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Santa Barbara Officials Receive Progress Report on Enforcement of Vacation-Rental Restrictions

Since the City Council chose to enforce restrictions already on the books, the city has been gathering information on and closing illegal short-term rentals

Santa Barbara has been increasingly cracking down on short-term vacation rentals, the city reported Tuesday, as it continues enforcing a long-ignored ordinance barring the burgeoning industry in most of its residential zoning districts.

Restrictions on STRs, which are rented for fewer than 30 consecutive days, have been a hot-button issue in the city — as well as most other places in the county — and the latest update on their enforcement was presented Tuesday to the City Council.

The ban in most residential zones in the city received little attention from officials or STR operators until last year, when the council voted unanimously to enforce the restrictions and stop issuing business licenses for STRs.

“Our conversations with citizens and property owners in this community have been really positive,” Deputy City Attorney John Doimas told the council. “It’s been a really positive experience.”

As of last month, said senior city planner Danny Kato, there were just over 1,000 pending enforcement cases. As of Sept. 23, there were 215 registered STRs, according to city staff’s report.

Over 560 of those cases come from Craigslist, where half could be fraudulent after many property owners reported that they were not behind their own houses’ listings, Kato said.

It’s not unheard of for people to photograph someone’s property and list it on the website without the owner’s knowing, and then tell the owner that someone is interested in renting their house, he said.

In the months since the council’s enforcement decisions, the city has served 44 subpoenas to STR websites such as Airbnb in order to gather information on STRs operating illegally in the city.

Doimas said 133 enforcement cases have resulted from those subpoenas.

Out of the 44, 35 sites either handed over information or had signed affidavits saying they had no responsive records, Doimas said, while three could not be delivered to out-of-state companies.

Another six refused to cooperate, he said.

Paradise Retreats World Class Vacation Rentals was taken by the city to Santa Barbara County Superior Court and was forced to comply, he said. The city is pursuing the same course of action with Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, FlipKey and TripAdvisor.

The city has also amicably settled and closed, or is in the process of doing so, another 42 enforcement cases, as of last month. Another 19 were closed without a settlement agreement, and 17 cases were abated voluntarily.

The settlements, Kato said, include completely shutting down the STR operation and paying back transient-occupancy and business-license taxes. They’re easier on operators, he said, than serving a lawsuit.

That process, so far, has netted the city over $175,000, Kato added. STRs as a whole, however, have brought in over $1 million a year to the city — funds that will dwindle as STRs are closed down.

As in many other cities, outreach has been a struggle, officials conceded.

“There’s been so much work in the last year on this issue that the general public doesn’t see,” Mayor Helene Schneider said. “I get emails from some saying, ‘You’re doing too much, too fast’, and then others saying, ‘You’re not doing anything at all’.”

STRs generating nuisance complaints and those operating in developments under the Average Unit Density program, which is intended to provide more affordable workforce housing, will be the city’s top enforcement priorities come 2017, Kato said.

“It was a big effort put in place by the council and the city to promote rental housing in the city to try to do something to cure the jobs–housing imbalance,” he said. “And to see those turned into vacation rentals, which doesn’t help that balance at all — we thought that should be a higher priority.”

Figuring out how to regulate the vacation-rental industry has been a test for the county as a whole, as well as its other constituent cities.

While many owners insist on the freedom to do what they want with their properties, residents have argued the rentals degrade their neighborhoods’ wellbeing and sense of community.

As with the AUD concern, others also argue that vacation rentals remove much-needed affordable rental housing.

“I do recognize that some visitors want to rent a vacation house, but the direction we’re going today is in the best interests of the entire city and our residents,” Councilwoman Cathy Murillo said.

Current STR business licenses in Santa Barbara are valid only through Dec. 31.

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman 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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