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Illegal short-term accommodation – 600 suspected perpetrators every year

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Author: Ravi Philemon

In responding to a parliamentary question on illegal short-term accommodation of private properties in each of the last five years, the Minister for National Development said that his Ministry, on average acts on about 600 cases every year.

What is the profile of owners who do illegal short-term accommodation?

He was responding to the question of “what is the number of owners who have been issued warnings and charged respectively; what is the profile of these owners in terms of their age groups, nationalities and number of properties owned; and what is the number of recalcitrant property owners.”

In replying to the question of illegal short-term accommodation, the Minister said:

“In the past five years, URA investigated an average of about 600 suspected cases of illegal short-term accommodation (STA) per year. Where an offence was established, URA has taken appropriate action against the perpetrators.

These offenders include both property owners and tenants. They come from a wide range of age groups, and are mostly Singaporeans. URA has found that while some offenders are responsible for a large number of STA listings, they typically do not own those properties, but instead rent from the owners and then sublet them illegally to short-term occupants. For such cases, property owners will also be held liable for the infringements occurring in their properties, even if the offending use was carried out by the tenant.

For those renting out homes on a casual basis, and caught for the first time, URA will impose a composition fine, of up to $5,000. Since May 2019, URA has issued 14 composition fines.

For recalcitrant offenders and those who undertake STA operations on a commercial basis, URA will prosecute them in Court and seek significantly higher penalties. To date, URA has charged 10 such individuals, comprising a mix of Singaporeans and foreigners on work passes. Four of them have been fined between $13,000 and $70,000 by the Court. The remaining six individuals together face a total of more than 80 charges, and their cases are currently before the Court.

URA will continue to step up its investigations and enforcement efforts.”

illegal short-term accommodation

600 cases of illegal short-term accommodation investigated every year

A recent DBS Note said that home sharing platforms proliferation here were inhibited by legal restrictions. DBS noted that in Singapore, the regulator has made it clear that short-term rental is legal. However, the minimum 3-month rental period for private residential properties and minimum 6-month rental period for public housing (only a foreigner on an employment pass is allowed for public housing) are prohibitive to the growth of home sharing platforms in Singapore. Hence, the level of development for Singapore’s short-term rental regulatory framework is relatively low.

From 2014 to 2018, HDB dealt with 3,300 unauthorised flat rental cases, revealed the Minister of National Development. The Minister revealed the statistics on unauthorised flat rental cases in a written reply to a parliamentary question, in July 2019.

The Minister, Mr Lawrence Wong, was responding to a parliamentary question by Cheng Li Hui, Member of Parliament for Tampines GRC. Ms Cheng asked:

“Over the last five years, what is the number of complaints received by HDB pertaining to foreign tenants in HDB estates; what is the nature of these complaints; how does HDB follow up on the complaints; and whether measures are in place to help first-time foreign tenants of HDB flats familiarise with the norms and practices in HDB estates as well as living in Singapore.”

In revealing the figures on unauthorised flat rental cases dealt with by HDB, Mr Wong said:

“From 2014 to 2018, HDB received about 3,300 cases of feedback on suspected unauthorised flat rentals, dis-amenities or overcrowding of HDB flats by foreign and non-foreign tenants. HDB investigates every case of public feedback received, on top of the proactive inspections that it carries out. Depending on the severity and circumstances of the infringement, HDB may issue a written warning, impose a financial penalty, or acquire the flats compulsorily from the owners.

HDB actively promotes gracious and harmonious living in public housing through various initiatives. For example, HDB has a network of volunteers to help spread tips on neighbourliness at community events and door-to-door visits. HDB also gives out the Good Neighbour Awards to recognise individuals who have gone the extra mile with their acts of neighbourliness.

Besides HDB’s efforts, there are also initiatives undertaken by other government agencies. For example, the People’s Association’s nationwide network of more than 1,400 Integration and Naturalisation Champions reach out to new immigrants and help them settle into the community. The National Integration Council works with community groups, immigrant associations, schools, and other partners to help foreigners and immigrants understand our local laws, norms and culture.”

Besides revealing the data on unauthorised flat rental cases dealt with by HDB, and how HDB handles such cases, the Minister also answered a question on unauthorised short-term accommodation listings online.

In responding to Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC MP, Chong Kee Hiong, who asked: “Regarding listings of Singapore residential properties for lease periods shorter than the legally permitted durations on (home sharing platforms) such as Airbnb, what measures are in place to prevent such listings; how rigorous are the enforcement measures; whether penalties should be increased; and whether the Ministry will consider penalties for websites which host such illegal listings including temporary bans”, Mr Wong answered saying:

“The listings on websites like Airbnb typically do not contain specific information on the property and its owner, or the terms of the rental arrangement. So the key to effective enforcement against illegal short-term accommodation (STA) is not so much by targeting the listings, but by conducting investigations against all suspected cases and taking action against the STA hosts.

Over the past year, URA has been stepping up its investigations of residential units suspected of STA use. Where there is evidence of illegal STA operations, URA will take enforcement action and impose penalties on the perpetrators. For those renting out their homes on a casual basis, and caught for the first time, URA will impose a composition fine, of up to $5,000. Since May 2019, URA has issued 7 such fines.

For repeat offenders and those who undertake STA operations on a commercial scale, URA will prosecute them in court, and seek higher penalties. So far, URA has secured 4 convictions in Court. With the increase in investigation and enforcement actions, we can expect more cases to be fined and prosecuted in Court over the coming months.

There have been a few cases of estate agents who were complicit in illegal STA activities. Besides the financial penalties imposed by URA or the Courts, the CEA will separately bring these errant agents to task by revoking their registration and debarring them for a period of time.”

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