‘They Come To Party’: Vacation Rentals Cause Problems At Downtown San Diego High-Rise
Tuesday, September 22, 2020
In San Diego’s East Village, six blocks from Petco Park, two towers — one red, one yellow — represent the tallest residential buildings in the city. At 45 stories, the luxury high-rise apartments stand side by side and feature picturesque views of Coronado, the downtown skyline and the mountains of East County.
But the yellow tower, named Pinnacle on the Park, is known as the party building, where stir-crazy revelers have gone to blow off steam after stay at home orders relaxed in May.
The high-rise is outfitted with Instagram-worthy units, including a 2,000-square-foot Louis Vuitton penthouse and another apartment with a private hot tub on a 1,000-square-foot rooftop terrace.
“Get your quarantine friends together for a night away from your home,” says the Louis Vuitton listing on Vrbo.
But these pandemic parties aren’t fun for other tenants in the two towers, or for those living in a smaller affordable housing building that connects the two. In all, the development has 956 apartments.
Multiple residents have woken up to find used condoms on their window sills or steps from their front doors. A woman and her 12-year-old son have witnessed nude photoshoots and people filming pornographic scenes on balconies across from their tower.
Local news outlets have covered stories in recent months of people jumping from Pinnacle’s roof with parachutes and another time throwing water balloons from the upper levels that smashed windows of vehicles parked on the street.
The debauchery is taking its toll. Calls to San Diego police about loud parties and related disturbances at the high-rise have nearly tripled in the first eight months of this year compared to all of 2019, with most occurring in the past four months as the county began reopening.
When compared to Pinnacle’s neighboring red tower, Spire San Diego, calls to police are staggering. A San Diego police spokesperson declined to comment for this story but acknowledged the department is aware of the problems and said there are ongoing criminal investigations into activity at Pinnacle.
City leaders, including Mayor Kevin Faulconer, know about the issues but have done little to fix them.
The City Attorney’s Office recently took action against the owner of an Airbnb party house in Bankers Hill but hasn’t received any information from police about noise complaints or violations of the public health order at Pinnacle, a spokesperson said. The office also hasn’t seen any information that links a spike in police activity with short-term vacation rentals in the high-rise, she said.
It’s possible some of the bad behavior is coming from long-term tenants, but residents who spoke to inewsource blame the short-term guests.
inewsource found several short-term rental companies are using Airbnb, Vrbo and other sites to rent out dozens of units in Pinnacle on the Park. The online listings appear to suggest the companies know these units are creating problems for long-term tenants, telling guests to say they are visiting a “family friend or business associate :)” if questioned.
“If I threw a party here, literally I would get a notice and be evicted. But the short-term rentals have been allowed to wreak havoc,” said Robyn Spencer, the mother who lives with her son in the Spire high-rise.
It’s unknown if there have been any coronavirus outbreaks caused by guests at the high-rise because San Diego County officials refuse to release that information to the public. But ZIP code 92101, which includes the East Village, led the county with at least 14 community outbreaks through late July, according to a KPBS analysis.
The five-story building that connects the two towers is home to people who are struggling financially. Residents there said it’s not unusual after a night of partying at Pinnacle to wake to find broken glass and bottle corks outside their homes. Sometimes vomit splattered from above is in their courtyard.
In this building — where the rent is restricted to low-income tenants, where the views aren’t as nice and where some feel forgotten — one current resident and one who recently moved told inewsource living there can be a nightmare.
Carlos Garcia, 39, said he spent three years living in the affordable housing section with his wife and three children and found the short-term rentals in Pinnacle were “totally out of control.” He moved out last month to get some peace, he said.
“I couldn’t do it anymore, man. I just had no privacy anymore,” Garcia said. He later added, “It’s been a really, really bad experience for me.”
Representatives with Pinnacle Bayside Development, including property manager Carlos Inzunza and parent company Pinnacle International, based in Vancouver, Canada, did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails seeking an interview. A local Pinnacle representative reached by phone declined to comment.
