City Attorney Mara Elliott’s memo declaring short-term vacation rentals illegal under city code may have excited weary opponents but it’s not sparking a crackdown on those rentals.

Instead, neighbors angered by bustling Airbnbs in beach communities and elsewhere will have to keep waiting. For more than two years, short-term rental operators and those who dislike them have been pushing for regulations. Multiple hours-long hearings with heated testimony from both sides have failed to provide any clarity on the rules.

Now, Mayor Kevin Faulconer, who has remained silent throughout the two-year debate, is speaking up. Well, through a spokeswoman, anyway.

“We are not changing our enforcement practices until the regulations are clarified,” Faulconer spokeswoman Jen Lebron said. “We look forward to the Council’s actions on this issue this summer.”

The mayor’s office’s statement, provided after a request from Voice of San Diego, follows a March 15 memo from Elliott, who has taken a harsher view of short-term rentals than past city attorneys. Former City Attorneys Jan Goldsmith and Mike Aguirre both underlined the lack of clarity in city code about rentals, which have proliferated the past few years.

Elliott shared another interpretation in her memo.

Because short-term rentals aren’t defined in city code and the city considers anything not defined in its codes prohibited, short-term rentals aren’t allowed, Elliott wrote.

Elliott’s chief of staff said her office would stand ready to review any related code enforcement referrals.

“Mayoral departments are responsible for enforcing code violations,” Chief of Staff Gerry Braun wrote in an email. “Our office will review each referral on a case by case basis.”

But Faulconer and the city’s Development Services Department aren’t acting on Elliott’s interpretation.

Instead, the Faulconer spokeswoman said, they’ll be waiting for the City Council to approve a slate of rules for both whole-home and home-sharing operations.

“We will continue to provide common-sense options to the Council so they can be vetted publicly and staff stands ready to implement the legislation once it’s approved,” Lebron wrote in an email.

Indeed, city planning department officials presented potential regulations at a Friday City Council committee hearing. City officials said they expect to bring regulations and enforcement proposals to the City Council in late summer or early fall.

In a separate statement, the city’s Development Services director said code officers would for now stick to enforcing the regulations they already have – which don’t include actual regulations that directly address short-term rentals.

“The Development Services Department will continue to consistently enforce nuisance regulations typically related to short-term vacation rentals,” Vacchi said in a statement. “DSD will continue to respond to these issues on a case-by-case basis.”

Note that he only mentioned nuisance regulations.

That’s the only tool Vacchi believes is available to address problem short-term rentals.

Vacchi laid out the conundrum he’s facing with enforcement at yet another hours-long hearing on short-term vacation rental regulations last year.

At the time, then-City Council President Sherri Lightner pointedly asked Vacchi whether he could take enforcement steps against vacation rentals. She was desperate to find a way to increase enforcement immediately.

Vacchi repeatedly explained that he couldn’t.

“Not under the present ordinance, no. In terms of the use, no. We can go after egregious violations related to nuisance noise but most of the time we work in conjunction with the police department in doing that,” Vacchi said at the November meeting.

And until the City Council approves new short-term rental rules, Faulconer’s decided that should remain the only tool in Vacchi’s toolbox.

Lisa Halverstadt

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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