Pressure grows on Airbnb to permit long-term rentals as NSW floods worsen housing crisis

Republished from The Guardian Australia

Airbnb has announced plans to provide free short-term accommodation for flood-affected residents in the northern rivers, as pressure mounts on the company to switch its model and offer long-term rentals at market prices for homeless people.

Before the floods, the area was already suffering a housing crisis, with 2,300 homes needed to take the heat out of the market and create what would be considered a healthy vacancy rate. Now it will be felt acutely, with early calculations showing more than 2,195 houses have been rendered uninhabitable because of the floods.

More than 6,260 Airbnbs are operating in the area, according to the open source data tool Inside Airbnb. Of those, 4,006 (64%) had a high availability rate, meaning they were available to tourists most of the year and unlikely to be an owner-occupier renting out their home occasionally.

It is not clear how many of the listed properties were damaged by the floods and neither Airbnb or its competitor, Stayz, has provided those statistics.

The housing situation in the area is dire. The two evacuation centres are full and with nowhere else to go, houses are cramped, with up to three families living in the same property.

There has been pressure from local residents, advocates and some politicians for companies like Airbnb and Stayz to open their doors and offer families long term rentals. Airbnb said it was working to provide free accommodation on a temporary basis, but was yet to release the details.

“Our hearts go out to all those impacted by the floods and the local authorities working hard to keep our communities safe,” a spokesperson said when approached for comment.

“We are currently working with a partner on an initiative to offer up free, temporary housing via our Host network and hope to have more to share shortly.

“In the meantime, Airbnb is encouraging its community to donate to the Australian Red Cross Floods Appeal.”

“It’s unclear what is being offered free, for who, and for how long – people need certainty and security,’ Leong said.

In November, the New South Wales government changed the short-term holiday policy and now several of LGAs in the northern rivers are subject to a restricted 180-day rental period.

Leong said the state government needed to step in to either suspend short-term rental accommodation, unless in exceptional circumstances, or provide incentives for owners to offer long-term leases.

“[This would] ensure that people who have nowhere to live have access to every available rental property at reasonable market rates for the next 6-12 months.”

Kate Stroud, a Lismore resident, said with no assistance from the government or accommodation providers they have been left to fend for themselves.

Stroud and her partner lost everything in the floods and have been staying with friends in Lismore.

“Basically everyone is staying with friends, you have multiple people, families, all staying in one house,” she said.

“There was already a housing crisis here due to the increase of people coming during Covid and investors from bigger cities buying property here and converting them to Airbnb.”

The flood water level in her house went up to her neck, and they had to be rescued by a neighbour with a jetski. They have been told it will take three months just to get the power back on, and are worried building supplies, which were already struggling with supply chain issues, will be hard to come by.

“Our friend has said we can stay, but that’s not realistic if it’s months and months,” she said.

The chief executive of Northern Rivers Community Gateway, Jenni Beetson-Mortimer, said the community urgently needs temporary to long-term housing.

“There’s no transitional accommodation at all,” she said. “It’s dire here for the community at the moment.”

She called on the government to help provide emergency housing for people, so they weren’t overcrowded in the homes that survived.

“We need the government to do something in that space.”

Sandra Johnston lives on the Gold Coast, but she is stepping in to help. Two days ago, she reactivated the Caravans for Flood Victims (Give, Loan or Rent) Facebook group – which she started with a friend after the bushfires. The group helps people with caravans get in contact with people who have lost their homes.

“Now they’re drying out down there I thought this would be perfect,” Johnston said. “If everyone who had a caravan or motorhome lent one, it would mean those people trying to clean their houses would have a shower and toilets. They’re self-sufficient.”

The group has only been up three days but she has already had interest and hopes word will spread.

“We want a flood of caravans now,” she said.

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