Mark McDermott

Short-term rental ban will be enforced

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by Mark McDermott

The City Council’s brief flirtation with allowing some short-term rentals within the city is officially over, for now.

The Council last week rejected options to allow homeowners limited ability to rent their homes to vacationers and instead doubled down on its existing ban, which was enacted in 2017 but has been largely ineffective. The Council directed staff to complete negotiations with a firm, Host Compliance, which has the technological abilities to more effectively enforce its ban.

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City staff, at council’s direction, explored an ordinance that would have created an exception to the ban, allowing owner-occupied residences to rent out their properties less than 30 days —  the definition of short-term — for stays of at least 7 days each no more than three times a year. That ordinance would also have required homeowners obtain a permit from the City.

But after a public hearing that featured a dozen speakers nearly unanimous against any form of short-term rentals, and following an election season in which all seven candidates campaigned for a full ban, the Council made quick work of rejecting any exemptions to the ban.

Mayor Steve Napolitano, in making the motion, recalled that the most important issue when he first served on council three decades ago (at 26, the youngest councilperson in local history) has not changed.

“It is not trite to me to say I ran to protect our small-town atmosphere and low-profile development,” Napolitano said. “I said it back in 1990, the first time and ran and I continue [to say] that. I said it before anybody was saying it, and I lived it, serving this community for the past 25 plus years. This is one of the biggest issues [that] will determine the future character of this community that I ever came across. I always ask what is best for Manhattan Beach in making decisions: Does it improve the quality of life, and increase our sense of community? And is this what people really want? Short-term rentals do none of the above, in my opinion. It’s about money, that’s the bottom line —  money for the city, money for the folks who do the renting. There’s nothing wrong with money or earning it, but not at the expense of our sense of community.”

Community Development Director Anne McIntosh noted that cities frequently face evolving residential uses, such as two decades ago when the first wave of people working at home arrived, which at the time was non-compliant with city codes. City code has long disallowed short-term rentals; the ban was just a restatement of preexisting local law. McIntosh suggested the proposed exemption was simply something to explore as the city grappled with the new phenomenon of Airbnb and VRBO, services which have vastly expanded the short-term rental market.

“I think the thing that I have taken away from the council’s conversations is that if there was a way to sort of meet everybody’s needs and to prevent an overproliferation of rentals run in a commercial way that takes away housing and rental units from people, but still have a small window for homeowners in the city that enjoy having guests in their home or who want to do this once or twice a year and give people that same experience that we have when we go to other cities and stay in an Airbnb —  if there was a way to accommodate that, that would be something to explore,” McIntosh said.

Napolitano said he appreciated the intent of the proposed ordinance but didn’t see how any short-term rentals could be compatible with a neighborhood’s residential feel.

“I appreciate the spirit of compromise that the latest proposal brings,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s workable. And I think it does compromise our values and I don’t think we should do it.”

Councilmembers asked that Host Compliance be tasked not only with going after short-term rentals as they occur, but also the online listings themselves. Previously the technology for this did not exist. McIntosh noted enforcement officers could identify listings, but enforcement was made difficult by not knowing when the law was actually being broken —  that is, when guests are in occupancy.

“It’s a matter of linking the actual address with somebody who is actually renting at that property,” she said. “So it’s work.”

Host Compliance has the ability to make that link. Fines violating the ban in any way will range from $250 to $1,000 per guest per unit per night, at the City’s discretion. McIntosh said the notion that the city had not sought to enforce the ban was a misperception. City Attorney Quinn Barrow noted several fines had indeed been levied.

“The last few we went straight to $1,000 per night,” Barrow said. “And so we have had situations where people have paid up to $9,000 for violations.”

“We didn’t have a lack of teeth,” Napolitano said. “We had a lack of technology, and a lack of enforcement.”

Councilperson Richard Montgomery suggested two additions to Napolitano’s motion —  that the city add a part-time enforcement officer to field complaints Thursday through Sunday, when most short-term rental problems are reported, and that a review of the effectiveness of the upgraded ban occur in six months. Napolitano accepted the additions.

“This doesn’t go away because you use the word ban,” Montgomery said.

Councilperson Amy Howorth said that she’d been given pause to reconsider the ban when she became aware of residents who utilized short-term rentals but did so in a thoughtful, low-impact way. But as she further considered the matter, Howorth said she had an epiphany.

“It’s not about whether there is a party from Thursday to Sunday, although that can happen, too, if you live next to teenagers….” Howorth said. “It’s the disruption that comes to our community just in homes that are removed from residential stock. So even if there is never a problem with that home [being rented], it changes the very fabric of our community.”

The council voted 5-0 to reject the proposed ordinance and implement a more total ban on short-term rentals.

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