Depending on whom you ask, “vacation rentals” are either noisy, problematic, and illegal operations that need to be shut down or are welcoming, innovative, and revenue-generating “home stays” unfairly targeted by an outdated catchall ban.
To be fair, not everyone is that polarized, there’s been very little melodrama, and civility has largely ruled the day. Still, city officials find themselves awash in a sea of competing complaints and appeals, largely unable to appease either side.
The municipal code dating back to 1988 (Chapter 17.22, Section 10, Subsection G) states “vacation rentals are not allowed in any zone.” Everything that follows, however, is a matter of deeply divergent opinion.
On one side, SLO homeowners like Sky Bergman and Karen Hale have rented out rooms in their houses through online marketplaces like Airbnb and VRBO for many years. They say they strive to obey the law and pay all taxes, but have received mixed signals from the city and want to amend the ban, which they argue is overly broad and outdated.
On the other side, concerned residents like Bob Shanbrom and community organizations like Residents for Quality Neighborhoods have been very vocal in criticizing “vacation rentals” as disruptive and undesirable, not to mention, well, illegal.
“It’s a balancing act,” Community Development Director Derek Johnson told New Times. “There are strong passions on both sides, and it’s hard to find a policy that everyone thinks is acceptable.”
After receiving several resident complaints about illegal vacation rentals, Johnson said his department’s code enforcement division—which has expanded from one to four staffers and switched to a more proactive strategy in recent years—started sending out code violation notices to renters in May after investigating online.
Many Airbnb renters were taken aback by the notices, as they’d been unaware of the ban, operating and paying taxes on their “home stay” operations for, in some cases, several years—completely unencumbered by the city.
In a March 2012 e-mail provided to New Times, Linda McDonald of the city’s business tax and license division actually went so far as to tell Bergman she was all set for her room rental within SLO city limits, writing “all you need to pay with me is a Business License for your rental property.” McDonald added that Bergman wouldn’t have to pay additional taxes beyond standard state and federal, and wished her the “best of luck.”
“It’s certainly possible that city staff at a counter would not be aware of the vacation rental prohibition, as it rarely comes up,” Mayor Jan Howell Marx said in a recent phone interview.
For Airbnb renters, the lack of clear information, consistency, and enforcement from the city has been confusing at best and maddening at worst.
“Ironically, those of us who did everything right with the city and went through the proper channels were the first ones who got cease and desist letters,” said longtime resident Hale, who’d been renting out a room in her SLO home for about three years on Airbnb before she recently received a notice.
“I think we’re an easy target,” Hale said. “When I have a vision of a vacation rental, I see a college party house. None of us on Airbnb in SLO do that, but it’s really easy to generalize and assume.”
On the other end of the spectrum, concerned residents like Shanbrom see the vacation rental issue as very clear cut.
“It’s a slippery slope with having vacation rentals in a residential neighborhood,” Shanbrom said. “We can’t just take for granted that the renters are well intentioned and assume nothing bad will happen. Their intention is to make some money, and my intention is to preserve the quality of life in SLO.”
He contends that vacation rentals incrementally degrade the quality of life in residential neighborhoods in five key ways: by encouraging lawlessness, bringing commercial elements to residential spaces, upping transience, having a greater impact on the neighborhood than traditional use, and taking “workforce housing” off the market.
For their part, local Airbnb listers see themselves as unfairly lumped into a category of “problematic” residents, like rowdy students. Hale said all of her guests have been personally vetted, quiet and respectful, and tend to stay longer while spending more money than comparable hotel guests.
Hale said a loosely knit group of roughly 20 aggrieved Airbnb listers has started to meet regularly to organize and hone their message, with the ultimate goal of amending the vacation rental ban.
People on both sides of this issue are currently lobbying the city council as well as city staffers, who are obliged to take everyone’s advisements seriously, but are hard-pressed to mediate effectively.
“We want renters to comply with ordinances and we respect the wishes of concerned residents, but we also know there’s a lot of people who tout the virtues of businesses like Airbnb,” said Councilman John Ashbaugh. “It’s a Catch-22 for the council.”
Both Ashbaugh and Marx said they remain open-minded to any proposal that comes their way, but have serious concerns about lifting the floodgates to even more rentals in a city that’s recently seen declining rates of home ownership.
For now, vacation rentals remain strictly illegal in the city, and Johnson said two code enforcement officers are working roughly four hours per month to investigate and enforce codes specifically for vacation rentals.
Chief Building Official Joseph Lease, who manages the code enforcers, said the city has identified 52 potential violators of the vacation rental ban. They’ve sent seven notices thus far, with six notices waiting in the wings and further investigation and follow-up commissioned.
Lease said some of the owners who’ve received notices have appealed—Bergman and Hale included—some have complied, and some have yet to comply.
Contact Staff Writer Rhys Heyden at firstname.lastname@example.org.