By Everett Clayton
On Tuesday, the Santa Barbara City Council will take up the matter of vacation rentals. There will be some who urge that they be banned altogether, saying they deplete the supply of affordable housing and wreck neighborhoods with all-night parties thrown by vacationers who don’t live here and aren’t worried about what their neighbors think of them.
I understand those concerns. We all do. My wife and I bought our home here 15 years ago because we were smitten by the casual beauty and friendliness of Santa Barbara. We would not have moved in next to Animal House.
Over the years, one thing we have learned, and come to deeply appreciate, is the care the city takes to create vibrant public places for residents and tourists. We walk and bike everywhere. It is a wonderful place to be, to unwind, and to understand what is truly important in life.
Another thing we have learned is that all that beauty, all those safe, clean and entertaining public places, take money to support. Lots of it. When we began renting our home to vacationers almost a decade ago, we were happy to pay the transient occupancy tax. We could see that the money was being well spent to make the city good for us, our guests and the whole community. To us, that was local government at its best.
For eight months now, we have not been able to rent our home to weekly vacationers. Our home is in a residential neighborhood, and we were notified by the Zoning Department that we had to stop, despite the fact that we had a business license from the city and paid our TOT promptly —despite the fact that many other vacation rentals in the same neighborhood were permitted to continue. We didn’t think this unequal treatment was fair, so we complained, in letters to the City Council and in this newspaper. Now, at last, the city is taking up the issue.
Here’s my assessment of the pros and cons:
•Neighborhood character: This is what everyone is worried about. No one wants an obnoxious party house next door. Understanding that, many communities, like Pacific Grove and Ventura, have adopted vacation rental permit laws that require concrete noise-response plans. This gives neighbors something they don’t have otherwise —a number to call without embarrassment and assurance that something will be quickly done about the disturbance.
These ordinances also limit the number of guests to that appropriate for the size of the home and require adequate parking, both vast improvements over doing nothing. They require bringing the home into compliance with safety codes covering smoke alarms, carbon-monoxide monitors, etc. This improves safety for all.
Homeowners hoping to attract guests have to spend money to keep their homes looking nice. This results in better-maintained homes in the neighborhood. Improving a home frequently requires a city permit, which gives the city a chance to bring other aspects of the home up to code. For instance, when we built a new fence, we got a permit and as part of that process were required to install a new main sewer line from our house to the street. This was an improvement that will benefit us, the city and any future owner. Bringing vacation homes into compliance with building codes gives the city a chance to improve the quality and safety of its housing stock.
•City Budget: The city is reviewing its budget now and worrying about how to pay for everything. It projects a $1.9 million shortfall for 2016. Vacation rentals not permitted by residential zoning now contribute $800,000 of tax revenue per year to the city’s general fund. That number could be even larger, I suspect, if the city adopted a vacation rental permit law that lets renters come in out of the cold as long as they pay the TOT.
•Tourism: Santa Barbara is a tourist destination of global appeal. Much of our local economy, and jobs, depends on it. Increasingly, in the VRBO and Airbnb world, visitors want to stay in homes. My wife and I do it everywhere we go. When we were renting our home to vacationers, we had guests from England, France, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and other foreign countries, as well as from all over the United States. They all left charmed by our home and our city, taking those good impressions with them, telling their friends. Our vacation rental websites showed the world how lovely our city is. Our guest reviews sang the city’s praises. People saw and heard and came. We were like a mini Chamber of Commerce for the city we love.
•Housing supply: None of us are happy that our community is too expensive for many to afford. It would be nice if we could achieve some kind of utopia in which everyone could have easily affordable shelter. Rising home prices are a fact of prosperity and local vitality and desirability. And while rising home prices may be tough on renters, they are good for homeowners.
On the other hand, taking away a property owner’s right to use his property as he wishes solely to limit his ability to increase its value, so that it will be more affordable to others, has obvious problems. We generally don’t do that sort of thing in this country.
A well-designed vacation rental permit ordinance can deal with the occasional visiting jerk, probably more effectively than existing noise ordinances. Everyone would know the rules, and there would be a clear enforcement procedure. When you consider that, together with the free worldwide publicity for the city from vacation rental websites and the substantial tax revenue that can be used to keep Santa Barbara the beautiful and exciting place we all love, legalizing and sensibly regulating vacation rentals looks like a win for all.