City Councilman Chris Ward / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

This post originally appeared in the July 21 Politics Report.

After the San Diego City Council approved one of the most restrictive policies on vacation rentals of any major city Monday, a spin frenzy came out of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office. The new rules were due to him, the mayor’s office proclaimed. It was an odd claim. The Council had just chosen to pursue a major crackdown on vacation rentals — ostensibly wiping them out even from Mission Beach, where they’ve dominated since well before the advent of Airbnb.

The mayor had pursued something far different — a policy that would have permitted people with second homes in San Diego — or one investment property (perhaps more) to rent them out to visitors.

Faulconer expressed great satisfaction and promised full enforcement. He engineered this, the theory went. The Council had swung and missed several times before. Nothing happened until he got involved.

Part of the motivation for the spin may have been to deny City Councilwoman Barbara Bry any credit. A year ago, she proposed the framework for what ultimately happened Monday: Only people who live in their homes most of the year should be allowed to rent out their homes to visitors. She proposed up to 90 days. The end result was six months.

She was one of just two or three who wanted a policy and eventually several others came aboard. Very clearly a win for her.

We could analyze who won the spin wars all we want but the more interesting thing that happened is the incredible transformation of heart and mind of Councilman Chris Ward.

Ward had been steadfast in his support of accommodating vacation rentals and providing a regulatory system that would provide ample resources for enforcement of nuisances and violations. He was one of four Council members who had supported allowing hosts to manage up to three vacation rentals each.

But he hadn’t just signed on for that, he was an intellectual leader of that kind of approach. In an opinion piece published for us in September of last year, he wrote that he had followed the approaches of other cities closely.

“Outright bans or severe limitations only further an underground economy that is already present, and those renting homes will creatively adapt and make it difficult for city regulations to be effective in achieving their purpose,” he wrote.

Later he withstood intense pressure and maintained his position. At an Oct. 5 community meeting, activists ambushed him with shouts and anger. He became the target of significant protest by roving billboards deployed by vacation rental opponents. Perhaps more important, the hotel workers union lobbied him vigorously for a year and a half.

The worst thing that could happen, he said, was for yet another big meeting to happen and have no resolution on the issue.

Then exactly that happened in December.

Months after the failed meeting, the mayor made his own proposal, which was significantly more strict than what Ward wanted but still would have allowed people with second homes in San Diego to rent out their homes to visitors. Up until a week before the July 16 meeting, Ward seemed like a vote the mayor could count on.

We thought it was a done deal.

But then he abruptly switched. He wrote on Facebook he had simply listened to his community. Ward’s staff said he didn’t have time to talk to us.

Here are some things going on with Ward:

  • Assemblyman Todd Gloria is clearly considering a run for mayor in 2020. He can’t run for both his Assembly seat and the mayor’s office.
  • Ward wants that Assembly seat.
  • That district represents much of the coast.
  • The unions, led by hotel workers, put enormous pressure on Ward. Brigette Browning, the leader of the hotel workers union UNITE HERE, had blasted Ward. The mayor’s office thought they had unions on board with his proposal but in the days before the vote, hotel workers rallied again.

If the union felt that strongly about it, combined with outraged coastal residents, things could have gotten quite hairy for Ward’s Assembly ambitions.

Brigette Browning, president of the local chapter of Unite Here, a labor union that represents hotel and hospitality workers / Photo by Scott Lewis

We asked Browning if she had put any more pressure on Ward. She said she hadn’t done anything more than what she’d been doing. She thinks vacation rentals are bad for neighborhoods and told him that. She said, however, she had remained neutral on the mayor’s proposal before later advising Council members to tweak it, hopefully to the preferred outcome of banning them except for someone who wants to rent out the home they live in.

“I think he just listened to his community,” she said of Ward.

Scott Lewis

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...

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