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Politics Report: Vacation Rental Day Approacheth, Again

The mayor's proposal to regulate vacation rentals is headed for a tough meeting Monday as potential allies drop off. Plus: takeaways from the Council president's troubled re-election campaign, MTS may be preparing for a tax hike push and much more.
vacation rentals san diego
Supporters of short-term vacation rentals hold up signs at a San Diego City Council meeting. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Prepare yourselves, San Diegans. We know it seems crazy. No way would the City Council have yet another marathon meeting on how to regulate vacation rentals and still not come to a resolution.

But, sorry to say, that is a distinct possibility Monday.

There is a lot going on. Let’s jump in:

There’s only one part of the debate that matters: Our colleague Lisa Halverstadt did a great job explaining the question that will divide the Council: how many vacation rentals can you own and host and who can do it. The fiercest critics, even some of them holding their noses, seem to have consolidated around Councilwoman Barbara Bry and Councilwoman Lorie Zapf’s view that residents should only be able to rent out their primary residence while they travel or something.

The mayor proposes that residents be allowed to rent out their own place for up to six months and that anyone can rent out a second home all year round.

He was trying to address the big fear that big, bad corporations would own portfolios of vacation rentals in San Diego. So he said only individuals could get the licenses he would require to rent out homes to visitors.

But then: His staff acknowledged that all those corporations would have to do is get a resident to lease a property they own and then they could rent it out to visitors.

That won’t quell opposition based on the concern or paranoia that neighborhoods will be consumed by investors in short-term rentals.

Got Déjà Vu?

Councilman David Alvarez listens to concerns from the public at special City Council meeting in December 2017. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

If you do, that would make sense. Last year, the City Council appeared close to a deal. Four City Council members had signed on to a letter of support for a similar proposal to what the mayor has laid out. Councilman Chris Cate would have easily been the fifth vote. But then Councilman David Alvarez wavered.

The deal-making began, producing this memorable scene, captured by KPBS’s Andrew Bowen.

Councilman Mark Kersey and Councilman Chris Ward, left, try to strike a deal with Councilman David Alvarez, seated. / Photo courtesy of Andrew Bowen, KPBS

Alvarez wouldn’t budge. But an unlikely new negotiating partner emerged: Bry.

Bry proposed that people could rent out their own houses and also one other in the city. But she insisted that the owner had to live in the city of San Diego. Nobody outside could own a property here and rent it out.

The city attorney was unprepared for this kind of deal and said it would likely be illegal to restrict it like that. Ultimately, the deal fell apart.

Why Bry is done with that deal: Now Bry is steadfast in her insistence that the only people who should be able to rent out a home to visitors should be primary residents of the home. Nothing else.

Halverstadt asked Bry why she’s further from a deal now than she was then.

“I wasn’t totally comfortable with where the vote was headed in December and I felt that was the best I could get that night,” she said.

She said the mayor knew where she stood and that she wasn’t going to go back to a deal like that.

“They came out with their proposal. They know I disagree with it. They know I’m sticking with my original plan and we’ll see if they have five votes. I don’t know,” she said.

The vote count: This isn’t based on much but here’s our prognostication. The mayor’s proposal or something like it needs five votes to pass.

  • Yes votes right now: Chris Cate, Mark Kersey, Scott Sherman
  • No votes as of Friday: Bry and Zapf

That left four Democrats on the Council who could give the two votes.

  • David Alvarez
  • Myrtle Cole
  • Georgette Gomez
  • Chris Ward

Ward was the closest to a yes …

… But!

Ward is out: In a Facebook post Friday afternoon, Ward said he didn’t think the city could effectively regulate hosts of multiple short-term rentals.

“Based on what I’ve heard in my communities, and the lack of complete information on housing supply impacts, I believe the best path forward is a regulatory and enforcement structure that protects home sharing and allows for whole home rental of a primary residence only,” he wrote (emphasis ours).

Last year, we wrote about how much this fiery debate had scalded him.

Who’s left: That leaves Cole, Gomez and Alvarez to provide the last two votes. As noted, Alvarez already signed on to a similar plan earlier, but we watched him back away from it. He wanted a study of the impact of vacation rentals on affordable housing to justify a fee for affordable housing.

