County hears input on short-term rentals

07/20/2017

Turnout from West Marin residents on Tuesday at a Board of Supervisors hearing to discuss the possibility of regulating short-term rentals hosted by services such as Airbnb or VRBO was tremendous. The board heard a presentation of a county-specific report on the effects of short-term rentals, recommendations from its staff and public testimony. 

The lion’s share of those who commented were from West Marin, and primarily from Bolinas. They all implored supervisors to take action, though many acknowledged the difficulty of crafting regulations that are fair to both homeowners in need of generating supplemental income and renters facing a scarcity of affordable housing.

“It’s hard for us to agree in West Marin—it’s unprecedented for us to agree just in Bolinas—and yet we are all coming together and urging you to take action,” Bolinas resident Melinda Stone said. “We are here to help.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Supervisor Dennis Rodoni proposed forming a board subcommittee that would come back with recommendations for action in 90 to 120 days. He he and Kathryn Sears, supervisor for District Three, which is also significantly affected by short-term rentals, volunteered to serve on that subcommittee. Supervisor Rodoni, who applauded the public’s overwhelming thoughtfulness, also proposed a final deadline for comments: one month from the Tuesday hearing. 

The hearing—which speakers and board members ultimately agreed was better characterized as an “informative workshop”—kicked off with a presentation from an outside consulting firm that released a white paper in May that detailed how short-term rentals might affect housing supply and affordability in the county and the impacts those rentals have on quality of life, including sense of community, parking problems, safety and noise. The white paper included relevant case studies of counties that have standards that could be adopted. 

Highlights from that report include that Marin suffers from higher average monthly rents than those statewide. From 2004 to 2013, the average rent in the county increased by over 28 percent, from $1,483 to $2,066. As of 2014, 47 percent of tenants in the county used over 35 percent of their income to pay for housing.

Additionally, the percentage of vacant housing units—units that are either vacant at least part-time because they are second homes or are short-term rentals or simply sitting empty—in Marin has nearly doubled since 2000. The report cites that the Department of Finance estimated in January that the county had a 7.8 percent vacancy rate, or a total of 8,320 vacant homes— among the highest rates for any Bay Area county.

Out of the 1,236 units that qualify as short-term rentals (units rented for no more than 30 days at a time) in the county, representatives from the consulting firm said 88 percent are for the entire home and the vast majority are rented out less than 90 days per year.

Though the report says that short-term rentals are not necessarily the main driver reducing the stock of housing in Marin, it does make clear that they have an effect on the affordable housing market. “When the rental housing stock supply decreases, the perceived scarcity of supply encourages landlords to increase rents without fear of reduced demand,” it states. 

Many speakers at the hearing testified to this crisis. They told stories of friends and neighbors—new families and lifelong residents alike—being forced to leave the area and the resulting effects of dwindling school populations and decreased community engagement and vibrancy provided by younger generations.

One woman, a longtime West Marin resident and member of Abriendo Caminos, a group that focuses on Latino empowerment, told a heart-wrenching story in which her daughter was forced to live out of her car with her baby after she could no longer afford her rent.

Representatives from the Community Land Trust Association of West Marin and the Bolinas Community Land Trust spoke of the importance of regulating short-term rentals. CLAM’s executive director, Kim Thompson, said she was shocked that so many homes in Marin were standing vacant. 

Albert Straus of Marshall, another West Marin community heavily represented at the hearing, said the lack of affordable worker housing had driven him to consider relocating his business, Straus Family Creamery. 

Short-term rentals are currently prohibited in some Marin towns, including Larkspur, Sausalito and Ross. Elsewhere, short-term rentals are not regulated differently from long-term rentals. 

Operators of the rentals are required to register with the county’s Department of Finance and apply for a business license within 30 days of starting their rental business. Operators are also required to collect a Transient Occupancy Tax from each guest equal to 10 percent of the total rent paid. 

The county also has an agreement with Airbnb to collect the T.O.T. tax directly from the company, though historically it has had trouble enforcing that agreement.

Marin’s Local Coastal Program update includes general “policy and program statements” concerning the regulation of short-term rentals and outlines the need to develop an ordinance. (Any new regulations in interior portions of Marin would be addressed in the Countywide Plan, while in the coastal zone they would be addressed in the Local Coastal Program.) 

A number of areas in California have adopted regulations that may be particularly relevant to both the county’s coastal zone and inland areas. 

Santa Cruz County, in addition to applying the T.O.T. tax, regulates vacation rentals through permits and a requirement for signs that identify structures as vacation rentals and include the name and phone number of a local contact person responsible for responding to complaints. The county also has maximum occupancy limitations, requires that rental rules be posted inside units, limits the number of vehicles for on-site parking and more. A local property manager must be available 24 hours a day to respond to tenant and neighborhood questions or concerns. 

Regulations in San Luis Obispo County mirror those in Santa Cruz, though its permit requirements are slightly more extensive, including requirements for zoning clearance and business licenses. 

South Lake Tahoe, which has faced a rapid growth in online hosting services, now issues a short-term permit that includes an initial $545 fee and an annual fee that ranges from $150 to $800, based on maximum unit occupancy.

Multiple residents expressed interest in the policies put forward by Santa Barbara. This month, supervisors there banned short-term rentals in residential zones and on small agricultural parcels, while allowing them on large agricultural properties and in areas zoned for commercial and mixed use. Short-term rentals on the latter parcels, however, must conform to so-called “farmstay” stipulations, wherein vacationers interact to some degree with the hosting property’s crops and livestock. 

Santa Barbara also voted to explore permits to allow homestays on residential and small agriculturally zoned parcels where a homeowner or long-term tenant lives on the property and is present during the vacationer’s stay—though these permits are experimental and subject to revocation. 

On the other side of the table, a younger Bolinas resident who works outside of the village and often travels for work said renting out his living space while he is away is the only way he affords to live in Bolinas.

“It’s very difficult for young people to make a living here—why is there not more representation from young people at this meeting?” he asked the room. 

He was not alone. A handful of residents of all ages said that they could only afford to live in their homes thanks to their short-term rentals. Some also said that the contributions to the local economy are significant. 

That sentiment was supported by a survey of 86 residents, conducted by the county’s consultant and presented on Tuesday. Seventy five percent of respondents reported that they lived in the unincorporated parts of the county, and 55 percent of the total said short-term rentals often benefit communities and local businesses. 

“People want to come here to this beautiful area, and we need to share the resource,” a longtime Dillon Beach resident who operates a short-term rental said.

Still others brought up safety issues, pointing out that hosting programs like Airbnb have no screening process. 

County staff laid out what they called a “tailored approach” for the county and its many unique communities. They suggested exploring a pilot program to regulate short-term rentals as well as provisions that may take less time to develop, such as posting signage on short-term rentals and enforcing, and possibly increasing, the T.O.T. tax. Revenues from the tax could be earmarked for affordable housing development or aiding problems related to tourism. 

According to the white paper, the costs of enforcing such a program are of particular concern— a total estimated cost of $50,000 over a 10-year period. That cost, however, would be defrayed by licensing fees paid by hosts on an annual basis.