PB Town Council calls new proposal for short-term rentals ‘an insult to us’
Fireworks erupted during the Pacific Beach Town Council’s July meeting with a testy exchange between the board and San Diego City Council member Jennifer Campbell’s Pacific Beach representative over a proposal for permitting and regulating short-term vacation rentals in the city.
At issue was what local representatives called their lack of input in a recent agreement outlining future regulations on the short-term rental industry in San Diego that was facilitated by Campbell between Expedia, which owns VRBO and HomeAway, two online platforms for renting STVRs, and Unite Here Local 30, a union that represents hospitality workers. Campbell’s District 2 includes Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and Ocean Beach.
“To me, it’s a total lack of trust between [the] council member and the Town Council and the constituents,” said Town Council member Brian Curry. “It’s really, really an insult to us, regardless of where you stand on the issue at all, that we weren’t consulted.”
The memorandum of understanding between Expedia and Unite Here was announced July 1. A surprised PB Town Council issued a statement July 7, decrying it as a “backroom deal.”
“STVRs are visitor accommodations and these commercial uses are illegal under the city’s zoning code and have no place in our residential zones,” according to the statement.
A recent compromise bid in the long debate over regulation of short-term vacation rentals is making its way through city representatives, and residents of La Jolla and nearby communities are concerned about its possible effects.
The agreement groups STVRs into a tiered system, with the lowest tier being a homeowner who remains on the property while “home sharing.” The highest tier is whole-house rentals.
A key piece of the agreement calls for capping whole-home short-term rentals at 0.7 percent of the city’s housing stock, which would amount to 3,750 permits.
The exact number of entire-home vacation rentals being listed in the city is unclear. But the city auditor has estimated total short-term rentals — including whole-home and home-share — at 16,000.
Expedia and Unite Here said they hope the City Council will pass legislation on the proposal that could go into effect in 2021.
For nearly five years, the vacation rental debate has pitted the rights of property owners to rent their homes against residents who have seen their once-quiet neighborhoods disrupted by tourists, leading to complaints about noise, trash and parking problems.
Other critics of vacation rentals say platforms such as Airbnb and HomeAway create financial incentives for renting out properties for short-term stays instead of long-term residential use, thus reducing the housing supply and driving up prices.
“This will release many thousands of apartments, condos and homes back on the market for long-term rental, or if the owners wish to sell them, they can sell them on the market,” Campbell told The San Diego Union-Tribune.
During his regular report to the Town Council, Campbell’s representative, Jordan Beane, offered to speak with any concerned resident after the meeting by phone or email. However, he said he recognized “a lot of faces” at the meeting who were involved in discussions about the STVR agreement.
Town Council President Brian White said that when a meeting about STVRs between Campbell and Town Council members was finally convened June 25 after several requests, it came one day after the memorandum was signed by the negotiating parties.
“We were not shown the MOU or any details of it,” said Town Council member Denise Friedman, who attended that meeting. “So I hardly think that means we participated and had input in the MOU.”
Beane said he had only become PB representative in March and had no knowledge of the MOU until just before its public release.
However, Honorary Pacific Beach Mayor Cathie Jolley said: “So, Jordan, you’re saying that on one of the biggest issues that our council member has taken on and you being the representative for a community that is most impacted by the issue, you never spoke to anyone in the office about it? They kept you totally in the dark?”
Alluding to a March 2017 memo from San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott stating that STVRs do not comply with the city’s municipal code, White questioned the timing of the agreement about four months before the election of a new mayor.
“We’ve been dealing with this for years and we have a few months until an election that could be a game changer as far as the code being enforced,” White said. “[Yet] you’re going to legalize these things forever.”
Beane maintained that Campbell was not turning her back on constituents’ interests but rather reacting to their concerns and taking action.
“I guess that at the end of the day, there was an opportunity to do all the things that folks have been asking for — create enforcement, add housing stock and finally move forward on this issue that to this point, there’s been no movement on,” he said.
Meanwhile, recent assaults involving homeless people in Pacific Beach brought the issue of homelessness and mental health to the forefront during the Town Council meeting as police and a local advocate took turns dissecting the pros and cons of using law enforcement to urge the homeless to seek shelter and assistance.
Using the flexibility provided by videoconferencing, the Town Council divided its monthly meeting into two segments, with Caryn Blanton of Shoreline Community Services, a local nonprofit group that assists vulnerable populations, speaking at the regular 6:30 p.m. meeting, while a 3:30 p.m. session was held to accommodate police schedules so they could address the subject.
San Diego police Capt. Scott Wahl of the Neighborhood Policing Division tasked with the homeless issue spoke of the disruptions to his unit’s work caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which eliminated shelter beds until the Convention Center was brought online, as well as recent demonstrations against racism that he said had most of his 85-member team transferred to the riot squad.
“[During] March, April, May, we had very limited ability to respond effectively,” Wahl said. “But in June, we had the demonstrations, so we had almost no response at all. It really has created an imbalance on our streets that we haven’t seen since this division started 2½ years ago.”
Nonetheless, Wahl touted the pre-pandemic success of his unit’s diversionary program launched in December, in which police outreach teams partnering with service providers and clinicians approach homeless people to offer shelter and services, with no legal consequences if they decline on the first encounter.
Subsequent interactions may progress to a citation, a misdemeanor charge and an arrest by the fourth encounter, but all charges are dropped and no record is created if they accept the shelter and services for 30 days.
Only one in 10 homeless people accepted shelter and services before the program, but the number increased to three in 10 since its inception, according to Wahl.
“It’s important to keep [that] in mind when you’re hearing a lot of the rhetoric that’s out there from advocates and other elected officials that are talking about either defunding neighborhood policing or taking away what we have before they build a better system,” Wahl said. “Why would we take apart the one thing we have that’s working well before we build something else that maybe could be better?”
Eschewing the law enforcement approach, Blanton asked members of the audience to imagine how they would react if they were homeless and a police officer approached with a gun offering a ride to a bed.
“There’s no trust,” she said. “It’s fear. The thing they want to do most is get away from that situation. ... You don’t necessarily always need to be calling in the city or the county. We already have the resources here among us. If we can get organized, we can handle this among ourselves. We don’t always need to be calling the police.”
Working with a network of local churches and other organizations, Shoreline Community Services offers meals and connects homeless people to services by fostering relationships with them, Blanton said. That approach, launched in March, helped her group get each of 10 homeless people permanently off the street once they were ready for it, she said.
“We knew where to find those people quickly, and that’s why it worked so well,” she said. “Police officers don’t have people’s phone numbers. They don’t know where people are staying, because there’s no trust factor there. That’s the gap that we’re filling right now.”
The Town Council’s next online meeting is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 19. For more information, visit pbtowncouncil.org/monthly-meetings.
The San Diego Union-Tribune contributed to this report.