December 12th Session Will Decide Future of Ocean Beach and Other Coastal Communities
By Frank Gormlie / OB Rag
If San Diego City Councilmembers from inland districts get their way and legalize short-term vacation rentals with hardly any restrictions, coastal neighborhoods like Ocean Beach will be inundated with a flood of new such rentals. And it could have a devastating impact on OB, uprooting the sparse housing stock and turning entire sections of the community into “Airbnb Beach”.
The City Council meets on Tuesday, December 12th, and come hell or high water will make policy on vacation rentals that day. Short-term rentals have been boiling San Diego politics for nearly 3 years as city government kept delaying any decisions, one way or another. And now, after all this time, the Council is set to put something into law, into the Municipal Code on the 12th.
Come next Tuesday, nothing but the very future of Ocean Beach is at stake.
If a Council majority of five votes to allow STVRs without many restrictions, then truly, San Diego’s coast will be toast.
We’re not talking just noise and disturbances, and loss of parking to vacation rental users, we’re talking about the loss of needed houses and apartments for actual residents, the depletion of what’s available to long-term renters. Ultimately, we’re talking about the loss of the community itself.
It’s already begun in parts of OB close to the ocean and beach. Renters are being evicted; units are rehabbed and sites like Airbnb and VRBO take over for investors who come in and buy up what’s available.
If the City Council passes the proposed ordinance put forward by Councilmembers Kersey, Ward, Alvarez, and Cate and now supported by Sherman, something worst than gentrification will envelop the village. Guests and visitors will replace renters – you know the renters – the residents who care about the community and who shop at the local markets and shops – and who vote. Guests and visitors don’t care and don’t frequent the community-serving local businesses (outside bars and restaurants and gift shops) – and importantly, visitors don’t vote.
If you doubt the widespread effects of vacation rentals, simply visit the former community of South Mission Beach, just across the San Diego River from OB. There’s barely any actual residents left in this tourist-paradise of bay, sand, and ocean.
During the OB Rag sponsored “Walk of Shame” held in late November, we labeled the blocks along Abbott Street as “the heart of the Airbnb Empire” as vacation rentals were pointed out all along the tour. Some intersections and whole parts of blocks are dominated by the mini-hotels set up by investors and profiteers.
The turning over of apartments and cottages into short termers is happening right before our eyes. And if the Council unleashes them, the situation in OB will get much, much worse.
So, just where are we exactly?
Before the Council next Tuesday will be a proposed ordinance initially put forth by 4 Councilmembers, 2 Republicans – Chris Cate, Mark Kersey – and two Democrats, David Alvarez and Chris Ward.
Their proposal – in essence – would allow short-term rentals to be completely legalized in residential communities with just a few restrictions. An applicant cannot have more than 3 properties as STVRs. And at the coast, under their proposal, there is a minimum of a 3-day stay. Councilman Scott Sherman has also recently come out in favor of this proposal.
In an Op-Ed piece in the SDU-T on August 29, Councilman Cate wrote that his proposal requires people who rent out STVRs “to adhere to reasonable occupancy standards” – whatever that is -, not allow large parties and neighborhood disruptions, with the City having a 24/7 enforcement regime and responsibility.
He adds three-strike violators will have their STVR permit suspended for a year. Cate – and the others – are concerned about the revenue coming into the City via rental fees and don’t wish to dam up that revenue stream.
Meanwhile, Councilwoman Barbara Bry has a competing proposal that would allow a whole house to be rented out for a maximum of 90 days a year. Councilwoman Lori Zapf has come out and endorsed Bry’s proposal. In her Op-Ed piece on August 29th, she wrote:
“My proposal protects the rights of the homeowners who wish to … [rent] out a room in their home to help make ends meet. It further allows property owners to rent out their primary residence for up to 90 days per year …”
She added her plan “prohibits absentee investors from commercializing single-family homes by turning them into full-time mini-hotels in residential zones.”
And this is an important point – not addressed by Cate et al’s plan. Investors are coming to OB and other beach communities and buying up or just slapping down huge rents on properties with the explicit goal of turning them into vacation rentals.
This has happened in Ocean Beach at the corner of Abbott and Brighton. There, a two-story, 4-unit apartment building once stood. It had reasonable rents and the conditions were not great. Then the building was sold to an oral surgeon in another part of the state who sees it as simply an investment. All of the tenants were evicted; the units were rehabbed and tidied up and turned into short-term rentals, advertised on Airbnb.
Now, some of these Councilmembers have not hardened their positions into stone. Several are still on the fence. Yet, at least 4 of them really support Airbnb – for whatever reason. These are Ward, the only Democrat in this group, and Republicans Kersey, Cate and Sherman.
And it may be that Alvarez, even though he originally backed the Cate proposal, could be amenable to some changes, such as around limiting absentee investors. After all, he is a Democrat with ambition, and he must know that working class people will be losing their homes at the coast if his GOP partners have their way.
The other Councilmembers on the fence include Councilwomen Myrtle Cole, a Democrat, and Georgette Gomez, not only a Democrat but a progressive.
It appears that perhaps a compromise is in the works.
The Council already rejected an outright ban on STVRs. Which is the position of one of the major groups opposed to vacation rentals, the Save San Diego Neighborhood organization. They call on the City and Mayor to “enforce the code”, meaning that as City Attorney Mara Elliott stated in a memo last March, that as it currently stands, the Municipal Codes does not allow STVRs, and SSDN wants the city to crack down on what they perceive as illegal businesses.
This group is a powerful 1,000-member force; they helped Barbara Bry get elected. And they are building for December 12th, mobilizing their membership and supporters for the upcoming showdown. SSDN is holding a rally against STVRs in Pacific Beach on December 10th. (They joined the OB Rag in sponsoring an OB rally back on November 25th.) Yet, does their stance – calling in effect for an outright ban – conflict with any compromise that may be arranged?
All the Council has to do is make short-term rentals part of the Municipal Code – which looks very certain – and their position is entirely undercut.
Meanwhile, in the coastal communities, various neighborhood groups have staked out their own positions – by far most opposed to STVRs. For instance, in Ocean Beach, the OB Town Council has come out in support of the position held by Save San Diego Neighborhoods, while the OB Planning Board has come out in support of Councilwoman Bry’s proposal.
There are so many issues wrapped up in this controversy. Just, for example, as visitors push out residents, schools lose students and then lose their subsidies – and schools are threatened with closure. And for a while, there was some maneuvering among beach leaders to fashion a Coastal Exception, but it hasn’t as yet gained any traction.
At last night’s OB Planning Board meeting, resident Kevin Hastings made a presentation about these type of rentals and the various proposals, warning the audience with – “Tuesday’s a big deal,” he said, “for the future of Ocean Beach.” Planning Chair John Ambert urged his fellow Board members and others to attend the upcoming City Council hearing. “Wear blue,” he said.
Tuesday is a big deal for OB and the other coastal neighborhoods.
Nothing but the future of Ocean Beach is at stake.