Opponents and supporters of vacation rentals voice their concerns at a San Diego City Council meeting. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Nearly a year after a City Council effort to pass short-term vacation regulations spectacularly imploded, not much has happened.

Last October, City Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry and others pledged to try to hammer out new vacation rental rules, perhaps as soon as early this year, as they voted to nix the regulations they’d approved just three months earlier. They punted any decision until further out in light of city attorneys’ advice that any new regulations proposed within the year would need to be “substantially different” to avoid legal challenges.

Now it’s unclear when a new City Hall proposal might come forward – if at all.

Speculation about vacation rental platforms’ potential efforts to combat regulatory efforts, including at the ballot box, figure prominently in discussions about next steps.

Vacation rental platforms last year pooled more than $1 million to back a signature-gathering effort to try to overturn vacation rental rules, leading the City Council to rescind those rules rather than face a ballot fight.

Stakeholders who have engaged in the years-long debate around how to regulate vacation rentals say they haven’t heard about next steps from Bry, who is now running for mayor.

Despite the lack of movement or new regulatory proposals, Bry has made outrage over vacation rentals and their impact on the city’s limited housing stock a focal point of her campaign.

“When I am mayor, I will enforce the existing zoning laws that prohibit short-term rentals, and I will work to preserve housing for San Diego residents,” Bry wrote in a recent campaign Facebook post.

Bry had said she wanted to lead the policy-making process and held meetings with stakeholders earlier this year. Those meetings have since halted.

“People kind of feel like nothing’s really moving right now,” said Brian White, president of the Pacific Beach Town Council.

Meanwhile, another major effort to regulate vacation rentals has also stalled. State legislation to curtail rentals in San Diego County coastal areas is now on hold for a year.

In statements sent to Voice of San Diego and in multiple public appearances, Bry has said she wants Mayor Kevin Faulconer to enforce existing city codes she believes bar rentals. Bry’s mayoral opponents Assemblyman Todd Gloria and activist Tasha Williamson have echoed that sentiment.

But Faulconer has vowed not to crack down until there are clearer regulations on the books despite City Attorney Mara Elliott’s conclusion that vacation rentals are illegal under city code. Past city attorneys have concluded otherwise.

As Bry has argued that the city should crack down on rentals, she has not publicly laid out a new regulatory approach.

What Bry has said is that rental platforms are unwilling to support the sort of regulatory arrangement she wants. Last year, she pushed rules that would have dramatically limited vacation rentals in the city. Save San Diego Neighborhoods, a group that has argued that vacation rentals should be banned in residential areas, recently endorsed her for mayor.

“I have met with Airbnb and HomeAway officials. What would make them happy is terrible for our residents,” wrote Bry in a statement to Voice of San Diego, referencing two top vacation rental platforms.

Bry spokeswoman Lora Fleming would not elaborate on whether Bry is continuing to work on new regulations.

Representatives for Airbnb and HomeAway also declined to comment on the status of talks with Bry or others, or the prospect of ballot measures or other tactics to push for regulations they can live with.

Democratic activist and La Jolla Town Council trustee Cody Petterson, who participated in Bry’s past discussions about rental rules, said the threat of a ballot measure – particularly a referendum like the one sought last year – has forced Bry and others to change their strategy.

“I think there is a recognition (with) the path of city ordinances that there’s a line between hard and futile. I think they changed their tack and they realize it will be an endless whack-a-mole,” Petterson said. “Any ordinance they put forth is going to get referendized.”

But City Councilwoman Jennifer Campbell, who also represents beach communities and backed Bry’s past proposal, said this week she remains committed to creating new rules. She couldn’t say when a new proposed ordinance might drop.

In an email to VOSD, Campbell said her office has met with stakeholders the past couple months to discuss regulatory possibilities and that she looked forward to “being intimately involved” in developing them.

“We’re still exploring possible outcomes for what the proposal will look like and when it will come forward, but we would obviously like to see something approved as soon as possible,” Campbell wrote.

Campbell and other City Council Democrats have in the past year deferred to Bry on the issue.

City Councilman Chris Ward, who tried and failed to execute a regulatory compromise nearly two years ago, is among them – and his spokesman said he’s hoping for action.

“Like most San Diegans, (Ward) remains frustrated that this issue is still unresolved and is open to proposals from Councilmember Bry or others which would address these goals and finally provide certainty on the issue for everyone,” Ward spokesman Ansermio Jake Estrada said.

Key stakeholders say they haven’t heard of recent progress.

“Nothing’s happened and it doesn’t appear that anything is going to happen anytime soon, which is not what either side wants,” said Jonah Mechanic of SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals, who leads pro-vacation rental group Share San Diego, which is supported by Airbnb and HomeAway.

La Jolla Town Council president Ann Kerr Bache, who leads a vacation rental working group that includes representatives from a handful of other town councils, is similarly frustrated.

“Nothing is going on,” Kerr Bache said. “No enforcement, no compliance, no assessing of why the ordinance didn’t work last year.”

Elliott, who more than two years ago rocked the debate over short-term vacation rentals when she penned a memo dubbing them illegal, is among those dissatisfied with the lack of movement.

In a statement to VOSD, Elliott wrote that her office is eager to work with City Council members on new regulations.

“From the comments made at the City Council meeting on Oct. 22, 2018, I expected Council members to bring us new (vacation rental) proposals within months,” Elliott wrote. “I understand if some of them are feeling fatigued by this topic, but it’s now been nearly a year.”

Faulconer spokesman Gustavo Portela said the mayor is also ready to re-engage with the City Council on potential vacation rental regulations.

“(We) continue to keep doors open to working with the City Council on this matter,” Portela said.

Gloria, one of Bry’s opponents in the mayor’s race, has said he believes a solution is possible before the next mayor takes office – and indirectly jabbed at Bry in the process.

“Short-term vacation rentals have impacts on our neighborhoods and should be regulated. The San Diego City Council has failed to enact meaningful and reasonable regulations, choosing instead to waste time on proposals that failed to achieve consensus and resulted in a referendum, leaving us at square one without any relief,” Gloria wrote in a statement. “I believe a solution can be reached that will regulate short-term rentals and be enforceable in order to preserve neighborhood quality of life.”

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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