On Monday, Oct. 23, the San Diego City Council will hear proposals to regulate the conversion of single-family homes in residential zones into short-term vacation rentals (STVR) for visitors that alter the character of neighborhoods and drive up home prices.
As the 92109 Zip code is home to 42 percent of San Diego’s STVRs, the contentious issue drew District 2 City Council member Lorie Zapf, City Attorney Mara Elliot, and District 1 Council member Barbara Bry’s communications director Hilary Nemchik to the Sept. 20 PB Town Council meeting for a Q&A with residents.
After receiving years of consideration with no concrete action, STVRs took center stage in March when City Attorney Elliot issued a memo stating they were illegal because they aren’t listed in the San Diego Municipal Code as permitted uses for residential homes.
Competing Council proposals
The City Council will consider two proposals; a bill by District 1 Council member Bry restricting rentals of entire homes to 90 days in a year and to primary residencies only, and another bill with four Council sponsors that would allow up to three properties per person for rentals year round.
“On Oct. 23, something is going to pass,” said Nemchik. “Four Council members are on the same page with proposals that would be far more lenient than what we’re proposing. We know that another Council member has even more lenient policies that he wants to see. So that’s five and there are nine members of the City Council. So it’s our job to get the support we need to pass a workable compromise.”
The pros and cons of each side are straightforward. Operating through web-based companies such as Airbnb, STVRs contribute to the County’s $10.4 billion tourism industry and provide supplemental income to homeowners struggling to make ends meet.
However, STVRs disrupt neighborhoods with sometimes unruly visitors and put upward pressure on skyrocketing home and rental prices as investors purchase homes exclusively to cash-in on the short-term rental phenomena.
Since beaches are one of the prime attractions in San Diego, Pacific Beach is facing the brunt of the effects. With 10,000 single-family homes serving as dedicated STVRs, 42 percent are in PB and Mission Beach, according to County Transient Occupancy Tax license records.
While visitors spend money into the economy, Council member Zapf argues that the impact is narrow and doesn’t serve the interests of the community at large. “How many of these vacationers are going take dance or music lessons?” she asked. “How many are going to visit the eye doctor? The cleaners? These are not people supporting the small businesses we start up and depend on for our livelihoods. Restaurants do well, but what about the pet stores?”
Moreover, Zapf worries that investors pouring money into San Diego’s unregulated STVR market to snatch up properties is driving out residents and irreparably damaging the quality of life for those left behind.
“Schools start losing enrollment because families aren’t living here,” she continued. “You start losing your volunteers. You don’t have people joining Neighborhood Watch because you don’t have neighbors anymore ... We cannot say with a straight face that we have a housing shortage and at the same time say, why don’t we just let people buy up all (the homes) for vacation rentals.”
Ban vs Enforcement
While 46 communities along the California coast, such as Santa Monica, Long Beach and Coronado, have banned STVRs outright, City Attorney Elliot said she hasn’t been able to prosecute violators under existing zoning laws because agencies are awaiting firmer guidelines to arise out of the Oct. 23 session.
Any new rules will better define short term rentals on private property, she added.
“The Mayor controls the Code Enforcement Department,” Elliot said. “If I do not receive an investigative report or anything to trigger [action], I don’t prosecute. If you want to see prosecution, I need it on the books. I need the resources and the Mayoral support. I need our City Council to write rules that give me the ability to enforce them. If you get that, I will do that.”
With only two Council members from the coastal zones most affected by STVRs and previous attempts to limit STVRs defeated in the City Council, the odds are against passage of the more restrictive proposal coming from Bry.
Community Call to Action
While Zapf recommends that PB residents write and call other Council members to convey their concerns before the Oct. 23 meeting, John Thickstun, a PB attorney involved in the STVR issue, said that concerned community members can voice their opposition in person by attending the Oct. 5 University Heights Community Association meeting, where District 3 City Council member Chris Ward, one of the sponsors of the more lenient proposal, will be the featured speaker.
“Council members like Chris Ward are vulnerable because he’s got a ton of these things (STVRs) in his district around Balboa Park,” Thickstun said. “If we can get enough people from the coastal zones to go over there for that meeting, then that’s great. If we can get you all to get down to the Mayor’s office and sit on his desk, that’s even better. That’s what we have to do because we don’t have City Council members that represent enough of us.”
Save San Diego Neighborhoods, a citywide group, is organizing a coalition of hotel owners, hotel workers, labor unions and others to fight against STVRs and plan to march on City Hall before the Oct. 23 meeting.
“[With 10,000 STVRs in San Diego], it doesn’t take a genius to realize when that many homes are used for tourists instead of residents, neighborhoods are going to suffer and eventually die,” said Tom Coats, president of Save San Diego Neighborhoods. “We want our elected leaders to know that this is a serious thing ... The other side has money and influence. We have the people.”
—To learn more, visit SaveSanDiegoNeighborhoods.org or call (858) 442-9017.