SD City Council votes down short-term rental 'ban'

After nearly five hours of public testimony Nov. 1, San Diego City Council rejected President Sherri Lightner and Councilmember Lori Zapf’s proposed action to clarify that short-term vacation rentals are not allowed in single-family neighborhoods. While Lightner described the changes to the municipal code as minor edits, fellow councilmembers and members of the public felt the new language was effectively a “blanket ban” as short-term rentals would be prohibited in over 86 percent of the city.

“I don’t think this is the right path to take on this critical issue,” said Councilmember Chris Cate, who has drafted an ordinance he hopes City Council will consider in the future that allows for short-term housing and creates a “pathway for enforcement, certainty for the sharing economy and protections for residents.”

After the council voted down Lightner and Zaph’s proposal 7-2, Councilmember Todd Gloria proposed an alternative motion, requesting that the mayor’s office develop a budget for enhanced code enforcement and request that staff bring forward a framework for a comprehensive ordinance to allow for and regulate short-term rentals and home-sharing. The motion passed 7-2.

“We’re appreciative of the hundreds of San Diego residents who testified at council today and helped make the case that short-term rentals are, in fact, visitor accommodations, which are not permitted in single-family neighborhoods in the City of San Diego,” stated Lightner. “While we await a draft proposal from city staff to regulate short-term rentals, we urge the city to begin enforcing our existing municipal code zoning regulations now to bring relief to the thousands of residents who face nightly negative impacts from commercial hotel operations in their single-family neighborhoods.”

It is a problem, Lightner said, when the three-to-five-bedroom home next-door boasts online of sleeping 25 and disrupts the neighborhood with new visitors checking in every few days.

At the special meeting, hosts of short-term vacation rentals (STVRs) and short-term rentals (STRs) said that there was no question there was a need for sensible regulations but they didn’t agree to what they saw as an outright ban. Belinda Smith, representing the Short Term Rental Alliance of San Diego, which includes 550 members, mostly Airbnb hosts, said that it’s about more than just vacation lodgings, people need STRs when they are looking for a job, in town to receive healthcare or to assist with a family birth or death. Hosts also contribute an estimated $12 million in Transient Occupancy Tax, she said.

Many hosts said they rely on the extra income they get from home sharing to continue living in San Diego. They shared stories about how they rent rooms for two to three days in their homes to help pay their mortgage after unexpected circumstances such as losing their jobs, divorce and the sudden death of a spouse.

Many hosts said they vet their guests, don’t allow parties and have a zero-tolerance policy. As the proposed regulation states that guests have to stay a minimum of seven days, many said it would result in a “de-facto ban” on home sharing as it eliminates 90 percent of the activity that occurs in the marketplace as most guests stay an average of two to three nights.

“Reject this slap-dash scheme and have a robust discussion on the regulatory proposal that has been in the works for months,” Smith said.

Others argued that the STVRs “destroy the fabric of the community” and that the reason the city has zoning is to separate commercial and residential uses that are not compatible. They wore red shirts and waved signs that read “Neighborhoods are for Neighbors” and “Homes not Hotels” and complained of noise, nuisance and the fact that investors have come in to purchase homes in residential neighborhoods, evict long-term residents and convert housing to STVRs.

Tom Cote, from Save San Diego Neighborhoods, said STVRs are “replacing neighbors with tourists” and transforming homes into “mini hotels” and weekend event centers that regularly host wild bachelor and bachelorette parties and other celebrations with large gatherings of people.

“Zoning is a promise the city makes to current and future residents,” Cote said. “We all ask you to keep your promises.”

Lightner’s District 1 and Zapf’s District 2 are the most heavily impacted — in the beach towns of La Jolla, Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Point Loma. A resident shared how in one enclave of Crown Point there are five STVRs within 150 feet of her home — one two-story home has a rooftop deck that is often crowded with loud, intoxicated people.

Many agreed that the problem was not owner-occupied home sharing but the whole house rentals year-round in residential zones.

“Those homeowners did not sign up to live next to a Marriott,” said Barbara Bry, the sole candidate for District 1.

If elected, Bry said she hopes to work toward a resolution that truly protects San Diego neighborhoods.

In voting against Lightner and Zaph’s proposal, Councilmember Scott Sherman said the city has laws on the books to deal with every one of the problems expressed and they need to be enforced. He said he would like to see the city develop a system to have serious fines for the “bad actors” and use the money from the fines to increase code enforcement on nights and weekends.

“Are we so afraid to deal with issues that we have to propose blanket bans that restricts the rights of property owners?” Sherman asked. “To tell someone that they can’t rent their home is a problem.”

Councilmember David Alvarez said it was disappointing that the council made a motion a year-and-a -half ago asking the mayor to bring forward a plan to address STVRs and there had been zero progress.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said the reason there had been no movement was because the council’s resolution was much more vague than what is on the table now. He said Gloria’s motion had a “lot more details” which would make it easier to work with. City staff and the mayor’s staff said they believe they could come back to the Growth and Land Use Committee in the next four months.

Lightner said she could not support the alternative motion without the clarification that STVRs and STRs are visitor accommodations.

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