Point Loma Zonna Pennell lives in the 3400 block of Keats Street in Point Loma, midway up the hill above Nimitz on a short segment of the street that has eight houses of eclectic style. She says longtime residents occupy most of the homes, but when the housing boom went to bust, new buyers turned two of the biggest places into vacation rentals.
“Last year we had screaming, yelling bachelor parties, graduation parties, spring-break parties, and mostly wedding parties,” she says. “Instead of going down and getting a wedding room at the Hilton, they were getting the house here, paying $3000 to [the property owner], which he thought was a great pop, and then these people just screamed and had 400 people over here. It was just horrific. It should not be that I have to work my whole life to have a house to where I come home to have people pissing, puking, throwing their trash, screaming, and yelling.”
Pennell says she complained to everyone she could think of — the mayor, her city councilman, the City’s code enforcement department, the city attorney’s office, and the police department — and each had a reason why nothing could be done.
Joining forces this March with a vocal anti-mini-dorm coalition in the College Area, Rolando, and San Carlos, the city council passed two laws to prevent the creation of new mini-dorms and phase out existing ones. The rooming house ordinance and the high-occupancy permit effectively prevent property owners from cramming rental houses with seven or more adults.
But while the Chalcedony Street residents were thanking the City for preventing the mini-dorm nuisance, other beach-area residents were furious that the new laws did not include language to prohibit vacation rentals.
Marcie Beckett lives across the street from a vacation rental at 4111 Bayard, which, depending on the listing, sleeps anywhere from 10 to 18. Beckett, a member of the Pacific Beach Community Planning Committee and Pacific Beach Town Council, believes the City deliberately excluded vacation rentals from the permit program.
“I can only speculate, but it has to do with money,” she says. “People are making a lot of money on these vacation rentals. Tourists are coming and spending a lot of money. The City doesn’t want to do anything to decrease the housing availability for tourists.”
It’s not the noise, trash, or parking nuisances that concern Beckett the most.
“The single-family neighborhoods are supposed to be the backbone of your community, where you’ve got the stable residents that are vested,” she says. “They join the town council. They coach the Little League teams. They send their kids to the neighborhood schools. Every time you take a single-family residence out of that pool and make it a tourist rental, you’re tearing a hole in the fabric of the community. If you get enough of those holes, your community disintegrates.”
Beckett points out that condo complexes, which are located in multiple-unit residential zones, where vacation rentals might be allowed, have more power to control vacation rentals than do people living in single-family neighborhoods.
“Many of the homeowners’ associations do not allow rentals of under six months,” she says. “So those condo associations have more control than those in the single-family zones.”
In September 2007, Aguirre released a ten-page memo addressing the legality of short-term vacation rentals in single-unit zones. It came to two conclusions. First, the memo states there are no regulations to prohibit vacation rentals in single-family zones. Second, if the City amended the code to prevent vacation rentals, in the beach areas the new code would have to be approved by the California Coastal Commission.
The memo provides a list of other California jurisdictions, including Encinitas, Coronado, Imperial Beach, Solana Beach, Humboldt County, and San Luis Obispo County, and summaries of those jurisdictions’ attempts to ban vacation rentals. The memo includes the coastal commission’s rulings and compromises that allow vacation rentals to exist in those cities and counties, along with the regulations and permits the commission required.
But vacation-rental opponents point to a 1991 state appeals court ruling that let a Carmel-by-the-Sea ordinance banning vacation rentals stand.
In Ewing v. City of Carmel-by-the-Sea, the court ruled, “It stands to reason that the ‘residential character’ of a neighborhood is threatened when a significant number of homes…are occupied not by permanent residents but by a stream of tenants staying a weekend, a week, or even 29 days.… [S]uch rentals undoubtedly affect the essential character of a neighborhood and the stability of a community.”
Pennell says that her home isn’t in the coastal commission zone and that vacation rentals can also be found in inland neighborhoods such as Mission Hills, Clairemont, and North Park.
Deputy city attorney Marianne Green says the matter of vacation rentals in single-family zones is still under consideration by the city attorney’s office.
Even without the court ruling, residents ask, if a property owner is paying the transient occupancy tax (TOT), doesn’t that imply that the property is being used as a hotel, which isn’t allowed in single-family residential zones? On its website, the City refers to the tax as the “hotel/motel tax.”
“We argued that these are commercial enterprises, and the city attorney’s office ignored it,” Beckett says. “They just looked at the code and said they’re not illegal. But we argued that they’re commercial enterprises. They are! They’re absolutely commercial enterprises.”
Pennell sees something more deliberate in the City’s allowing vacation rentals to remain and multiply in single-family neighborhoods.
“In the city of San Diego, there are no ordinances, so code compliance cannot enforce it. Why aren’t there any codes? Why aren’t there any ordinances? It’s because of the TOT, stupid! Follow the money!”
She points out the number of vacation rentals listed online at craigslist.org and sites such as Vacation Rental by Owner (vrbo.com) and says to do the math. The tax is 10.5 percent. If a house rents for $2000 a week, the City earns $210 a week for one house. Multiply that by the 15 vacation rentals in Pacific Beach’s single-family neighborhoods, and the City stands to earn $12,600 a month, if not more, through the tax. Many houses rent for higher amounts, including the one at 4111 Bayard, which fetches up to $6200 a week in July and August.