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More Than Two Years in, Confusion Dominates Vacation Rental Debate

As the debate over vacation rental regulations drags on, confusion dominates. The latest chapter in the debacle came Monday during a City Council vote that could add yet another wrinkle to a dysfunctional policy-making process.

Confusion about the rules guiding short-term vacation rentals abounds more than two years into a raging debate over how to regulate them.

Eight months ago, the city held a daylong hearing following then-City Councilwoman Sherri Lightner’s failed attempt to bar most rentals and City Council ordered city staffers – for a second time – to return with proposed regulations.

In March, a City Council subcommittee directed staffers on the framework they favored for new regulations for stays where the homeowner remains on site but disagreed on rules for full-home rentals rentals where only visitors stay on site. That same month, City Attorney Mara Elliott released a memo declaring short-term rentals illegal under city code, a take that differed from past city attorneys who’d dubbed the current code too vague to enforce.

Now the City Council’s taken an initial vote on a measure that could add yet another wrinkle to a dysfunctional policy-making process that’s dragged on and on.

The latest chapter in the debacle came Monday during a City Council vote on a slate of housing affordability reforms championed by Mayor Kevin Faulconer and other city leaders.

City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez and others called for a last-minute change to a new regulation aimed at making it easier for San Diegans to build so-called companion units or granny flats, small units that share a lot with homes that can serve as lower-cost housing options.

Gomez wants the city to require a minimum 30-day stay in granny flats, a mandate that would essentially bar using granny flats from being used as vacation rentals.

“I do want to require a 30-day minimum rental period for this in order to move it forward so if that could be added to the motion,” Gomez said as the City Council prepared to vote on the companion unit legislation.

City Councilman Scott Sherman, a crucial proponent of the granny flat and housing reforms, raised a flag. He noted that the City Council is set to hear city staff proposals to regulate short-term rentals in October.

“Don’t know if we’re putting cart before the horse but let’s see how everyone else thinks about it,” Sherman said.

City Council members Barbara Bry, Chris Ward and Lorie Zapf cheered Gomez’s idea.

“My concern obviously is that these units not be built and be turned into short-term vacation rentals,” Bry said. “The purpose of these units is to house San Diegans.”

City Councilman Chris Cate, who has for more than two years called for clarity and rules that allow for short-term rentals, disagreed.

“We’re gonna have this discussion in a vacuum without talking about this whole issue as a comprehensive element,” he said before voting against the granny flat proposal.

Cate unsuccessfully tried to persuade the City Council to hold off on the change and wait for the October vote on new vacation rental regulations.

Sherman, who called Gomez’s motion “a giant mistake,” acknowledged he too had concerns. Sherman said he feared the Coastal Commission, which has argued for the need to maintain low-cost rental options on the coast, would reject Gomez’s addition and that Airbnb rentals would be relegated to coastal areas where complaints about them have been most rampant. But he said he didn’t want to reject a policy he supported based on a last-minute addition he didn’t.

The City Council must vote to approve the granny flat change again in September before it can go into effect.

It’s unclear what the change might mean for short-term rental hosts who already rent out granny flats if no changes are made to the rules.

Two Gomez staffers said Tuesday the councilwoman’s proposal was meant to apply to new construction rather than existing granny flats. They expect that’ll be more clear by the time Council members vote in September.

“Our goal is to increase the housing stock to deal with the affordable housing crisis so it would be moving forward,” Gomez spokesman Roberto Torres said.

Torres and Lara Gates, Gomez’s policy chief, both said the councilwoman’s motion on Monday was a reaction to the measure before her and that she’s eager to help end the chaos surrounding short-term rentals.

But a city spokesman couldn’t immediately say how the 30-day limit might play out for folks who already rent out their granny flats.

“Logistics are still being worked out,” spokesman Arian Collins said. “We’ll have more information in the near future.”

That’s not the sort of answer that comforts short-term rental opponents concerned about proliferating rentals in their neighborhood or hosts who are renting out their granny flats to help cover their mortgage payments.

And so the confusion continues.

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