‘They come to party’
Barbra Blair, 71, said she remembers watching the construction of Pinnacle on the Park. As the tower climbed higher and higher into the sky, she told a friend, “I think I’d like to live in that building.”
She said she filled out an application as soon as the yellow tower opened in August 2015 — the red tower wouldn’t open for another four years — and moved into a unit on the 16th floor, where she had a view of Coronado. She loved it.
“I love being close to downtown. I love walking to the store. I love everything about it,” Blair said.
Then, sometime in 2018, people started showing up in large groups for short-term stays, she said. The weekend often came with huge crowds, which meant having to wait as long as 30 minutes for the elevators when trying to leave or enter her home.
Blair eventually learned these crowds were coming from Airbnb or Vrbo. She had friends in the same building that apparently lived on floors where there were “a lot of parties, a lot of trash and a lot of noise,” she said.
A downtown getaway at Pinnacle on the Park is easy to come by. inewsource found at least four companies — Striv Rentals, Namastay, Searchastay and AvantStay — posted at least 24 listings on short-term platforms, including Airbnb and Vrbo. The average price for an overnight stay can range from $150 to $599. A long-term tenant pays from $1,900 to $11,400 a month, according to Apartments.com.
Searchastay has at least nine listings on Vrbo for units that all appear to be in Pinnacle on the Park. The posts brag about the views, including one that says, “Almost without fail, we get a 'Wow!' each time a guest arrives at one of our apartments.”
Ben Sherman, marketing manager for Searchastay, said the company has posted listings at that tower on behalf of Pinnacle’s management. But he said since COVID-19 many reservations have been canceled, and Pinnacle has stopped renting out units short term.
Listings in Pinnacle by Namastay and Avanstay emphasize modern furnishings and “hotel-grade amenities,” or promise the “ideal East Village San Diego living experience.” The sales pitch from Striv Rentals features floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor patios for entertaining guests with downtown as the backdrop.
But Striv Rentals gives Pinnacle guests a list of things not to do: Don’t gather in the lobby, don’t ask building staff for assistance and don’t mention Airbnb during your stay.
As many as 10 other hosts also have 15 overnight listings, including a man who uses the name “Dane” on Vrbo. Dane is listed as the manager for the Louis Vuitton penthouse and the apartment with a private hot tub.
Reached through Vrbo, Dane told inewsource he had an agreement with Pinnacle’s management to rent units on a short-term basis but was paid “six figures” on Aug. 31 to give all 13 of his units back to management.
“The constant partying has to do with quarantine because people (don’t) have clubs to go to,” he said.
He never confirmed his last name but added, “I don’t want people partying. Do you know how hard it is to clean that?”
As for telling people to get their “quarantine friends together,” Dane said his employees write the listings and he doesn’t support that type of messaging.
“That just basically means party,” he said.
Namastay, AvantStay and Striv Rentals did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
An Airbnb spokesperson told inewsource the company last year banned party houses, or places that cause a “repeated neighborhood nuisance,” and set up a mechanism for people to report their neighbors who violate the ban. She said Airbnb also removed 12 listings at Pinnacle on the Park this year for “violation of our policies” but didn’t go into detail about what happened.
“We are fully committed to working with San Diego elected officials to enact fair, comprehensive rules that capture the benefits of home-sharing and address community concerns, just as we’ve done with hundreds of other jurisdictions around the world,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Vrbo did not respond to requests for comment.
Blair, who lived on the 16th floor of Pinnacle, considers herself lucky. The only problems she has ever had were waiting for elevators and maneuvering her way through the crowds, she said, but understands other tenants have had a different experience.
“It's not even like they're bad people,” Blair said, referring to the short-term renters. “It's that they come to party, and what a wonderful place in San Diego with the weather and everything.”
Last November, Blair moved to the Spire tower shortly after it opened. She said she only moved because she wanted the new countertops and hardwood floors offered there, though she was happy to learn none of the units in her tower are allowed to be rented out short term.