The mayor proposed such a fee but then produced a very strange study. It didn’t actually study how vacation rentals affected the supply of housing.

Alvarez was not happy. If he’s a no, the mayor would have to win over both Cole and Gomez. That seems unlikely.

The hits kept coming: The U-T came out against the mayor’s proposal Friday.

One win: The Coastal Commission supports the mayor’s plan.

What happens now: The question may be whether they settle on banning vacation rentals except for primary residences. If nothing happens again at City Council, we expect it to go to the ballot at some point. Between labor, hotels and outraged coastal residents, there has to be enough resources to get a very restrictive ordinance on the ballot.

MTS Makes Its Move on 2020 Tax Measure

The Metropolitan Transit System is pursuing a tax increase for 2020.

Last year, the state Legislature made it possible for MTS to levy taxes. This week, the transit agency’s executive committee took the first step toward making that happen.

The committee voted Thursday to recommend that MTS’s full board hire a contractor that would start working on a potential 2020 ballot measure to raise sales taxes for transit improvements.

The $250,000 contract would go to Transportation Management and Design, the firm that put together the plan MTS implemented this year to improve its transit services.

Since the ballot measure would complement those improvements, MTS determined it didn’t need to bid out the contract and could award it to TMD as a sort of extension of the previous contract.

Previously, the San Diego Association of Governments has prepared tax measures to fund regional transit projects. But after the failure of Measure A in 2016 – and a scandal that grew out of it – Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez carried legislation to allow MTS to handle the task. It’s seen as easier to pass a tax hike in the MTS geographic area, voters there disproportionately favored Measure A, though still not enough for it to have passed.

The measure would draw from MTS’s improvement plan, and projects included in SANDAG’s regional plan through 2050. That could include, for instance, the Purple Line, a trolley extension along I-805 from Chula Vista to Kearny Mesa that was included in Measure A.

San Diego City Councilwoman Georgette Gomez, the chair of MTS, voted to move forward and supports the idea.

Georgette Gomez / Photo by Sam Hodgson

La Mesa Councilman Colin Parent, director of the transportation advocacy group Circulate San Diego, said two things need to happen at once for big transportation measures to pass: a presidential election, and an expanding economy.

“It makes all the sense in the world to move forward in the hopes that both of those will occur in 2020,” he said. “It might be a long process, so we should do all the things we need to do now and make sure they can inform a later ballot measure if it doesn’t make sense to do one.”

He said Circulate is preparing a report on how an MTS ballot measure could improve public and active transportation in the region. He said it will lay out how to make the measure more salient to voters than Measure A was.

Trolley to the airport: For instance, it’ll lay out how to build a trolley connection to the airport.

“That’s something that makes a lot of sense to voters but has been noticeably absent from transportation plans,” he said.

Filling potholes: Polling by SANDAG and others have shown voters really care about filling potholes. To get voters to say yes to new transportation funding, Parent said, you need to be able to credibly promise to fix their roads.

A late amendment to Gonzalez’s bill will let MTS do that. It will let the agency provide complete streets – projects that repave roads, but also add protected bike infrastructure and improve sidewalks, medians and transit lanes – wherever it runs transit service.

“It’s a good compromise, because it means you get your pothole repair, but only where there’s transit. They can’t divert the money to highways or other roads – it’s narrowly tailored to places there’s real benefit,” Parent said.

Selling bikes better: The city of San Diego and SANDAG have perpetually discussed building high-quality active transportation projects – protected bike lanes and improved pedestrian rights of way that make it more likely people bike or walk where they need to go. But they’re famously losers when it comes to public polling.

Parent thinks he knows a better way to frame the projects.

“We’ve done research that shows if you promote bike and pedestrian facilities as a means to enhance safety, especially around schools, voters are keen on that and they’re more likely to support funding it,” he said.

