Though its economy relies heavily on tourism, San Diego doesn’t have rules on the books that directly address vacation rentals.

City Councilman Chris Cate wants to change that. He plans to propose new city rules clarifying that San Diegans can rent out their homes or individual rooms for up to 30 days, and giving those who do a handful of new mandates.

Among those requirements would be to have vacation rental hosts – whether they use Airbnb or another service – post contact information for a local person who could handle neighbors’ complaints and list their city tax certificate number on websites where they advertise their property.

Cate’s proposal would also allow the city to reach an agreement with Airbnb or other vacation rental platforms to have those companies collect and pay taxes, an option he said the city’s current rules don’t allow.

Cate’s measure also aims to give the city more room to police hosts who allow more than a dozen guests to stay in a single apartment or home, a practice that angers homeowners in some beach communities.

Cate’s announcement follows months of confusion among local Airbnb hosts. The city has been mailing letters to dozens of hosts, informing them they’ll need to charge hotel bed taxes, and in some cases, owe back taxes on past stays. It also threatened a Burlingame woman with up to $250,000 in penalties if she continued to rent out two rooms through Airbnb.


We Stand Up for You. Will You Stand Up for Us?

The city’s actions left hosts even more confused, especially since Airbnb doesn’t allow them to collect taxes directly. Airbnb, which hosts more than 3,100 San Diego rentals, collects payments from guests and doesn’t currently give hosts a straightforward way to collect the city’s required 11 percent tax.

That’s not the case in cities such as San Francisco, which last week collected tens of millions of dollars in back taxes from Airbnb rather than hosts. The website has also started paying hotel bed taxes in San Francisco and a couple other cities.

San Diego’s mishmash of regulations spurred Cate to create the new rules.

“Some of the ordinances were adopted 40 to 50 years ago, and (they) just left a lot to the imagination in terms of how folks who want to rent out their properties on a short-term basis would have to comply with the law,” Cate said.

It should be easy for vacation rental hosts who want to follow the law to figure out what they need to do, he said.

City Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, who chairs the City Council’s land use subcommittee, announced earlier this month she would hold an April hearing to discuss updating the city’s outdated vacation rental laws. She learned of Cate’s work on the issue when Voice of San Diego contacted her office about the city’s Airbnb crackdown two weeks ago. The two have since met to talk about their respective work on the issue.

But the two are approaching the issue from opposite ends of the spectrum – with Zapf trying to alleviate concerns of aggrieved neighbors who complain about short-term renters, and Cate working to clarify the rules for those renting out their homes.

Zapf said many of her constituents in Pacific Beach and Mission Beach – the two city neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of Airbnb rentals – have complained about unruly visitors and homeowners who have converted their properties into full-time rentals.

“You can just imagine living next door and the constant rotation of people coming and going,” said Zapf. Some Pacific Beach residents who voiced concerns at a recent town council meeting were “near tears,” she said.

Zapf said her office has been researching vacation rental enforcement elsewhere, particularly in beach communities, and is waiting on more neighborhood input before proposing new guidelines. Pacific Beach residents are set to discuss the issue again March 3.

A spokeswoman for Zapf’s office said Friday the Council’s land use subcommittee will likely discuss Cate’s proposal at its April meeting.

Cate said his proposal doesn’t include stepped-up enforcement for vacation rental owners who aren’t following the new rules. Cate said he hopes Zapf and residents will lead the conversation about penalties.

An Airbnb spokesman welcomed potential reforms.

“San Diegans deserve clear, fair laws that make it easy for people to share their homes while contributing to the community – and the council’s decision to begin considering new regulation is a welcome sign of progress,” spokesman Christopher Nulty said in a statement.

The new rules, if approved, could bolster talks between the city and Airbnb.

Nulty described conversations with the city treasurer’s office as “productive” but didn’t comment on whether Airbnb might pay back taxes to the city or when the startup might make it easier for local hosts to pay city taxes.

A city spokeswoman didn’t elaborate much more when I asked whether San Diego could seek back taxes from the company, as San Francisco officials did successfully last week.

“The city of San Diego code is very different from the city of San Francisco’s,” city spokeswoman Amelia Brazell said in an email. “We are currently monitoring those developments and working towards a solution that meets our laws, but continues to welcome new and innovative technologies.”

    This article relates to: Economy, Must Reads, Tourism Economy

    Written by Lisa Halverstadt

    Lisa writes about San Diego city and county governments. She welcomes story tips and questions. Contact her directly at lisa@vosd.org or 619.325.0528.

    4 comments
    craig Nelson
    craig Nelson

    Looks like the city will be getting another Zapf infection. How about you just fix the potholes Councilwoman? 

    Coming next, bans on dogs and children. oh, and cars. 

    Geoff Page
    Geoff Page subscribermember

    I'd like to know why these are being allowed to operate WHILE regulations are being worked out.  Pot dispensaries have been required to close until regulations were worked out.  Since when does the City allow operation of something that may or may not border on illegal under the Municipal Code while the City is figuring it out and producing new regs?

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Will Mr. Cate address the conflict between Airbnb short term room rentals and the Municipal Code, which appears to require all rentals to be at least 7 days and in most cases 30 days?

    141.0301 Boarder and Lodger Accommodations
    Boarder and lodger accommodations are permitted as a limited use in the zones indicated with an “L” in the Use Regulations Tables in Chapter 13, Article 1 (Base Zones) subject to the following regulations.
    (a) Boarder and lodger accommodations are permitted only as an accessory use to a primary dwelling unit.
    (b) No more than two boarders or lodgers are permitted per primary dwelling unit.
    (c) In the RM [residential multi-unit] zones and all commercial zones, boarders and lodgers must occupy the premises for a minimum of 7 consecutive calendar days. In all other zones, boarders and lodgers must occupy the premises for a minimum of 30 consecutive calendar days.
    (d) Off-street parking shall be provided at a rate of 1 space for each 2 boarders or lodgers. Within the beach impact area of the Parking Impact Overlay Zone, off-street

    Belinda Smith
    Belinda Smith subscriber

    It's great to see Cate take this on.  I'm hopeful we can find a way to make this situation win-win-win.  


    It should be noted that renting one's home (or a portion thereof) is not just for the wealthy elite of PB or La Jolla, it's for everyday people who are maybe on a fixed income, trying to save to buy their first home, pay off debt, or simply have a better quality of life.  A clear common sense ordinance will be helpful for all.

    Belinda Smith

    Co-founder www.strasd.org