The Santa Barbara City Council heard a great deal of information Tuesday about proposed short-term rental housing changes, but the details provided by staff only seemed to increase the number of questions from council members.
And many of their questions had to do with enforcement to crack down on illegal operators.
Staff told council members that they are more than aware of the illegal operators — including those who actually pay transient occupancy taxes — but simply lack the staff and funding to enforce the current ordinance and licensing process.
Council members — and residents in council chambers — had plenty to say about highlights of a proposed short-term housing program that would operate throughout the city, would restrict short-term rentals to those who use their primary homes (not second homes) for that purpose and would limit short-term rentals to 90 days a year. The program would also require annual permits, which in conjunction with business licenses and transient occupancy taxes, would pay to increase enforcement regarding illegal operators.
Staff was seeking direction from the council on how to proceed, and what parts of the proposed program should be tweaked or changed.
The council obliged by offering comments, corrections and suggestions before voting 7-0 to have staff draft a short-term rental housing ordinance and forward the framework to the Planning Commission for review, with the addition of council comments and answers to their questions they posed during the meeting.
“This is only the beginning of a very long complex conversation,” Mayor Randy Rowse told the News-Press Wednesday. “There was a lot of confusion about this item, and we thought it best to tee it up nicely for them, and let them chew on it. They’ve got more of the expertise, and none of the politics.”
Staff got more than direction during a contentious council meeting.
After project manager Timmy Bolker, with the city Department of Community Development, presented staff’s ideas, it was the audience members’ turn.
And they didn’t mince words.
Some spoke in favor of short-term rental housing, noting they can earn income by renting out their homes when they are gone. One speaker said he came to Santa Barbara two years ago as a tourist and stayed in short-term housing situations until he could buy a home here. Others noted that they use local people to clean their homes as well as plumbers, who the speakers noted would lose income without short-term housing.
And several chafed at the idea of overreaching government officials telling them what they could do — or not do — with their private property.
On the other side, there were those who spoke passionately about keeping short-term housing in the coastal zone and out of residential neighborhoods. And some who spoke in favor of banning them outright.
The only thing that seemed to unite them was their desire to crack down on illegal operators providing short-term housing.
One speaker put it bluntly. “Enforce! Enforce! Enforce!” he said.
Staff responded that the only way to enforce the law was to increase income through permit fees and by expanding the program throughout the city. They said they simply don’t have the manpower or resources to do so now.
The figures Mr. Bolker provided backed up the extent of the enforcement problem.
He said that currently there are 1,560 short-term rentals in all areas of the city — mostly single-family homes operating as quasi-hotels — and out of 1,119 units in total, only 19 are legal, and that only 82 are paying transit occupancy taxes to the city.
Councilmember Mike Jordan voiced alarm at the number of short-term housing units out there that are unlicensed.
“We’re collecting TOT from people who do not have permits,” he said. “How can we take people’s fees without them legally operating? It’s kind of like five years ago. How are we back here again? I’m annoyed we’re in this position again.”
Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez asked what the penalties are for “having put your address on one of these websites and not having them permitted.”
City Administrator Rebecca Bjork said there are administrative fines or criminal enforcement, but that illegal operators consider fines simply as the cost of doing business, and the cost of the city going to court would be “extremely high.”
Instead, expanding the short-term rental housing program citywide, and requiring people who want to offer short-term rentals to pay annual permit fees, as suggested by staff, “would give us the tools to enforce it and the means for doing so.”
Mayor Rowse, meanwhile, voiced concern that under the draft proposal, local government would control how and when people use their private homes.
“I don’t want to dictate what people do with their own properties,” he said. “I want to assure that the conditions they buy under remain the same.”
He said he doesn’t support a ban, but wants to see a complete overhaul of the administrative process. “It’s nuts what we put people through to become a short-term rental.”
In contrast, Councilmember Meagan Harmon asked repeatedly if short-term housing could simply be banned throughout the city.
If not, she said, then restricting short-term rentals to people’s primary homes has to be part of an overhauled program. “The whole program won’t work if that’s not part of it,” she said. “It’s a way to ensure those units are not used as short-term rentals only.”
She, too, voiced concern about the city’s inability to enforce that short-term rentals are legal. “If we can’t enforce then there’s no value in this new framework at al.”
Councilmember Kristen Sneddon said she’d rather not go further into residential zones in terms of allowing short-term rentals, noting that allowing homeowners to monetize their properties gives them an incentive to turn their homes into short-term rentals, which affects the character of an entire neighborhood.
“It’s just not worth the tradeoff of having a business use,” she said.
Councilmember Sneddon said the city should limit the number of short-term rentals overall, and restrict itself to enforcement and collecting fees from short-term rentals already in place.
As for illegal operators, she said the fines imposed should increase from $500 per violation.
Councilmember Eric Friedman said he’s against pushing further into residential neighborhoods. “We can’t even enforce what we have.”
He suggested placing a cap on the number of short-term rentals allowed in the city. “That’s how much we’re ever going to have, and they have to comply with whatever we have.”