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In Fight Against Vacation Rentals, Santa Barbara Targets Illegal Dwelling Units

In its war against vacation rentals, Santa Barbara has a new top priority: illegal dwelling units.

Santa Barbara officials have spent the last several months trying to document how many vacation rentals exist in the city, and crack down both on individuals providing them and web sites that advertise them.

In the process, they have discovered that some homeowners have converted garages or other unlivable space into vacation rentals.

"People are offering as vacation rentals illegal dwelling units," said City Attorney Ariel Calonne, at Tuesday's City Council meeting. "I am surprised that the market targets vacation rentals in illegal dwelling units."

At the direction of the Santa Barbara City Council, the city is attempting to ban all vacation rentals, citing concerns that wealthy visitors are wrecking neighborhoods and eating up the community's affordable housing.

With a 0-percent rental vacancy in the city, officials say that what's left of our housing stock should be for locals — the working poor and middle class who struggle to make ends meet in the city.

"There are absolutely clear and egregious housing impacts," said Councilman Gregg Hart. "Entire apartment buildings have been turned into vacation rentals."

Hart has led the charge against vacation rentals, saying that the lack of affordable housing is the city's most pressing challenge. He said vacation rentals create a fundamental change in the character of neighborhoods and people's lives, "in having a place to live."

Santa Barbara City Councilwoman Cathy Murillo agreed that vacation rentals are harming the neighborhoods.

"There's too much profit to be made here, and we have to continue to monitor," Murillo said.

Murillo said that when she was campaigning for her successful re-election on the Westside last year, she could tell which homes were lived-in by locals and which ones were being treated as vacation rentals. She said residents don't like vacation rentals.

"The neighbors totally know what is going on," Murillo said. "They would prefer a long-term neighbor they could know or get to know and be part of the community."

The city makes about $1 million a year in taxes from people who have registered their vacation rentals. People with existing licenses to rent out their homes for 30 days or less may renew their license up until Dec. 31, 2016.

After that, the city will no longer allow anyone to legally rent their homes as vacation rentals in residential zones. 

The city has subpoenaed web sites that advertise vacation rentals to find out the names and contact information of those renting out their homes. All but one of the sites have complied with the city's request.

In June, the city knew of 349 vacation rentals, but as of February of this year, the number had dropped to 316.

The city expects that it could take up to three years before it is able to find all of those who are offering vacation rentals. Calonne recently sent a letter to "probable" vacation-rental owners, asking them to voluntarily come to an agreement with the city.

Vacation rental owners would have to acknowledge the current law, permanently discontinue their short term vacation-rental use, remove any references to short-term vacation rentals from any advertising or website promotional material, and submit an accounting of the last three years’ transient-occupancy and business-license taxes to the city’s finance director.

The vacation-rental owner would then have to pay those transient occupancy taxes and any late penalties within 30 days, and permit future city inspection of that property between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m., with 48 hours notice from the city.

Enforcement officers would then review whether the home is still being used as a vacation rental. Calonne said inspectors would be looking at things such as how utensils in the kitchen are arranged and whether there are pictures on the wall of family members. 

City Administrator Paul Casey said "there's just a feel" with a vacation rental home that is obvious when inside.

Mayor Helene Schneider said she was uneasy about the inspections and the subjectivity of trying to determine whether a house is a rental or a home.

"Nice little toiletries in the bathroom could be just a nice little guest room for someone who comes to visit," Schneider said. 

Calonne said that inspectors would not be looking for other violations, unless they presented immediate health-and-safety concerns. 

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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