Short-term rental agencies appear at Town Council forum

SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals CEO Jonah Mechanic and omeAway/Expedia representative Chris Wahl appear at the July 11 La Jolla Town Council meeting.
SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals CEO Jonah Mechanic and omeAway/Expedia representative Chris Wahl appear at the July 11 La Jolla Town Council meeting.

La Jolla Town Council (LJTC) held its third public forum on short-term rentals on Thursday, July 11 at the Rec Center. At the meeting, the Short-Term Rental Working Group — presided over by LJTC president Ann Kerr Bache — updated the audience on the regulation and enforcement recommendations it plans to deliver to the San Diego City Council, should it decide to take the issue back up after its year-long moratorium on doing so expires Oct. 22.

The forum was unique for marking the first appearance of representatives from short-term rental agencies. SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals CEO Jonah Mechanic and HomeAway/Expedia represenative Chris Wahl explained their positions and answered questions from the audience of 30 people. Kerr Bache clarified that the two were not part of the working group. However, she said: “we wanted to have all voices represented.” (Airbnb, the largest short-term rental service, was invited, Kerr Bache said, but reported a scheduling conflict.)

“We don’t hate the sharing economy,” Kerr Bache explained in her introduction to the forum, “but we need to protect the character of our communities.” She added that her group refers to the issue as “short-term rentals” (STR). The word “vacation” was dropped, she said, “because you don’t have to be on vacation to use a short-term rental, right?”

Acknowledging that La Jolla’s 12-hour non-emergency police response time is woefully inadequate to address noise complaints from STR neighbors, working-group member Tom Coat explained that the group recommends hiring police investigative service officers (PISOs) as enforcment.

“The PISO takes your complaint, calls the contact number on the permit sheet and puts an incident number on City web pages,” he said. “If that disturbance is happening 30 or 45 minutes later, then you can call back. At that point, your complaint is elevated to an investigation by a PISO. This really puts the onus on the vacation rental owner to contact their guests.”

Coat claimed this strategy is in place in Palm Springs and yields “a 94 percent success rate on first call.”

As for who should pay to employ the PISOs, Kerr Bache turned to Mechanic and Wahl and said: “Maybe you guys should kick in some money for enforcement since you’re making money from the rentals?”

Mechanic said that he is “all on board with what Tom said from an enforcement perspective.” He also added: “We’re not supportive of investors coming in and buying up 10 houses on the street.” However, he called the group’s recommended recommendations a “100 percent nonstarter” due to its requirement that STRs be primary residences only.

Mechanic’s interpretation was that this required an owner to be living at the property during every short-term rental. Kerr Bache corrected his misinterpretation, however, explaining that it meant that the STR must be the owner’s primary residence. She said that the group would reword the proposal to spell that out.

However, Mechanic still had a problem with the definition of primary residence.

“What is a primary residence?” he asked. “San Diego has lots of part-time residents. Does it mean six months and a day? What’s going to prove that? A driver’s license? A utility bill? In the end, what’s the difference? What really matters is whether you’re a good resident. We are of the opinion that if you have the right to rent your home, it should not depend on the amount of time you spend in your home.”

He added that reducing San Diego’s STR inventory would also give its communities much less money for enforcement, “and if you have no enforcement, we’re going to be back here addressing neighborhood noise and nuisances.”

Public gets short

During the public Q&A session, La Jolla resident John Gordon said the house next door to his is rented “to what seems like the Arizona State drinking team.”

“Every weekend, we have an incredible amount of noise,” Gordon said. “And I don’t care how big your (enforcement) fund is. They can’t come out every night to shut people up. I don’t really want to have to call the police to have to come and shut them up, and I’ve been told by the owner of the property that being a nuisance is not against the law. This is not right.”

Coat replied: “One of the things I learned early on is that it is not advisable for a neighbor to contact the owner or renters directly, because you’re setting up a potentially hazardous situation. What we’re proposing is for the City to handle it. If the City calls you and says you may be in violation and you may be facing a fine, I think that’s going to be far more effective.”

Another audience member, who did not give her name, said she would welcome short-term renters compared to her former neighbor on Torrey Pines Road, who she claimed precipitated her decision to relocate because he “built a balcony so he could live in a tent on it with his children.”

Mechanic joked that he did not bring this comment-er as a plant, but that she brings up a good point — “not all vacation renters are bad and not all homeowners are good.”

This statement did not go over well with the audience.

“I don’t think you can equate a person who’s been here longer than a year with someone who’s here a week,” replied La Jolla resident Len Gross. “Their attitudes are totally different. My attitude is different when I’m on vacation. They shouldn’t be terribly polarized, but they shouldn’t be equated either.”

Also addressing Mechanic, UC San Diego School of Medicine professor Jane Burns said that a SeaBreeze rental moved in next door to her La Jolla home and that the behavior of its temporary residents “is very different to that of people who live in a community whose names I know. I’m sad to hear that my point of view is not going to be represented because there’s no economics behind my grievance.”

A final dig was delivered by La Jolla resident Joe LaCava, candidate for City Council District 1.

“I appreciate Jonah defending his own personal business,” LaCava said of Mechanic, “but I think it’s appropriate to point out that STRs are against the law. There is no concept of grandfathering an illegal use. The City always retains the rights to enforce the law, and it is especially important to remind ourselves that this is an illegal use, because it will affect our ability to negotiate with the Coastal Commission.

“My feeling is that our City is not for sale,” he continued. “Dollars are being dangled in front of our City, and the City cares more about money than our neighborhoods.”

Kerr Bache felt the need to defend her working group against LaCava’s statement.

“In our conversation with City Council members and (City Attorney) Mara Elliot,” she said, “it was clear there is absolutely no intention of enforcing the law. The horse is out of the barn.”

Unexpectedly, no members of the working group seemed discouraged by the news — which broke just a day before — that Assembly Bill 1731 was shelved for a year by its author, Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath (D-Encinitas). That bill — which cleared the California Assembly and multiple Senate committees — would have sharply curtailed STR rentals in La Jolla and all over San Diego County’s coast.

“It’s going to create a little more enthusiasm for the City Council to take this back up,” Coat said.

Also at Town Council

SB 330 update: Matthew Gordon delivered an update on the Senate Bill 330 housing bill from Assembly member Todd Gloria’s office, stating that it passed the Assembly but not without amendments that:

1) eliminate the City Council’s ability to override a voter-approved measure, such as the 30-foot coastal height limitation;

2) remove a modification of parking requirements near select transit; and

3) remove a seven-year moratorium on code-compliance enforcement by local governments.

Swear-ins: Kerr Bache swore in newly re-elected LJTC officers Cindy McGowan (first vice president), Joe Pitrofsky (second vice president), Gail Forbes (secretary) and treasurer Mike Cole. (Kerr Bache was sworn in by McGowan.)

— La Jolla Town Council next meets 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12 at the Rec Center, 615 Prospect St. There is no August meeting.