Mayor Kevin Faulconer has spent years sidestepping a long-running dispute over how to regulate vacation rentals – even though as a councilman he represented the very beach communities where the issue is most acute.

The mayor has instead punted the controversy to the City Council, leaving city staffers to plod through a series of hours-long hearings without resolution. Even his allies don’t know where he stands on the issue.

“It could be that he’s just torn on it,” said City Councilman Scott Sherman, who’s teamed with Faulconer on a series of other housing-related policies.

City Councilman Chris Cate, who’s pushed swift action and his own proposed regulations, acknowledged he isn’t sure of Faulconer’s position, except that he’s ready for the city to move on.

“I think the mayor’s office is looking to bring resolution to this issue too,” he said.

Confusion and dysfunction over short-term vacation rentals have prevailed for more than two years as city staffers and City Council members have repeatedly clashed over the right regulatory approach.

The mayor’s silence on the issue isn’t an anomaly. Faulconer largely prefers to let consensus dictate his politicking. He was mum for months on last year’s failed Chargers-backed measure to bankroll a new home for the team, inspiring endless speculation until he finally endorsed it.

Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson said the mayor’s done his part to try to move short-term rental regulations forward. He said the mayor’s strategy has been to direct city staffers to draft a range of regulatory options over the past two years.

Presented with multiple options, the City Council could then vote for its preference. So far though, that’s only led to a cycle of Council meetings without resolution and a new set of conflicting directions to staff.

But staff is set to offer yet another set of regulatory options at a tentatively scheduled Oct. 23 City Council meeting. Cate and City Councilwoman Barbara Bry will be presenting their own policy proposals too.

“The mayor’s ultimate goal is for the City Council to choose an option so everyone can know what the rules of the road are moving forward, and it’s now time for the Council to pass something,” Gustafson wrote in an email.

Ronan Gray, a Pacific Beach resident who’s helped lead anti-short-term rental advocacy group Save San Diego Neighborhoods, isn’t satisfied with that position.

Gray said the mayor’s office has rebuffed his group’s requests for meetings.

And after a mayor’s office meeting they did manage to secure a couple years ago, Gray said attendees came away concluding the mayor wanted to stay out of the controversy.

“They seemed to think it was an issue the Council should tackle, and that the mayor shouldn’t get involved. But it seemed to me they were kicking the ball down the road,” Gray said. “They didn’t want to deal with it.”

Faulconer has made one clear directive on short-term vacation rentals, and it didn’t sit well with Gray and his fellow Save San Diego Neighborhoods members.

In March, after City Attorney Mara Elliott issued a memo declaring short-term rentals illegal under current city code, Faulconer announced the city would not crack down on the people operating them.

Gray’s group believes Faulconer should begin enforcement immediately and take a stronger role in the regulatory discussion.

“We’re wasting a lot of time and taxpayer money going around and around with all these subcommittees, coming up with all these proposals,” Gray said.

It’s not as if Faulconer’s unfamiliar with concerns about short-term rentals.

When he was a councilman, Gray said, the mayor drove around Pacific Beach with residents to learn about problem short-term rentals.

Faulconer also requested a legal opinion from then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre that’s come up in debates about the issue the past couple years.

At the time, Faulconer also avoided taking a side.

“I’m not advocating a course of action on vacation rentals,” Faulconer told the Union-Tribune in 2007. “I simply thought it was important to start the discussion.”

A decade later, the discussion continues.

Yet Bry, Cate and Sherman said they didn’t believe the mayor’s decision to stay out of the has necessarily hampered the policy-making process. They agreed the City Council deserves the blame for the debacle dragging on for more than two years.

“I just think there was not effective leadership on the Council on what I view as a reasonable compromise,” said Bry, who this week released a draft ordinance that would require homeowners to get a simple permit to rent a primary residence up to 90 days annually. It would also allow home-sharing, where operators remain on-site, throughout the year with a similar permit.

Cate and Sherman, who both prefer more permissive rules, said they oppose Bry’s proposal.

The continued divide speaks to the difficult politics of short-term rentals – a political quagmire that Faulconer’s likely eager to avoid.

Several times over the past two years, Council members have ended hours-long hearings without giving city staffers clear policy-making direction.

The City Council’s legal authority and continued willingness to take on the issue has also been politically convenient for Faulconer.

A City Council majority will have to sign off on any new regulations and Council offices are the ones fielding many of the calls from residents concerned about rowdy Airbnb guests next door or confused about city rules.

Bry, Cate and Sherman agreed that all means it’s entirely appropriate for the City Council to take the lead on short-term rental regulations.

“I think it’s easy to pass the buck off to the mayor’s office to solve all the problems but at the end of the day, I think we as Council members know our communities best,” Cate said.

Sherman, though, couldn’t resist speculating about Faulconer’s take. He noted that the mayor’s given city planning staffers the go-ahead to craft multiple regulatory options, including a middle-of-the-road compromise.

“That middle-ground one may actually be the mayor’s position at the end of the day,” Sherman said.

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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