Trouble in paradise over short-term rentals

8th July 2019

Lake Macquarie City Council says the local government area has more than 400 "active" short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb, even though they are prohibited in residential areas under the council's planning rules.

Paradoxically, the council promotes short-term rentals on its tourism website and told the Newcastle Herald they were an "important part of the tourism industry".

The tension between long-term residents and neighbouring short-term rental houses is no better illustrated than in Beach Road, Wangi Wangi, where Chris and Nicky Burgess say their lives have become a nightmare since an investor bought the house next door in December and turned it into a full-time holiday rental.

The two waterfront houses are separated by only a few metres, and both have large entertaining decks which face each other.

The Burgesses have erected a large black and yellow banner on the side of their deck, facing the short-term rental, saying "NEIGHBOURS NOT STRANGERS" and "Residents NOT Short Term Rentals".

Another large sign reads: "This house is being used as an illegal business in a residential area. We would rather live next door to a home with real neighbours."

The two properties are in a peaceful setting looking south over the water to Pulbah Island, but the Burgesses say that tranquility has been shattered since the house next door became a short-term holiday rental.

"With all the neighbours here, we've been here 16 years, we get together every Tuesday night and go for a meal at the local pub," Mrs Burgess said.

"We do trivia, take each other's bins in. We know when people are away and when they're not away. We help each other out when we're not well.

"What we find really hard is the continuing strangers coming and going [next door]. We come home and we go, 'What's happening?' Not everyone's noisy, but it's not knowing who's there."

She likened their lives to "living next door to a pub".

"They sit on [the deck] drinking, smoking. It's normally three to five days. When they go another lot come in the afternoon. It's regular. Not just weekends but during the week.

"Summertime it's just about constant. January, February it was constant, Easter.

"For example, on Friday night we got home at midnight and at 12.30 there were 14 people out there just sitting outside and talking.

"We had one group on there with about 20 people. We've been abused. It's not properly policed. There's only meant to be 10. It was terrible."

Mrs Burgess said she had created a closed Facebook group for people with similar problems.

"One person I know on Dobell Drive had one on both sides of him. He's been here three years. The house across the road couldn't sell so they're Airbnbing that, so he's got three around him. It's all the waterfronts.

"I spoke to the compliance officer at the council and he said they just can't keep up with it. There's more and more coming all the time."

Mr Burgess said most people underestimated the effects of short-term rentals until they they were faced with one next door.

"If there's a house for sale next door to you, you could be next," he warned.

The council said it was conducting an investigation into the Beach Road property.

"While there are penalties that apply for prohibited development, in anticipation of the introduction of changes to state planning policies regarding STRA, council staff are taking enforcement action only in cases where there are adverse impacts," a council spokesperson said.

Mr Piper said he had "great sympathy for people who just want to live their lives in peace without the house next door becoming a quasi hotel or party house on any given night of the week".

"I don't believe this type of letting should or could be banned outright because the genie is well out of the bottle and there is clearly no shortage of willing hosts or guests in this new industry, but it's in obvious need of strict regulation," he said.

The NSW government proposed a new regulatory framework for the short-term rental industry 12 months ago. It includes a code of conduct with a "two strikes and you're out" policy which would ban for five years hosts or guests who committed two serious breaches of the code in a two-year period.

"A strike will include any behaviour which unreasonably interferes with a neighbour's quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their home," the draft code says. 

But Mr Piper said the code had not been drafted and the government was dragging its heels on the issue.

"I've raised the matter in Parliament a number of times since that legislation was passed because I can't believe we're still sitting here 12 months down the track waiting for the government to get the code of conduct drawn up," he said.

"Meanwhile, the fires in some residential zones are getting worse while the government decides on what colour fire hose to use.

"I supported that legislation because I believe it's a step in the right direction, but I don't believe it goes far enough.

"I believe most of the problems with short-term holiday letting could be alleviated by legislation which requires the home owner to live on site. Anything beyond that is not suitable for a residential zone."

The council estimated the industry provided accommodation for 15,000 people a year and brought $3 million in spending to the Lake economy.

The spokesperson said the new state planning policy would permit most of the existing short-term rentals in the city when it was introduced "over the coming months".

"Council are still awaiting the exhibition of the code of conduct, which we are hoping will address amenity issues such as sound generation, waste management and parking.

"We are also hoping this code of conduct outlines the compliance process such as how issues are managed and penalties for poor operators and visitors who cause adverse effects to neighbours."

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