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Airbnb pushes back on Singapore's tough home rental rules

By Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie

By Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Short-term home rental service Airbnb on Friday called Singapore's regulatory framework "untenable" as authorities said they planned to hold discussions with home-sharing platforms and resident groups soon on how such accommodation may be allowed.

The reaction by Airbnb to the latest regulatory hurdle came amid its efforts to work with authorities around the world keen to minimize its impact on private housing and the hotel industry.

While Singapore has been an early adopter of the sharing economy, it has strict rules regarding property rentals in the city-state and charged two men with unauthorized short-term letting of apartments earlier this week.

"The current framework is untenable and does not reflect how Singaporeans travel or use their home today," Airbnb said on Friday in a statement addressing Singapore's regulations.

"Nearly three years since the URA's first public consultation, it's disappointing that the discussion has not moved forward," it said, referring to the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Private homes in Singapore are subject to a minimum stay of three consecutive months, under rules revised earlier this year, and cannot accommodate transient occupants.

While saying there was space for short-term accommodation in Singapore, the URA told Reuters the government will review and consider safeguards to ensure it does not negatively affect the "amenity" of residential estates.

It said it would soon start a public consultation on the matter. A previous consultation in 2015 did not reach a clear consensus on short-term rentals.

Airbnb may be conscious of the knock-on effect that Singapore's tough stance may have on other cities in the region, said Brian King, associate dean of the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

"They may be feeling like they need to take a slightly more aggressive stance this time to avoid this leading to crackdowns elsewhere," King said.

This week, Singapore charged two men with unauthorized short-term letting of four apartments in the first such prosecution. If found guilty, the two are liable to a fine of up to S$200,000 ($148,150) per offence.

The rentals were arranged through Airbnb, which was not referred to in court documents.

In a message seen by Reuters, Airbnb this week alerted hosts in Singapore to the court case and asked them to "share" their reason for hosting and why it is important the government pass laws that permit short-term home sharing.

Airbnb, which matches people wishing to rent out all or part of their homes to temporary guests, said it has 8,700 listings in the city-state. Singapore has high population density, and its limited land area means a majority of the 5.6 million people live in apartments.

HUNDREDS INVESTIGATED

The URA said part of the public consultation will involve working with key stakeholders such as representatives of home-sharing platforms, resident groups and other accommodation providers.

The planning agency said it investigated 985 cases of unauthorized short-term accommodation in private homes in 2015 and 2016, and about 750 cases in 2017's first 11 months.

The firm, founded in 2008 in San Francisco, has clashed with hoteliers and authorities in cities including New York, Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, which in some cases are limiting short-term rentals. Critics accuse Airbnb of exacerbating housing shortages and driving out lower-income residents.

One host in Singapore, who has listed on Airbnb for the past two years after failing to find a long-term tenant and uses the income to pay the mortgage, is considering pulling the apartment from Airbnb's website due to the authority's increased scrutiny.

"I am worried that I will have an empty apartment sitting there, that is not going to generate any income," said the person, who spoke to Reuters on the condition of anonymity. "Any income that I earn doesn't justify this kind of risk."

(Reporting by Aradhana Aravindan and John Geddie; Additional reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Richard Borsuk and Christopher Cushing)