A divided City Council failed Tuesday, Dec. 12 to reach agreement on the long-debated question of how to regulate short-term rentals in San Diego, leaving in limbo an issue that has dogged elected leaders for nearly three years.
Multiple proposals, some more permissive than others, were floated on the dais in Golden Hall in hopes of reaching a consensus, but after more than four hours of debate and hours more of public testimony, the nine-member Council could not secure five affirmative votes.
La Jolla resident and City Council member Barbara Bry authored one of the proposals, which aimed to define short-term rentals as anything less than 30 days, limit the number of days in a year in which someone could rent their primary residence short term to 90 days, requires renters to apply for a permit and pay a fee, and inform their neighbors that their property is available for short-term rentals.
Of the outcome, Bry said, “Although the City Council came to an impasse on short-term rental regulations last night, I was inspired by everyone who came down to testify and share their stories. The message that we need to put housing for San Diegans first came across loud and clear. I thank my colleagues City Council member Lorie Zapf, Council President Myrtle Cole, and Council member Georgette Gómez for standing with me. My attempts at compromise were not made in vain, and I am hopeful for what we can accomplish in tackling this issue in the new year. I remain steadfast in my commitment to protecting housing for San Diego families.”
Alternatively, a memo was authored by City Council members Christopher Ward (District 3) and co-authored by City Council members David Alvarez (District 8), Scott Sherman (District 7) and Council president pro tem Mark Kersey (District 5). It lists a series of strategies and suggested changes to City zoning regulations: define short term rentals as any stays of 29 days or fewer; require a three-night minimum stay within the coastal and historical districts; provide occupancy standards for STRs consistent with California’s “two-by-two” standard of two adult occupants per bedroom, plus two in the home; require renters provide each tenant with a “good neighborhood code of conduct” that defines the parameters of the stay, and subsequent fines and penalties for non-compliance.
The inability to act seemed to frustrate the Council members as much as the community.
“I’m very disappointed today. We’re like a dysfunctional family,” said Council member Scott Sherman, who had favored Council member Ward’s proposal. “We’re back to where it always has been, the wild, wild West.”
Council member Chris Cate was even more blunt.
“After nearly three years since my office provided its initial proposal on home-sharing and short-term rentals, today’s inaction by my Council colleagues proved that we cannot govern,” he said in a statement. “Time and time again, the Council has heavily relied on special interest and ballot initiatives to pass major public policy. Much has been said about dysfunctional D.C.-style politics, however it’s happening in our own backyard.”
La Jolla Town Council president Ann Kerr Bache, who spoke earlier in the day during public testimony, later told La Jolla Light, “We still strongly support Barbara Bry and hope that the legal issues can get resolved. But I don’t think anyone expected that it would be a slam-dunk. I think it’s more important that they deliberate over these ordinances than jump past the deliberations. ... If the Ward proposal (an alternative proposal that was also discussed) is passed, we will challenge it because it violates CEQA and causes us to be out of compliance with state law for the housing element. We’re not giving up and we will continue to fight that.”
Following the decision, Council member Lorie Zapf issued the following statement: “I am deeply disappointed that the Council was unable to come to an agreement to protect San Diego’s neighborhoods. Along, with my colleagues that are equally as concerned about our quality of life and housing shortage in our city, I will redouble my efforts to develop a workable solution that protects residential neighborhoods. We haven’t failed — we just haven’t succeeded. The fight isn’t over!”
In failing to take action, the Council also did not set a date to revisit the issue.
Earlier this year, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott issued a memo concluding that short-term rentals are prohibited because they are not defined anywhere in the Municipal Code, but she pointed out last week that without a clear definition of what a vacation rental is, enforcement of the current law is not possible.
While it had appeared at the outset of the 10-hour session that action would likely be taken, Alvarez later backed away from a compromise proposal he and three of his colleagues had crafted in September that would have allowed up to three vacation rentals per owner, but would have imposed a minimum three-night stay in coastal communities.
Bry, who had originally sought to limit rentals popularized by the online platform Airbnb to just an individual’s primary home and for no more than 90 days a year, compromised and agreed to unlimited use throughout the year, but wanted tough limits on the number of whole-home rentals.
Where she would not budge was on slightly more permissive proposals suggested by other Council members Tuesday that she said would open up the door to more investors converting long-term housing into vacation rentals. Without limits on no more than two homes, including one’s primary residence, investors would continue “to buy homes and turn them into mini hotels,” she said.
And while it appeared Alvarez supported the limits Bry was seeking, he and the rest of the Council could not agree on how to define who could and could not rent out homes on a short-term basis.
The Council was in agreement that whatever proposal was adopted, stepped-up enforcement of short-term rentals is needed via a fee to raise revenues to pay for added code enforcement officers. But without adopted regulations, there was no vote on that issue.
Belinda Smith, a Mission Hills resident and a member of the Short Term Rental Alliance of San Diego, said she was “flabbergasted” by the Council’s inaction, adding: “I’m deeply disappointed that our elected leaders could not provide any further clarity on short-term rentals.”
Equally frustrated was Tom Coat, a Pacific Beach resident and long-time critic of the growth of short-term rentals. “They did not provide a curb on out of-town-investors,” he said.
While figures vary wildly on the number of entire homes, condos and apartments that are being rented out on a short-term basis in San Diego, the best estimate to date is nearly 9,000. That’s according to a report released last week by Host Compliance, a San Francisco-based data analytics and consulting firm that works with dozens of cities across the country.
There are also about 2,500 more homes, the company reports, where hosts remain on site and rent out their spare bedrooms. There is no disagreement among Council members on that category of home sharing, which they support.
While short-term rentals have popped up throughout San Diego, the Host Compliance analysis shows the heaviest concentration is in 10 neighborhoods, with about half of the rentals in just five communities — Mission and Pacific Beach, downtown, La Jolla and Uptown.