‘Tis the Season to Rent Your Home
Last Friday’s Hospitality Night was deja-vu all over again – our annual reminder of how great it would be if we eliminated cars entirely and made Forest Avenue a year-round pedestrian plaza. But alas, we are the City of No.
Same with skateboarding, fishing, bicycling, medical marijuana dispensaries, sitting on the beach at night, having a warming fire in your backyard, and now renting a room or your entire home to a visitor.
Watching the City Council’s latest go round on the topic of short-term rentals was illuminating in the scope and eloquence of the large and supportive majority, infuriating in the dogma of the minority opposition, and typically disheartening in the outcome. More prohibition, more taxpayer money spent on enforcement, reduced access to Laguna by middle-income families who can’t afford our pricey hotels, and most egregiously, less of a hand-up to our residents in need.
This was less a battle of political doctrine and more just another case of the haves versus the have-nots. The people with ample money and little to no mortgages who believe if you can’t afford to live here – don’t. And that’s a shame because Laguna will just become more homogeneous, insulated, and boring.
Here’s the thing the Council missed. Short-term rentals are a runaway train that has left the station. Hundreds of people in town already do it. It’s always been that way. We are a vacation town, but the Internet has expanded the customer pool. It’s called the sharing economy, and it’s how we will keep more cars off the road and reduce rapacious housing and hotel development. It’s also how we shrink the world and experience other cultures. It’s a brilliant, crowd sourced marketplace that people – not corporations – control.
Of course home sharing has become contentious around the world because anything this disruptive will be met with opposition. And admittedly will be gamed by greedy profiteers. So legislation is needed. But the demarcation between good and evil is clear. Greedy cretins who buy up properties to convert to de facto hotel rooms is bad on every level. It reduces housing stock, drives up rental prices, ruins the neighborhood ambience, and leaves the owner unaccountable if not indifferent to the behavior of the tenants. That’s a zoning violation. I believe most cities will eventually outlaw the practice. But people who own and reside in their homes a good part of the year should be able to rent a room anytime they are present, and be given a finite number of days to rent their entire home.
Here’s how it should work in Laguna. Full time, short-term rentals are banned. But if it is your primary residence, you can always rent a room while living there, and rent your entire home for up to 100 days – less than a third of the year. Residents can thus rent their homes for the summer, as well as key holidays. That’s the time our town swells with visitors anyway, and when the merchants make their money. Tourism is our chief industry, so doesn’t it make sense to keep the available rooms filled? Don’t like it? Move to Coto.
Now as to disruptive behavior and the testimony from some that having a vacation rental next door will “ruin your life,” there are numerous ways to mitigate that risk. First and foremost, make it very painful and difficult for a homeowner to rent to a group of philistines. The sharing web sites allow the owner to post conditions, and they can be very explicit about noise, parking, and the neighborhood. And that violations will result in forfeiture of deposit, and even ejection. This is the first line of defense and a very effective deterrent.
Second, we already have noise and parking ordinances in place. So affected neighbors have the same protections and recourse they already enjoy when ratting out their actual neighbors. Oh yes, residents party, too. Only this time the homeowner might receive some exceptional fines for not keeping their tenants in check. Repeated violations would result in forfeiture of permit. That’s a severe deterrent.
Third is the karmic reciprocity AirBnB has engendered among its users. There is a “do unto others ”credo, and a ratings system not only for homeowners, but for renters too. That’s why the vast majority of renters from these sites behave.
As for the law, I would argue that these kinds of rentals are not a zoning violation.
Right now you can go to City Hall and get an over-the-counter permit for an at-home business. You can offer any service (shrink, chiropractor, masseuse, accountant), provided it’s not a retail business. In other words, you have the right to monetize your property. So wouldn’t renting one or all of your rooms be analogous to an at-home business?
Those who bought homes in the last 15 years or so are faced with mortgages that are clearly higher than many of those who bought earlier. It’s not easy to make that nut in these challenging financial times, and unless Laguna wants to be exclusively for the 1%ers who don’t rent their homes, but more often leave them vacant while they are yachting or skiing in Gstaad, then we must find a middle ground that allows for short term, vacation rentals.
Billy Fried hosts “Laguna Talks” on Thursday nights at 8 p.m. on KX93.5, and can be reached at [email protected]