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Neighbours’ lives turned upside down by Airbnb and other ‘disruptors’

The Age, 25 July 2018
Defecating in the sauna. Breaking bottles in the apartment tower’s swimming pool. Leaving running taps on so apartments flood. Vomiting in the foyer. This is just some of the behaviour Katherine Hughes has seen from short-stay guests in her A’Beckett Street apartment tower.

It’s the same block where, on Saturday, 19-year-old Laa Chol was killed on level 56. That apartment was booked via Airbnb.

But, HomeAway and other “sharing economy” platforms are used just as much to let units in the Eq Tower, where Ms Hughes and her family have lived since it opened last year.

On Saturday, Ms Hughes struggled to get a lift downstairs – all were stuck on level 56.

When she finally descended to the foyer, to take her son to weekend sport, police filled the foyer, there to investigate Ms Chol’s death (a 17-year-old has since been charged with murder).

The death shocked residents. The violence didn’t.

“Most residents will be able to tell you of a time when a party on their floor got out of control and … they were too scared to confront the partygoers,” says Ms Hughes, who is regularly kept awake by parties. Last time she confronted youths at 3am, they abused her.

Each weekend the 70 per cent of permanent residents in the tower face an onslaught of holidaymakers who Ms Hughes says “don’t care if you see them vomiting or something like that”.

Since Saturday’s incident, The Age has spoken to dozens of residents affected by a range of short-stay lettings in their block, their street, their neighbourhood.

Since Airbnb began “disrupting” the hotel industry a decade ago, the home-sharing economy has escalated wildly.

In Melbourne, there are 20,400 homes listed on that site alone, according to the InsideAirbnb website, which tracks the company (Airbnb says the site is inaccurate and while Inside Airbnb doesn’t reveal its funders, it is likely to be the hotel industry).

Some, like Port Melbourne host Gillian Butler are the very model of sharing economy success.

The ground floor of her three-storey building is used for a business. The two floors above, which Ms Butler once rented to her children, are now on Airbnb.

“I love it because I can call the shots,” says Ms Butler, who enjoys meeting people from all over the world.

Ms Butler is the sort of success story Airbnb and other sharing sites use to promote a system used by 1.8 million guests in Melbourne last year, one which Deloitte Access Economics says now contributes $413 million to Victoria’s gross state product.

There is no stopping Airbnb and other companies now – in part because it is so popular with travellers.

As Airbnb has boomed, scores of competing homesharing websites, and established travel sites, have joined the frenzy.

But Eq Tower’s Ms Hughes says the idea companies such as Airbnb are trying to maintain – “a sharing concept – rent out a bedroom if you have a spare” – is increasingly a fiction.

“Now it’s a business designed to help people get cheap accommodation and for investors to make more money,” says Ms Hughes, who argues “the sharing economy” is slowly transforming into an economy where neighbours such as herself are being asked to foot the bill for other peoples’ profits.

This is hardly news to the Victorian government – and yet it has done nothing.

More regulation
Labor came to office promising to “improve the regulation of CBD residential buildings, so property is protected from unruly ‘short stay’ parties”.

The government’s response to an inquiry analysing its proposed short-stay bill found that “anecdotal evidence” indicated “some apartment residents currently feel unsafe in their buildings”.

That anecdotal evidence is starting to turn into a flood of hard evidence.

In the wake of Laa Chol’s death, outraged residents contacted The Age with remarkably similar tales of hell caused by short-term lettings.

Among them is Jack Clarke, who in 2008 moved into his Queens Road apartment with housemate Peter Itchins. They had no problems with the apartment upstairs until last year, when it was placed on Airbnb.

Now, he says, parties regularly rage upstairs into the early hours of the night, suitcase wheels scrape across their ceilings, there is regular loud singing and dragging of furniture above them.

Mr Clarke, a tax lawyer, has scrupulously documented his complaints, which range from confronting a scared woman with a blood nose to regular trips upstairs at 2am to demand the noise is kept down, to encountering groups of up to 15 people staying in the three-bedroom apartment.

Mr Clarke has contacted Airbnb repeatedly; the company’s response is it is powerless to act. (On Wednesday, an Airbnb spokesman told The Age it was investigating the complaints again.)

The pair’s negotiation with the apartment’s owner, Mr Clarke says, has resulted in everything from offers of cash bribes to a threat of an apprehended violence order against them.

Short-stay crackdown
While Victoria has done nothing to regulate the short-stay industry, governments elsewhere have cracked down on Airbnb and other platforms.

In Sydney, laws may soon be passed so that apartments can’t be let for more than 180 nights a year and a vote of 75 per cent or more of owners in a block can ban short-term lettings outright.

Japan is set to enforce tougher laws on apartment sharing, and protest movements in cities including Venice, Berlin and San Francisco have seen residents publicise how short-term lets are forcing out long-term locals.

The Greens MP for Melbourne, Ellen Sandell, was elected in 2014 and has regularly been contacted by residents affected by the rise of Airbnb and other home-sharing sites.

She says, while Labor promised to tackle the issue since the last election, they didn’t really want to do anything. “It’s taken a crisis for Daniel Andrews to become interested”.