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Complaints pour in as San Diego begins crackdown on short term rentals

License enforcement for San Diego’s short term vacation rentals or STROs (Short Term Residential Occupancy) is officially underway, but the city has given out fewer licenses than it had expected.

"We originally thought there was going to be a lot of vacation homes, especially the whole home rentals, we anticipated and had a cap at 5,400 we didn’t even meet that," said Venus Molina, chief of staff for San Diego City Council member Jennifer Campbell, whose district includes Mission Beach. That’s the only place that’s out of licenses.

"Originally there was about 60% of the homes in Mission Beach (that were) short term vacation rentals," Molina said, noting that while some in the community were opposed to STROs, for others, "This is their livelihood, this is their retirement. They wanted the vacation rentals. So the community came up with a 30% cap."


Molina said it was a compromise, since the rest of the city is allowed 1% of the total homes issued.

STRO licenses are so coveted in Mission Beach, the city had to assign the area with its own tier and hold a lottery to issue 1,087 licenses just for that community.

There’s now a waiting list.

But some who got licenses could lose their golden tickets. Dozens of licenses are under review because there were errors in their applications.

The problem is related to the way the lottery was run. Molina said it was weighted, meaning some operators in good standing were entered more than once.


Molina said that’s where one licensee got caught. In their application, they included the number of years the previous owners of the home used it as a vacation rental.

"That's not the way it works. You — you as the individual— you're responsible. Maybe the previous owners were responsible and they ran it great, but you might not," she said. "So this is accountable to you. That's one circumstance that we encountered where ... they revoked their license."

Licensing is handled by the City Treasurer's office. Molina said they carefully check all the applications and verify data, and while people can appeal fines and revocations, intentionally lying on an application will get a license suspended.

Enforcement of the licensing ordinance is managed by the Building & Land Use Enforcement (BLUE) Division. BLUE will be checking for compliance and looking into all complaints made by phone or filed online through the city's "Get it Done" site, and all of the records are public: owners, licenses, compliance, complaints, they’re all accessible online.

There are already dozens of complaints filed, ranging from barking dogs to people renting out an RV as a short term rental. But Molina said just because someone files a complaint doesn't mean the STRO owner will get fined.

"Sometimes people are just going to complain without merit, without (there) actually being a fault. So we're not going to come down on a good operator because their neighbor isn’t happy. So that's why there's a 'three strikes and you’re out,'" said Molina.

She said a third party is being contracted to make sure all complaints are checked out, and they will scour rental listings and purge those without a license. Also, the companies that list the rentals have agreements with the city not to add homes to their websites without a license. She said their licenses will be displayed on the booking website.

Molina said the city will work with people to make sure there is not a misunderstanding, and if BLUE finds a violation they will work with the host to achieve voluntary compliance.

"I feel it's a fair process. We don't come after people right away, because we want to give people the benefit of the doubt," she said. "When you call and complain, there's an investigation that happens."

She said hosts have an hour to call the person back after they are contacted. Fines are $300 per day, per violation, but some violations can be as high as $1,000.

"They will be disqualified from getting any licenses in the future, and you will not be a legitimate business," she said adding, "The fines are pretty steep, $1000, and they accrue."

She said that the booking companies must also comply because if they continue to list unlicensed rentals, their agreement will be void and the city will only allow sites that comply.

Molina said they will be reviewing the data and they will review the policy and revise it every year.

"I want to see what's missing, what didn't work, were the platforms compliant, were they not, did people skirt the system?" she said. "We're going to figure out 'this is what we need to do, this is what we need to change,' but we have to get things moving so that we can actually collect that information and that data. And then we can kind of fine tune it appropriately as we need to."

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