City Councilmen Scott Sherman and David Alvarez / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

In the days before Tuesday’s City Council meeting, few were speculating about whether City Councilman David Alvarez would sign off on new vacation-rental regulations.

He was one of four councilmen who signed a September memo agreeing to a largely permissive compromise. They modified it and reissued it just weeks ago. With four votes, they would only need one more. It did not seem difficult.

A partner on the memo, Councilman Chris Ward, stuck with the plan through withering criticism as labor groups activated in support of Councilwoman Barbara Bry’s alternative, more restrictive proposal.

Somewhere along the way, though, Alvarez changed his mind – and everything fell apart. A year after a marathon meeting failed to resolve the issue, another 10-hour City Council meeting ended without any decisions. The city attorney has said that vacation rentals are illegal in the city. That will continue as a meaningless, unenforced interpretation.

For a while, it looked like something might happen. In the spirit of getting something done, Bry dropped her insistence that, if homeowners wanted to rent the entire homes they lived in, they could only do it for a total of 90 days per year.

Councilwoman Barbara Bry / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

She offered a compromise that would allow vacation rentals in the city — with permits — but somehow make it so only San Diego residents could have a second property they rented out to visitors.

Alvarez raised a series of demands and concerns as Bry and others tried to cobble together last-minute deals. Over and over, votes failed. Nobody could get Alvarez to yes.

Alvarez blames his change of heart on feedback he got from constituents and folks on both sides of the issue who visited his office. He claims labor’s recent entrée into the vacation-rental scene wasn’t a factor.

“You can’t cook stuff up behind closed doors. You have to listen to the public,” Alvarez said. “You have to take into consideration their testimony, and you need to listen to your colleagues’ deliberations and that’s how you make your decisions, not based on something that you just … some people can just stick to whatever position on anything and not move from it.”

Alvarez said that if the vote had happened a year ago, “this issue of affordable housing and units that are becoming short-term vacation rentals by potential investors or other types of ownership may not have been an issue. They’re an issue today.”

Alvarez also said the growing conversation about the city’s housing stock – which had been under way well before the September memo – convinced him that more accountability and fees were required. Other issues, including a lack of data from vacation rental companies and language that didn’t clarify whether rentals were allowed in duplexes, also concerned him.

City Council members tried to pull together a handful of amendments to accommodate Alvarez’s concerns, only leading to multiple failed votes. They halted the meeting multiple times to try to hash out updated language with attorneys and staffers, even amid confusion about what Alvarez’s concerns actually were.

In one instance, Alvarez called for an affordable housing fee already baked into his compromise deal to kick off immediately when the ordinance went into effect, rather than after a fee study that could be months away. Fellow Council members were ready to hammer out a deal with Alvarez.

Alvarez said he appreciated those efforts, particularly by Bry, to try to win his vote. He said he tried to compromise rather than vote no.

But ultimately he couldn’t be persuaded.

“I think we were really close,” Alvarez said.

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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