Police and provocation
On weekdays, Pinnacle on the Park appears no different than any other downtown housing development. A slow but steady stream of people come in and out of the high-rise. Dog owners stroll through Fault Line Park with their leashed companions. Homeless people seek shade from the sun.
But on weekend nights, the yellow tower transforms.
inewsource visited Pinnacle on the Park multiple times in August and September. On one Saturday evening around 10:30 p.m., from the sidewalk, about a dozen people could be spotted and heard on the upper-level balconies. People danced to loud music that was interrupted with shouts and laughter.
Around the same time on the Friday night before Labor Day weekend, a two-minute expletive-laced shouting match erupted between people standing on balconies of the two towers. It started after someone began aimlessly yelling throughout the complex.
Records show a dramatic spike in police activity after officials lifted stay at home orders. From May through August, people have called San Diego police 91 times about loud parties and other disturbances at Pinnacle — everything from noise complaints to violence. That’s more than six times the number of calls made for the same period last year.
Police have responded to these kinds of calls at Spire, too, but only 18 times since the orders were lifted.
Many police calls identify a specific unit number. For example, police have responded four times this year to a unit on Pinnacle’s 45th floor — twice for a party and twice for disturbances, one of which was violent, records show.
But the Pinnacle unit that has received the most police calls this year belongs to Michael McNamee, a formerly homeless Navy veteran who lives in the affordable housing section. All six calls to police about him this year were mental health calls, records show.
McNamee, 56, said the chaos of this year — the pandemic, crowds of short-term guests, loud parties, violence and police — has aggravated his PTSD, which he said stems from childhood trauma.
“I can't be around crowds. I can't go to the store. … It just triggers me when I see people being violent and police officers showing up,” he said, adding that any loud noises or yelling can set him off.
McNamee said he often finds items like used condoms or soiled toilet paper right outside his front door. He thinks they were tossed from the party floors. He said his complaints to management have been ignored or dismissed, and he has reached a breaking point.
Court records show the property manager, Inzunza, has filed two petitions in San Diego Superior Court for restraining orders against McNamee. The first, filed in May, said McNamee made verbal threats, used violent and racist language, and was aggressive toward staff. McNamee disputes that. The case was dropped in August when no one from Pinnacle showed up to a hearing, court records show.
The second petition came after an incident on Sept. 4, when McNamee went into the lobby yelling, swearing and threatening staff about a loud car on the street that woke him up, records show. The petition says staff has had to call the police several times because of McNamee’s “erratic and violent” behavior. A hearing is scheduled for November.
McNamee said he wants to move but can’t afford to. To find an affordable apartment elsewhere, he said he would have to get on the San Diego Housing Commission’s waiting list. For now, he said he feels trapped.
‘I feel so much better now’
McNamee isn’t the only low-income tenant who was ordered to stay at least 100 yards away from Pinnacle employees.
Garcia, the father with three children, said he received notice about a temporary restraining order request after he lost his patience with the property manager.
He said it involved a dispute about moving his family into a three-bedroom apartment within the complex. He needed the extra space for two of his children — one with mild autism and another who requires around-the-clock care. Garcia contends Inzunza strung him and his family along for months only to give the unit to someone else.
Court records show Inzunza filed for a temporary restraining order against Garcia, seeking protection for himself and several other staff members.
The property manager claimed harassment, verbal abuse, and aggressive and threatening behavior. The petition cites two incidents — verbally attacking a security guard and an outburst over the three-bedroom unit.
A judge ordered Garcia to stay away from the leasing offices for Pinnacle and Spire until next August.
Garcia said he and his family now live in a four-bedroom condo in the South Bay. He said he has all the space he needs for his children as well as peace of mind.
“I’m able to stretch my legs and my feet, and I feel so much better now,” he said.
Life in Spire
Not everyone who lives in this East Village development objects to the parties and their aftermath.
