Vacation rental debate heats up in San Diego

Another short term rental debate heating up in our nation. Any hosts from the San Diego area who can shed some light on the situation for their city?

Long-simmering tensions over the rapid rise of short-term vacation rentals in San Diego bubbled over Wednesday at City Hall as homeowners on both sides of the debate squared off in what promises to be a lengthy process for regulating overnight stays in homes from Mission Hills to Pacific Beach.

With hundreds of people showing up to voice their concerns, the City Council’s Smart Growth and Land Use Committee was forced to continue the hearing to May 29. At that time, all four members will be present to finish listening to public comments and provide city staff with guidance for rewriting what are now vague, out-of-date regulations that don’t directly govern the kind of vacation rentals popularized by home sharing sites like Airbnb.

Longtime homeowners who say their neighborhoods have been overrun by vacation rental properties that disturb their peace day and night pleaded with council members to strictly regulate short-term stays and beef up enforcement of neighborhood nuisance violations. Meanwhile, other property owners urged elected leaders to not over-regulate home sharing, which they say has allowed them to fix up their homes, pay their mortgages and supplement fixed incomes. Representatives of professional rental management companies also weighed in.

“The goal we have is to provide our staff with direction to clarify the municipal code as it relates to short-term rentals,” council committee chairwoman Lorie Zapf told the overflow crowd.

The effort, though, could take at least a year or more to complete, the city’s Independent Budget Analyst office warned in a report that it produced for Wednesday’s meeting. Just a day earlier, the Carlsbad City Council approved an ordinance that would limit short-term vacation rentals to only the city’s coastal zone, despite a staff recommendation that they be allowed throughout Carlsbad. The legislation culminated more than a year of study and public review.

Throughout the county, regulations vary widely, with Coronado barring short-term rentals, Solana Beach limiting them to seven-day minimum stays and Encinitas permitting them but not in multifamily dwellings or condominiums.

In San Diego, there is nothing in the municipal code that precisely defines a vacation rental, although the regulations that come closest are those governing bed-and-breakfasts, where residents are renting out one or more rooms in a house in which they are living. In some cases, special permits are needed that require owners to notify surrounding neighbors, while in other cases, it is not necessary.

Waving small green plastic flags and sporting stickers reading “Fair to Share,” many of the pro-vacation rental speakers cautioned the city that any attempt to over-regulate rentals would force homeowners to seek ways to sidestep new rules.

“Home sharing is not new, but Airbnb has figured out how to make it safe for people like me to allow people into my home,” said Belinda Smith, who helped create the Short Term Rental Alliance of San Diego to advocate for those who share their homes via online sites like Airbnb, VRBO and HomeAway. “Keep things simple, clarify the code to include home sharers. We oppose any call for banning short-term rentals in any specific neighborhood. Hosts are already looking at ways to beat the system if there’s any limitation on stays.”

Much stricter regulations, including limitations on stays, are absolutely needed, said many residents, who argued that the growing number of disorderly renters they’ve witnessed represent more than “just a few bad apples.”

“Our neighbors began renting out their home for parties for up to 3 to 7 days. We’ve asked the renters numerous times to keep the noise down,” said Mission Hills homeowner Suzanne McGrath, who added that renters have been unruly, egging cars and swearing at neighborhood residents. “We never know who would be living next door to us or how long they would be there. These are hotels and don’t belong in our single family neighborhoods.”

Many of the vacation rental hosts who showed up at City Hall Wednesday were urged to attend by Airbnb, which had representatives passing out stickers. Spokeswoman Alison Schumer said the San Francisco-based company will “encourage hosts to tell their story if there is a hearing in their community.”

While no specific regulations have been drafted yet by the city, individual council members have offered up their own suggestions. Councilman Chris Cate proposes that short- term vacation rentals be defined as 30 days or less, while Council President Sherrie Lightner has suggested that property owners only be allowed to rent their dwellings once per calendar month unless they get a special neighborhood use permit.