Dispatch From D4

Councilwoman Myrtle Cole / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Arguably the biggest political story this season was Council President Myrtle Cole’s second-place finish in the primary for her re-election. She and challenger Monica Montgomery will head to a runoff in November. If you missed Andrew’s dispatch this week (you should read it) from the district, here are some of the most interesting takeaways:

Cole admits she didn’t campaign. “We didn’t mount a campaign. We had no ground campaign. I didn’t even have a campaign manager. The primary took us by surprise. Even labor didn’t think we had an issue – they thought they had to work on other things instead.”

On the one hand, it seems like she’s offering it as an excuse/explanation, like, “I would have won the game if I had tried. But I didn’t try.”

On the other hand, when presented with the narrative that part of the problem is she lost touch with her district, her acknowledging she didn’t even try to make the case to the district doesn’t come off well.

Labor is ready to fight for her. Her quote above also reveals how much she is relying on support from labor unions to both coach her through re-election and provide resources to help. She also said in the piece that she’d huddled with labor leaders already about planning to avoid a disaster in the runoff.

She’s done apologizing for racial profiling comments: Keatts did a good job explaining that a controversy from two years ago about Cole’s comments justifying racial profiling by police in the district did not necessarily play a major role in her primary struggles. Nonetheless, she is done apologizing for them.

Montgomery supports school district election reform: This week, Montgomery spoke at the City Council in favor of a proposal that would change elections at San Diego Unified School District. Right now, candidates for the board have to run first in their neighborhood subdistrict. The top two candidates in the primary then move on to at-large races districtwide. This means they have to run a campaign that reaches almost the whole city of San Diego to win.

Sharon Whitehurst-Payne, a trustee for the school district from Montgomery’s subdistrict, also spoke and said it was important for this to be system because so many students travel outside their neighborhoods. Voters should be able to influence the whole district.

Montgomery, in her comments, shot back: “Many of our kids are bused out based on what we perceive to be a lack of performance from our schools and I do believe that if we have a representative that better represents our community on the board then that won’t be as much of a problem and we can build up neighborhood schools.”

We talked about the race and more on this week’s podcast.

Levin Comes to Feinstein’s Aid

Mike Levin alone at the debate hosted by Flip the 49th, a super PAC. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s campaign has conscripted 49th congressional candidate Mike Levin and five other Democratic newcomers to lobby the party’s activist base. Feinstein won a significant portion of the vote in the June 5 primary, but she’s at risk of losing the endorsement at a California Democratic Party gathering this weekend in Oakland.

Giving the nod to state Sen. Kevin de León would change the dynamic of the race and embarrass Feinstein, who’s spent 26 years in the office. A letter sent to state delegates asks that they support neither candidate.

“A divisive party endorsement,” it reads, “would hurt all down ballot candidates and our ability to turn out Democrats we desperately need to vote in November.”

Why get involved? Levin’s campaign manager, Adam Berkowitz, said the party should concentrate its time and money on Democrat versus Republican races, rather than races in which a Democrat is guaranteed to win. “We need every resource we can get,” he said.

The 49th is a traditionally conservative district, stretching from Del Mar to southern Orange County along the coast, that could be flipped in November. Levin himself is competing against Republican Diane Harkey.

His stumping for an establishment candidate is not without risk. As one regional Democratic director tweeted of Feinstein, “She just dragged good people into a self-serving gambit that may cost those candidates support at the margins.”

— Jesse Marx

Convention Center Expansion Measure: Still Raising a Ton of Money

Longtime hotel industry leader Mike McDowell speaks at the launch of a campaign to expand the Convention Center and fund homeless services with a hotel-tax increase. / Photo by Lisa Halverstadt

The coalition of union and business groups pushing the ballot measure to raise hotel taxes and expand the Convention Center – plus generate some funding for homelessness services and road repairs – finally submitted its signatures Monday to qualify for the November election.

But the group kept collecting big money since last week, when it was still paying signature-gatherers to pull together every possible resident they could.

Since last Thursday, the committee raised $110,000 mostly from developers and labor unions.

It got a $50,000 check from prolific downtown developer Bosa Development on July 5. It brought in another $22,500 in donations from 14 developers or businesses. And two days ago, it got another $25,000 from Sempra Energy. The local hotel workers union contributed another $10,000 and a plumbers and steamfitters union gave $2,500.

Got a tip or feedback? Send all you can to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org and andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

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