Photo by Dustin Michelson

Neighborhood activists worried about short-term vacation rentals in the city of San Diego seem to be coming to terms with something: They don’t have the votes on the City Council to ban homeowners from renting out their whole houses or condos to visitors.

Tom Coat was a board member of Save San Diego Neighborhoods, whose supporters are expected to pack Golden Hall Tuesday to push for enforcement of a ban.

Coat said it became obvious that even if the City Council agreed that the law, as it stood, prohibited short-term rentals, neither Council members nor the mayor wanted it enforced.

“Which to me is very sad. But that’s the reality,” Coat said. But in September, Councilmen Chris Ward, David Alvarez, Mark Kersey and Scott Sherman released their proposal to create a permitting and enforcement structure. The most obvious fact in it is that a homeowner could rent his or her whole home to visitors all year, with a permit.

The proposal from Ward and colleagues would allow investors to hold three permits each.

To Coat, that “means the end of neighborhoods as we know them,” he said on our podcast Friday. “I tried, as president of Save San Diego Neighborhoods, to persuade them to come to a situation where we would deal with the political reality as it is rather than holding out for the best solution”

So he is supporting a separate proposal from Councilwoman Barbara Bry.

If she got her way, only the primary resident of a property would be allowed to get a permit to rent it to visitors – and even then, could only rent it out for up to 90 days total per year. This is the summer-in-Europe plan.

Save San Diego Neighborhoods does not support Bry’s plan. Coat and the group parted ways.

Sue Hopkins helps provide data and talking points for the groups opposing short-term vacation rentals. Her experience as a Clairemont resident living next door to a vacation rental made her active. She and many of her counterparts see some of the same writing on the wall Coat does, but they don’t want Bry’s proposal.

After years of wanting action, it appears they would be greatly relieved if the City Council would punt this issue once again. They’re retreating to the position that we do not know enough about what is happening with vacation rentals to make the right decision.

“Why are we making a change when we don’t have a full data set?” Hopkins said. “Why has the City Council not spent any time or energy? I mean, at best, it’s overwork or laziness. At worst, it’s willful ignorance of the facts.”

On the other side is a loose coalition of people who suddenly realized they could supplement their income renting out rooms or their second homes. And with them are old guard San Diego vacation rental managers who see Bry’s ordinance as an existential threat.

There’s Jonah Mechanic, whose company SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals manages more than a hundred properties. He helped form Share San Diego, a group trying to protect the industry, especially along the coast. He paints a vision of the city charging big fees to get vacation rental permits and using the money to hire off-duty police officers to write tickets with escalating fines per infraction before rental operators lose their permits.

Proper regulations would help the city collect hotel taxes. Right now, only Airbnb does that automatically for hosts.

“We’re trying to make sure we weed out the bad and really protect and reinforce the good,” Mechanic said. He maintains that, at least on the coast, most of his properties are owned by people who see them as second homes.

If they could not rent them out to visitors, they would not suddenly become part of the region’s housing supply, as vacation rental opponents contend. They’d just remain vacant while the owner is not there.

That’s the big debate coming to a climax Tuesday in a special meeting of the City Council. Will the Council permit and regulate vacation rentals, severely restrict them or somehow, once again, punt the decision, leaving a meaningless ban on the books?

Here are all the facts and reports we have gathered to help you observe and activate:

• Here’s our FAQ on how we got here.

• It’s not easy to figure out how many short-term vacation rentals there are in the city of San Diego. We worked with a group called Host Compliance and produced what we think is the best estimate yet. Interesting fact: Based on the Host Compliance analysis, only 22 percent of vacation rentals are used by visitors for more than 90 days of the year.

If Bry’s proposal passed, only a primary resident of a property could get a permit, and only for up to 90 days. If Host Compliance numbers are correct, this should accommodate 78 percent of owners who want to rent their properties to visitors. Bry has another major provision, however: Each person could only have one permit. That would be a major restriction on those who own multiple properties.

If Ward et al. get their way, each person could have up to three permits. They would have to have owned their properties for at least a year before applying for a permit if they did not live in them already. Each person would be limited to three permits. And there would be a three-night minimum stay on the coast. (Meaning less churn in the properties.)

• Here’s the city of San Diego’s staff memo explaining the decision the Council will confront, with a lot of helpful background. For one thing, there are 3,415 vacation rentals registered to pay the city’s tax on hotel rooms.

City staff estimates it would cost about $912 per permit (about $3.1 million) to administer the enforcement and permitting program that would hire 13 new city staff members including police officers to investigate vacation rentals. Complaints could lead to citations and eventual forfeiture of a permit.

• The California Coastal Commission has weighed in on the City Council’s coming decision. The agency, which protects access to the coast, has interpreted its mandate to include affordable lodging and has warned the city and others not to make restrictions too severe. The biggest point the commission made: It will oppose a 90-day cap on short-term vacation rentals, like the one included in Bry’s proposal.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.