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Home-sharing Debate Heats Up At Santa Barbara Planning Commission

Fresh off a heated summer debate over vacation rentals in Santa Barbara, city officials on Thursday tackled a new, but similar issue — whether to allow homeowners to "share" their home with out-of-towners — and collect transient occupancy taxes.

The city is trying to decide whether to create a home-sharing ordinance that would allow homeowners to rent their homes to out-of-towners for 30 days or less. If the city goes that route, it must also decide whether the homeowner or "host" must stay in the house simultaneously to ensure that the situation is truly a shared situation and not a vacation rental.

The city over the summer voted to continue a ban on short-term vacation rentals, where investors buy Santa Barbara homes and then rent them for 30 days or less like they were hotels. 

The Planning Commission on Thursday did not vote — only provided feedback for the staff and the City Council. 

The issue has thrust Santa Barbara's longstanding affordable-housing shortage into the spotlight, pitting on one side people who say home-sharing would irreparably damage neighborhoods, due to a steady flow of transients coming in-and-out, against homeowners who say they often depend on short-term rentals to pay their own mortgages and live in Santa Barbara. 

The issue of neighborhood preservation is perhaps the most emotional among Santa Barbara residents. Careers of activists and politicians have been built and killed based on whether they were on the right or wrong side of the neighborhood-compatibility debate.

Although a majority of members supported the idea. Commissioner Michael Jordan was flat out against a home-sharing ordinance, and Commissioner Deborah Schwartz said she was "hesitant" to support it. 

Jordan said neighborhoods grow together and there's a unique, shared experience that comes from knowing and interacting with your neighbors on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. It's a perspective that short-term, out-of-town renters don't necessarily understand or buy into, he said. 

He said home sharing already occurs "underground," and that the city should not create an ordinance to regulate it.

"In my personal opinion, it should continue to be underground," Jordan said.

If the city were to adopt an ordinance, he said, the host or homeowner should be required to stay at the house nightly to ensure that the guests are respectful of the neighborhood.

Schwartz agreed that home-sharing poses problems for a neighborhood. Schwartz pushed back on many of the speakers who attempted to frame their support for home-sharing under the guise that they are somehow participating in a progressive shared economy that allows "young professionals" to thrive in Santa Barbara's increasingly hipster culture.

"It definitely sounds like, looks like, feels like, a pure commercial use to me," Schwartz said. 

She said she would have more "empathy" for the home-sharing ordinance supporters if they showed an interest in renting to people who want to work here, rent here or seniors. She said there are 10,000 people on wait lists for some form of affordable housing in Santa Barbara.

"About 61 percent of the city is renters," Schwartz said. 

One of the speakers in support of the ordinance said the city should embrace home-sharing instead of oil.

"I am in favor of home-sharing and short-term rentals," said Jenna Berg. "Tourism is a very clean industry. If I had to pick an industry, I would pick tourism over oil."

Homeowner Michael Conaway said he supports home-sharing and vacation rentals.

"Vacation rentals and home-sharing are part of the shared economy that is vital for Santa Barbara to retain a healthy base of young professionals — from artists to nurses that cannot afford to live here," he said.

City officials are hoping to present an ordinance to the City Council for consideration in the fall of 2016. If the city staff moves forward with a draft ordinance it must decide whether to require the homeowner to be present the entire time of the stay, and what types of standards and rules should exist for the rentals. 

The biggest problem with creating an ordinance, city officials said, is how to make sure homeowners are following the rules. The city doesn't have staff available to monitor every shared home. 

Santa Barbara has about 1,000 online listings for shared homes now, officials said. 

"There are extreme enforcement challenges in trying to regulate home-sharing activities," said city planner Liz Limon. 

Santa Barbara resident Dick Buford said at Thursday's meeting that he opposes a home-sharing ordinance.

"It's a very very dangerous path to open up home sharing to everybody," he said. "It will literally turn our neighborhood into bright-light commercial homes."

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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