Rebekah Soliman, 25, describes her three months of living on the 39th floor of Spire with her boyfriend and roommate as “perfectly perfect.”
“They know our names, they know the names of the dogs of all the tenants and they really, really care,” she said of the building’s staff.
Soliman said she doesn’t even mind the parties. But she added: “The biggest problem with this place is that people are so disrespectful about what goes over their balconies, and our pool is on the very first floor. And so everything that goes over their balconies goes into our pool.”
But Spencer, the mom with a 12-year-old son, said she has had enough. Her apartment on the 37th floor of Spire faces the upper levels of Pinnacle.
“The view that I have is tremendous. That's why you move here. But I don't expect to look straight across with someone's full blinds open doing a complete nude photoshoot that turns into the other aspects of a pornography shoot,” said Spencer, who serves as a board member of the East Village Association, a nonprofit that supports East Village businesses.
She said three fires have been set by people shooting off fireworks from their balconies since February, and she has called the non-emergency police line eight times in the past six months for various issues.
Spencer, 51, has asked management to move her to the other side of the building so she doesn’t have to face Pinnacle. Otherwise, she said, she’s ready to give a 30-day notice and break her lease.
Neither has happened, but things have started to improve, she said. Spencer noticed some units that are usually packed with guests have been vacated.
Either way, something will have to change at the city level to make a real difference, she said.
City leaders weigh in
Units in both high-rises are allowed to be rented overnight under an East Village zoning law, a city spokesperson said. But it’s the constant hubbub during the pandemic that’s causing concern among city leaders.
City Councilmember Chris Ward, who represents downtown, heard about problems at Pinnacle from a citizen complaint, said Ansermio Estrada, Ward’s communications manager. Ward has asked Mayor Kevin Faulconer to enforce current public health orders and “stop what is clearly dangerous and unacceptable behavior putting the public at risk,” Estrada said.
In a statement to inewsource, Ward said, “Only the Mayor can direct (police) to enforce the public health order in the city, or not.”
Faulconer declined an interview with inewsource, but a spokesperson provided this statement: “As the City continues to make progress in curbing the spread of the COVID-19 virus, there’s a continued partnership with the San Diego Police Department to educate local residents about indoor public gatherings being against current county public health orders with the goal of seeking compliance to keep residents safe from the spread of the virus.”
Faulconer added that he supports “common-sense regulations” for short-term rentals that protect “neighborhood quality of life through increased oversight and enforcement.” But he hasn’t put forward any regulations since his 2018 proposal was adopted by the City Council and later rescinded.
Faulconer’s term ends in December. The two candidates competing to replace him — Councilmember Barbara Bry and Assemblyman Todd Gloria — agree short-term rentals need more regulation and enforcement.
Bry said it starts by enforcing existing law, referring to City Attorney Mara Elliott’s opinion that vacation rentals are illegal in residential areas.
“We have plenty of options available for tourists. They're called hotels. And right now, our legal hotel industry is suffering because of COVID,” Bry said.
Gloria said the larger issue comes down to the type of housing being built citywide.
“This new construction that we're seeing in our community is overwhelmingly at the luxury end of the market,” Gloria said. “In order to make that work financially, folks are demanding the highest rents, the highest for sale prices, and that often pushes some of these properties to go into the vacation rental market.”
Until the city can increase the supply of housing, it will continue to have these problems, Gloria said.
Update: 4:15 p.m., Sept. 24, 2020
After this story published, a Vrbo spokesperson contacted inewsource to say the company this week removed its six listings at Pinnacle on the Park and Spire. He also apologized for not responding to requests for comment before publication. Here’s his statement:
“For 25 years, Vrbo has been the preferred platform for traveling families, and incidents like these are not consistent with our values. Maintaining the trust of our travelers, our homeowners and our local communities is something we focus on every day. After thorough review of the situation we have delisted all Vrbo listings at Pinnacle and Spire.”
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