San Diegans concerned about a proliferation of problem vacation rentals in their neighborhoods got a clear message Tuesday: There’s nothing the city can do to crack down on those vacation rentals with the code it now has.

The takeaway came moments after a proposal by City Council President Sherri Lightner that would have barred vacation rentals in many city neighborhoods fell flat.

Instead, vacation rental operators and opponents of them learned noise complaints are the only recourse city code officers have to combat problem short-term rentals. Those hoping for more regulations now have to trust city officials’ promises to step up enforcement and pass new rules in coming months are fulfilled despite several stalls so far.

For years, Lightner had heard complaints about unruly out-of-town visitors and year-round rentals in otherwise quiet neighborhoods. She grew frustrated as she watched repeated efforts over the last two years to pass new rules crumble.

So, on Tuesday, weeks before Lightner’s set to leave office, she tried to do something. She failed.

A City Council majority rejected what Lightner described as an attempt to clarify a city code she believes already bars vacation rentals in single-family neighborhoods.

And in the moments after that vote, key city officials’ comments left Lightner and concerned homeowners with cold comfort.

Bob Vacchi, the city’s development services director, told the councilwoman that noise complaints will be the city’s only tool to address short-term rentals unless further regulations are added.

“Are there any egregious short-term vacation rentals in single-family zones that you could go after right now?” Lightner asked Vacchi.

“Not under the present ordinance, no,” Vacchi said.

City Attorney Jan Goldsmith didn’t dispute Vacchi’s conclusion.

“I’m gonna let his statement stand,” Goldsmith said. “He is the expert on investigations of code violations.”

The exchange followed hours of public comments from residents troubled by short-term rentals in their neighborhoods and short-term rental operators who said they’ve taken pains to avoid troubling their neighbors – and use those short-term rentals to stay afloat financially.

Lightner had hoped what she described as “minor edits” to city code might change that. Her proposal would have banned whole-home rentals in many city neighborhoods and left big questions about the legality of home-sharing operations.

Fellow City Council members were adamant Lightner’s approach was wrong. All of them – with the exception of Councilwoman Lorie Zapf – dubbed Lightner’s proposal too restrictive. They overwhelmingly called for a more comprehensive policy that covers enforcement and defines short-term rentals, including whole-home and home-sharing operations.

Councilman Todd Gloria criticized Lightner for swiftly pushing the measure and not following the course other city boards, including a City Council committee, had requested.

Gloria referenced a City Council committee meeting last May where he and other Council members directed city staff to draft an ordinance that addressed both whole-home rentals and home-sharing.

That direction resulted in a draft ordinance that later fell apart. Another set of regulations pitched by Zapf later died, too.

Gloria said Lightner’s attempt at a quick fix was the wrong approach.

“This is a usurpation of the process that we normally follow as a Council and that is extremely disturbing,” Gloria said.

Then he made his own motion. Gloria called on the mayor’s office to estimate the costs associated with stepped up code enforcement and asked city staffers to work on a comprehensive draft ordinance that would address both rules and enforcement.

Vacchi promised to bring that proposal to the city’s smart growth and land use committee in four months.

Zapf expressed concern about Council members’ differing views on short-term rentals and questioned whether the city could quickly address the issue.

“I feel like we’re kind of just so delayed,” she said.

Vacchi said he was confident that his staff could draft a baseline policy proposal soon.

Unsatisfied, Lightner made another last-ditch attempt.

Could Gloria add a clarification in his motion that short-term rentals aren’t allowed in the city?

After all, Lightner claimed, if they’re not listed in city code, they shouldn’t be allowed. “I just would like to put on the record right now that short-term vacation rentals are not described in the code,” she said. “That is what we were trying to accomplish today.”

Gloria refused.

His motion passed 7-2.

Lightner ended the meeting with an apology.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m really sorry.”

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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