Smolens: San Diego is pushing for short-term rental laws within the coronavirus period

A new plan to regulate short-term vacation rentals in San Diego has emerged and shares similarities with a plan that gained momentum a few years ago.

The latest plan would drastically reduce the number of these rentals across the city, require permits, and impose fees for enforcement.

Again, this proposal would create separate rules for Mission Beach, giving the vacation rental community more leeway than other neighborhoods.

This time around, however, something completely different is going on that has become an unpredictable wild card in politics and life in general: the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spread of the coronavirus has changed so many aspects of life, especially when it comes to health and the economy. Like so many other companies, short-term rents have suffered, as have hotels and the entire hospitality industry.

Some STVR owners are stressed by the downturn in business and are now looking for longer-term tenants, according to Zillow. The online real estate data firm reported last month that short-term rental occupancy announced by industry leader Airbnb had rebounded significantly but was still down significantly compared to 2019.

It is not just the owners of rental properties who are affected by the economic slowdown and greatly reduced travel. The advertising platforms themselves have been hit hard. In May, Airbnb announced it was laying off 25 percent of its employees.

It is unclear whether all of this will make this proposal more or less successful than the previous ones.

At least the struggle to regulate short-term rents, which was once one of the most intense public debates, is now taking a back seat to many other pressing concerns. That doesn’t mean the emotions are still not high on the matter, especially in beach communities.

The key to the latest proposal is an agreement between Expedia, owner of vacation rental platforms VRBO and HomeAway, and Unite HERE Local 30, the hotel trade union in San Diego whose members have been injured by the temporary shutdown and slow business in local hotels.

The deal was signed by Dr. Jennifer Campbell, a member of the San Diego City Council, serves as a broker, whose District 2 includes Mission Beach and other coastal communities that have many short-term rentals.

Airbnb, which has resisted previous efforts to regulate the industry, was not involved in the negotiations or agreements.

Still, the deal between two major rental platforms and an influential union that were on opposite sides is a big deal. Additionally, the Mission Beach portion of the plan follows the recommendations of the Mission Beach Town Council.

However, the proposal is still met with fierce opposition. Pacific Beach City Council said it was “strongly against” the plan. Save San Diego Neighborhoods, a community-based organization that has been a leading critic of short-term rentals, is threatening a recall from Campbell.

According to Mike Freeman of The San Diego Union-Tribune, the key to the new proposal is to limit short-term rents for entire homes to 0.7 percent of the city’s housing stock, which would equate to 3,750 permits.

Mission Beach can have up to 30 percent of its housing stock or 1,086 short-term rentals for entire homes in addition to the city-wide ceiling.

The number of vacation rentals in town was never accurate. The city’s auditor has estimated the total number of short-term rents – both for entire houses and for shared apartments – at 16,000.

Residents or LLCs could only get one permit under the proposal, countering criticism that companies own numerous rental units and have dwindled the city’s available housing stock.

The dispute over regulating short-term vacation rentals in San Diego has been going on for years. This story was marked by hours of hearings in front of hundreds of people, some arguing that restrictions would harm them financially while others exhibited harsh behavior on some rental properties that ruined the character of their communities.

In 2017, prosecutor Mara Elliott issued a memo stating that such rentals are not allowed in any zone of the city. However, the city has generally failed to enforce the statement and has found it difficult to take action against violations of the Code.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer came to a compromise in 2018 after violent disputes in the council, which was apparently supported by various interest groups involved in the battle over the rental.

This proposal called for a maximum of two permits per host and, among other things, required enforcement fees. Mission Beach would have been exempt from unit restrictions, but not fees.

This measure was dramatically revised in July of this year by a divided city council. Led by member Barbara Bry, now running for mayor, and then-member Lorie Zapf, Campbell’s predecessor, a majority of the council approved a restriction on one person’s primary residence permit.

The Mission Beach Liberation was killed.

The regulation did not last long enough to take effect.

A successful referendum led by Airbnb forced the council to either put the regulation up for public vote or simply repeal it. The council chose the final three months after its approval. Some council members suggested they could pick up the pieces and forge a compromise that would float.

Zapf was skeptical that such a ship could be built. She wanted to put the proposal on the ballot, but was at the short end of an 8-1 vote.

“I just feel like we’ve worked too hard on this,” she said at the time. “There is no guarantee that a compromise will be reached soon or ever.”

We will see. At least there is now a new plan to test the water.

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