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San Diego's Fiery Vacation Rental Debate Scalds Councilman Chris Ward

Very few issues have provoked the primal passions of San Diego’s neighborhood activists like the threat that their homes will be surrounded by what they call mini-hotels. Now the anti-vacation rental crowd has settled on one prime target: Councilman Chris Ward.

San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

When San Diego City Councilman Chris Ward showed up to the University Heights Community Association meeting Oct. 5, dozens of opponents of vacation rentals were waiting.

The association’s newsletter captured the tension delightfully.

“Many questions were presented in a civil manner because they were written on index cards and read by a neutral moderator. … But some audience members delivered their questions with a heap of emotion, which many found to be an unpersuasive method of delivery,” wrote association member Kurt Hermansen.

Rhetoric with a heap of emotion unlikely to persuade people is how the vacation rental debate in San Diego rolls. Very few issues have provoked the primal passions of San Diego’s neighborhood activists like the threat that their homes will be surrounded by what they call mini-hotels.

They were elated months ago when a new city attorney announced that she agreed with a legal interpretation they’ve been trumpeting for years: That vacation rentals are illegal in San Diego.

But the mayor and city staff refused to enforce that interpretation, and vacation rentals – and the anger over them – have flourished.

Now, it has one prime target: Ward.

He decided to take a leadership role to solve a dilemma that has haunted city government for years. It fully paralyzed the mayor, who can’t be bothered to take a position. Other members of the City Council have been strong in their positions. People representing the coasts want as close to a total ban as they can get. Others, like Councilmen Chris Cate and Scott Sherman, want a more liberal approach: cautious permitting that can fund enforcement of nuisances.

To finally resolve the situation, someone in the middle of the spectrum needed to pick a side and bring it home. Ward did, and he owned it.

He laid out his thinking in a VOSD op-ed:

Outright bans or severe limitations only further an underground economy that is already present, and those renting homes will creatively adapt and make it difficult for city regulations to be effective in achieving their purpose. Full free-market, property rights-oriented arguments don’t address community impacts or provide guarantees to concerned neighbors.

But it has not worked and now, the councilman is in the middle of a political mess.

One-time allies are turning on him. The movement to vastly restrict short-term vacation rentals, if not ban them outright, is getting support from the hotel workers union and other labor allies.

The city attorney derailed an effort to clarify the law with a bipartisan compromise Ward helped lead (though she says that was not the intent). Ward’s measure would have allowed people to rent out their whole homes, all year with a permit. It required a minimum three-night stay (this was the compromise part).

Brigette Browning, the leader of the hotel workers union UNITE HERE, was not happy that Ward produced the memo without talking to her. She said Ward should have deferred to his colleague, Councilwoman Barbara Bry.

“I thought it was inappropriate to usurp Barbara’s position on it because her district is the one most impacted by this. You should defer to the Council member most impacted – not undercut them,” Browning said. Ward’s district, though, is hardly without vacation rentals.

Browning herself lives in Golden Hill, in Ward’s district, next to a vacation rental. She said it used to be home to a nice family but now, the vacationers who come in and out have made it annoying.

“The agreement was basically written by Airbnb’s lobbyist,” she said of Ward’s plan.

It was the same kind of point the resident groups have been making.

Save Our San Diego Neighborhoods, the group that flooded the University Heights Community Association Meeting, sent out an email blast with an image of the sword-wielding Scottish rebels from the movie “Braveheart” charging, asking residents to “Stop Airbnb’s Crime Wave.”

“Airbnb is stealing our community with its money and high powered lobbyists,” it reads. It’s no small feat that they now have the hotel workers spreading the same message.

That has had other impacts. Carol Kim, the political director of the Building and Construction Trades Council, a union of construction unions, is a staunch ally of Browning.

“While we agree with Councilmember Ward on a lot of things, we definitely disagree with him regarding his approach on this issue,” Kim wrote in an email.

Kim and Browning joined with Ward’s predecessors in the high-profile District 3 City Council seat. Former state Sen. Christine Kehoe and current Assemblyman Todd Gloria also went out of their way to endorse Bry’s approach. All of them are citing the impact vacation rentals could be having on home prices and the supply of housing.

Gloria, it should be noted, also represents a lot of the coast now in Sacramento.

Ward said he wanted to provide leadership where it was needed.

“We have to figure out a way to successfully regulate it and contain it and mitigate any potential impacts,” Ward said.

The City Council will once again try to take it up at a meeting Dec. 12. Hundreds of people will likely attend.

“The worst thing that could happen is another large public meeting where we don’t reach a resolution, and we’re back again with a situation that is unregulated,” Ward said.

But opponents of vacation rentals see a worse case. Even Bry’s proposal is too liberal for Save San Diego Neighborhoods. It would allow people to rent out their whole homes for up to 90 days a year. John Thickstun, a board member of the group, said the law is just fine as it is. Vacation rentals are illegal.

“We believe the Municipal Code set the policy years ago. There’s no need for a new one. The City Council should be requesting that the mayor enforce the current Municipal Code,” Thickstun told me.

Meanwhile, Browning said Bry’s proposal is getting more traction. But Cate said he would likely support Ward’s proposal, making that five votes. If they can get over any objections of the city attorney, and if the mayor doesn’t surprise anyone with an actual position on the matter, then Ward’s vision could still become reality.

But never underestimate San Diego’s ability to not solve a long-running problem.

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