Airbnb opinions divided on West Coast

7:13 pm on 23 December 2020

West Coast councils are split over what Airbnbs are doing to local communities - and they want a steer from the community on how to treat them.

Airbnb is a website for people to list, find, and rent lodging.

Photo: 123RF

The issue is the first one to fracture the unity of the group working on the new combined West Coast district plan, Te Tai o Poutini Plan Committee.

At a recent meeting, the region's mayors, councillors and iwi leaders were sharply divided on how to regulate Airbnb, with some urging a crackdown and others a hands-off approach.

Statistics show an explosion in the number of Airbnbs on the West Coast. In the past three years, 409 have been added to the pool of short-term rentals in the region. Those figures from Air DNA do not include numbers from other sites, such as BookaBach.

The issue has been the most talked-about topic during the Te Tai o Poutini Plan roadshows up and down the West Coast, according to planners advising the committee.

While Airbnbs were an important part of the accommodation mix, and were undoubtedly good for their owners, there was "disquiet" over their impact on local communities and the housing market, senior planner Lois Easton said.

"They were seen as really harmful for housing... even out at Moana, we met the local nurse and she'd been forced to live in the campground because she couldn't get rental accommodation."

People had been concerned that there was nowhere for workers to live, and in small settlements Airbnbs had the effect of hollowing out the community and affecting the way it functioned, Easton said.

The Building Act rules were stringent for people wanting to let houses short-term, but she suspected many Airbnb properties on the Coast would not comply.

The planners recommended councils require resource consent for all Airbnbs in residential zones, restrict their use to 180 days a year, limit guest numbers to five, or one carload, in most cases and make them either a discretionary or restricted discretionary activity.

Westland Mayor Bruce Smith was not impressed.

"I don't have any problem with Airbnbs. I don't think we should be regulating them. I know it's different on other parts of the Coast, but take away Airbnbs and you take away Agfest for Greymouth and the Wildfoods for Hokitika," Smith said.

Iwi representative Paul Madgwick strongly disagreed.

"It's no coincidence we are facing a serious housing crisis at a time when we have this explosion of Airbnbs on the Coast. They've doubled in three years, and I really think it goes to the heart of community viability."

When people were looking to move to the Coast they were not looking for scenery but for work, education and health services, and first and foremost a roof over their heads, he said.

"I really think it is the duty of councils to see to this - who else is going to ensure community viability? In recent years we've let that slip away, we've let this explosion happen and this is what we're now faced with."

The community had got by without Airbnbs until about five years ago. Hokitika people, for instance, had always opened up their homes for visitors for events like Wildfoods Festival, Madgwick said.

"I think you'll find that a lot of the people who bought up these houses are property speculators, not from the West Coast, who picked up a bargain and now charge top dollar for them.

"It should be harder for them, not easier - make them jump through the hoops."

West Coast Regional Council chair Allan Birchfield said councils should not interfere with people's right to use property to their best advantage.

"I disagree with Paul... the government has persecuted landlords almost out of the business. If they can get a better return from Airbnbs, well and good.

"I can't see how having a few people coming and going at an Airbnb is going to make anything any worse - we should just let it rip," Birchfield said.

Buller representatives had a very different perspective.

With the numbers of people moving to Buller, housing availability had become a problem and it would be unfortunate to see more houses locked up as Airbnbs and lost to the market, Deputy Mayor Sharon Roche said.

Regional councillor Laura Coll-McLaughlin, of Westport, who accompanied planners on the West Coast roadshows, said the district had a serious shortage of rental accommodation and was rapidly losing its status as a place where families could own their own home.

"I like to think the West Coast is a place where the Kiwi dream is still possible and you're not using the large part of your income on a house.

"With all the feedback we have had I'm quite surprised to hear such a difference in opinion around the table... I would hope we are listening to everyone we are here to represent."

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine echoed that.

"It's a real issue in Buller with professional people we would dearly love to welcome to town and we can't find long-term accommodation for them."

Cleine said big events like Agfest that filled the Airbnbs were a bit like the drug methamphetamine in terms of their short-lived impact.

"They give you a really good hit here and there but eventually that runs out and you realise you are focusing on the wrong things. We would much rather have long-term residents living in our community and contributing to a sustainable economy."

The Te Tai o Poutini Plan Committee voted to seek feedback on the hot-button Airbnb issue from their councils and communities - and the West Coast public - before taking the rules debate any further.

 * Disclosure: Paul Madgwick is the editor of the Greymouth Star, which employs the West Coast LDR.

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