City officials want to make people who rent out spare rooms in their homes on sites like Airbnb get one of two special permits.

The city’s own data, however, shows a resident can plan on waiting about a year to get one of those permits.

Hosts who rent rooms in their homes on a short-term basis would need either a neighborhood use permit or a conditional use permit, depending on the neighborhood in which they live.

Lots of other businesses already need to get those permits, which are required when someone wants to use property in a way that’s different than existing regulations. So things like auto shops, recycling yards, sidewalk cafes, veterinary clinics, museums, senior housing and others already have to get them.

But getting one isn’t easy.

In part, that’s by design. The process is meant to collect responses from neighbors, since the property is asking for an exception from existing regulations.

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

Nonetheless, that makes it an uncertain process.

Bob Vacchi, director of development services, last year said six months sounded like a reasonable estimate for a neighborhood use permit, though he acknowledged it was just a guess.

Data from the city’s permit-tracking system shows that over the last 11 years, the median time to secure a neighborhood use permit was  nearly 10 months — 284 days.

Conditional use permits, which usually have a more involved process, took even longer. It typically took 398 days, or more than 13 months, to get one.

The graph below shows how long it takes to get any city permit that requires special permission, including the neighborhood use permits and conditional use permits relevant to Airbnb hosts. There are other permits that property owners can get much more quickly, because whatever’s proposed goes along with existing restrictions, and the city just needs to make sure a project meets health and safety regulations. Those aren’t pictured here.

How Long It Takes to Get a Permit Approved

Not every permit request is created equal. For conditional use permits especially, the timeframe for approval can often come down to what’s being proposed, and how much neighborhood opposition it faces.

“You can get one and go through the process, and if there’s no appeal, you get it quick,” Vacchi said. “With an appeal, that can stretch it out.”

He’s right. Appeals — where residents challenge the decision to grant one of the permits and force another hearing — can create some large outliers.


Correction: An earlier version of this post included Airbnb hosts who rent out their entire homes as those needing permits. Only hosts who rent out rooms in their homes on a short-term basis need either a neighborhood use permit or a conditional use permit.

Damon Crockett contributed data analysis to this story.

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

    Written by Andrew Keatts

    I'm Andrew Keatts, a reporter for Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at or 619.325.0529.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    Yes, trying to get permission to run a B&B in a residential neighborhood requires a permit and neighbors get to weigh in. That's a good thing.

    Chris Brewster
    Chris Brewster subscribermember

    It does not because that is a normal expectation of the community and homeowners, and covered in the codes. Rental of a home, or part thereof, is a commercial transaction. On a practical level though, in my experience when neighbors invite relatives and friends to stay, they tend to act quite responsibly in most cases. However, when owners rent a property to unknown actors and especially when they are not onsite, they have no knowledge or control over the renters actions.

    davidedickjr subscriber

    @Chris Brewster What about when my relatives come over to stay?  Does that require a permit?  If no, why not?

    davidedickjr subscriber

    @Chris Brewster Every AirBnB operator I know rents a room or two while residing in the home. I am also familiar with the issue of turning homes into minidorms from my SDSU experience.  Clearly, there is a spectrum of activity.  It is also my experience in 30+ years here in Rancho San Diego that homeowners are will throw a loud and late party if they see it in their family interest.  Pretty common here actually in a community of half-acre lots and $500k+ homes.  The real issue about AirBnB is about the feared threat to a traditional business model (hotel-motel) and TOT taxes  - and can be managed without permitting the activity to death. Interference in other people's property rights by an AirBnB operator reasonably exercising their property rights is rare and anecdotal.

    SDResident subscriber

    Michael Robertson 5ptssubscribermemberFeatured
    17 hours ago

    "Revealing reporting Andrew. It's a stark example of how government regulation hinders or blocks economic innovation and development. "

    It also prevents your neighbors from opening a commercial business in a community zoned residential. 
    That's why we have regulations.

    davidedickjr subscriber

    @SDResident What is the difference between a "commercial business" and a home-operated business? Does a "commercial business" include a consultancy or a real estate seller or an internet business?  

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    Revealing reporting Andrew. It's a stark example of how government regulation hinders or blocks economic innovation and development.