Mark McDermott

Short-term rental ban will be lifted

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by Mark McDermott

The City Council on Tuesday night moved towards replacing the city’s largely ineffective prohibition on short-term rentals with a regulated program that would require homeowners to register with business licenses and limit how many days a year such homes could be rented.

Under the guidelines the Council directed city staff to codify under a new ordinance, short-term rental properties would also be subject to Transient Occupancy Taxes (TOT), as is the case with hotels. Perhaps most significantly, council members vowed that anyone found in violation of the new regulations would face much more stringent enforcement and fines of up to a $1,000 per day per guest in any unit rented outside the city’s guidelines.

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Councilman Richard Montgomery said he’d received dozens of emails for and against short-term rentals and questioning from residents every time he went to a grocery store or a gas station. Though testimony was overwhelmingly against allowing any form of short-term rental at Tuesday’s meeting, Montgomery said the town appeared equally divided on the issue, with many of those contacting him angered at any infringement of their property rights. But one area of agreement, he said, was the need for better enforcement.

“What city residents want is clear, strict guidelines and, yes, teeth,” Montgomery said, noting that the ban enacted by a previous council two years ago had proven wholly ineffective. “Why we are here tonight is because the problem hasn’t gone away. It’s gotten worse.”

Short-term rentals, such as Airbnb and Vacation Rentals by Owners (VRBO) have proliferated throughout the city. Under current city law, homeowners renting property for under 30 days are already subject to $1,000 fines, but finding and enforcing violators has proven to be beyond city staff’s current capabilities. Staff told council that less than 10 enforcement actions are taken per year; meanwhile, VRBO lists 300 Manhattan Beach properties, while Airbnb — more difficult to locate because the locations can be listed without direct reference to the city the rental is located in —  likely also number in the hundreds.

Several residents testified that their quality of life had been negatively impacted by living next door to properties rented as short-term rentals. The most common complaint was the noise caused by late night parties. Marlene Ramirez said that her work as a teacher and her husband’s work as a doctor have been impacted by howling and the sounds of breaking glass at 4 a.m.

“My husband is a neonatal physician,” she said. “That means he needs to get sleep to save babies who are at risk…We were so exhausted from not being able to sleep. The bottom line is this is about quality of life for families and for people who do have jobs like my husband saving lives.”

Carol Perrin, president of the Downtown Residents Group, said that passing the proposed guidelines was “putting the cart before the horse” given that the outright ban had already proven ineffective.

“Why would anyone think if we have a situation now where something is illegal and can’t be enforced that by opening the floodgates [it will improve]?” she said. “…It’s not a minor issue when you can’t live your normal life, when you can’t sleep at night.”

Two former council members who voted for the ban two years ago, Mark Burton and Wayne Powell, both argued that the ban was in keeping with the city’s General Plan and should not be lifted. Burton said the General Plan, enacted in 2002, helped create the overwhelmingly residential feel of the city and resulted in the huge increase in property values that has occurred since.

“Everybody pays that money so you can come to a residential community and live and raise their families,” Burton said. “That is who we are.”

Burton also said that short-term rental companies are driven by profit and care little for community. He noted that short-term rental properties locally are renting for as much as $5,000 a week.

“That is how profitable they are,” he said. “They would love to turn Manhattan Beach into a tourist town. It’s that simple. Don’t do it.”

Powell said the rentals create commercial uses in areas zoned as residential.

“We have commercial zones for hotels, and we have hotels and they do great business,” Powell said. “But when you buy a house in a residential zone, you don’t expect to have a commercial business next to you, a hotel.”

Resident Steven Johnson said that not all short-term rentals, however, are operated like hotels. He and his family have been renting short-term for years, he said, but just a few weeks a year, when they go on vacation, and their renters have been multiple generations of the same families.

“I think you are taking that away,” Johnson said. “Grandma can cook, families can have fun together. I think it’s a great bonding experience. Giving people the ability to see what we get to experience every day living in Manhattan Beach is tremendous. You can’t do that in a hotel room.”

“This type of rental, which is not done year round but is done a month maybe two months a year is definitely something we rely on, for our livelihood sometimes, and also to go off and have a vacation to other parts of the world,” Johnson said.

Councilwoman Amy Howorth said this type of short-term rental is “a cool idea” and something that the city would obviously like to encourage.

“Unfortunately it’s become such a different animal,” she said. “So what I want to be able to do is protect quality of life, and residential neighborhoods are the very fabric of our community. So there are things we could have done better under the ban. Contrary to what you might think, we on the council don’t like to spend money. But maybe we needed to hire someone and enforce the ban.”

Mayor Steve Napolitano said that rentals shorter than 30 days had always been illegal in Manhattan Beach, even before the outright ban. He said he saw no need for overcomplicating matters by attempting to regulate short-term rentals but instead said that the city could acquire software that would better enable enforcement of a ban.

A ban does work,” he said. “We ban lots of things…I go back to the idea of what everyone runs [for council] on now, preserving our small town atmosphere. Yes, we want to share Manhattan Beach, but we don’t want to tear it apart to do that.”

Councilman David Lesser tried to broker a compromise that would allow some form of short-term rental, similar to what Pasadena does, which is based on only hosted rentals. He and his colleagues agreed on some of the parameters, including hosted rentals no more than 60 days per year per home and non-hosted stays of no less than 7 days but totaling no more than 3 weeks per year. Staff was directed to work on a draft ordinance but also to obtain more information from other cities who have successfully regulated short term rentals.

“I recognize there are some, maybe many, who would not accept any kind of a plan at all,” Lesser said. “But I would like to reach some kind of consensus.”

“No matter what we do, extend the ban or allow some sort of program, I will absolutely insist upon strong enforcement,” Howorth said. “Will, we able to enforce perfectly? No. But that absolutely does not mean we shouldn’t try.”

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