique and has its own set of priorities and challenges, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” she said.