SLO’s ban on vacation rentals seen as an unwelcome policy

City — citing 1980s law — is going after residents offering short-term rentals through websites such as Airbnb.com

acornejo@thetribunenews.comAugust 23, 2013 

Sky Bergman in the room she rents out in her San Luis Obispo home.

LAURA DICKINSON — ldickinson@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

The growing trend of renting out rooms in residential homes through travel websites such as Airbnb is flourishing in San Luis Obispo, but there is one problem: It’s illegal.

A longstanding ban on vacation rentals in San Luis Obispo is being challenged by some residents who say that times have changed and so should the ordinance.

For the past two years, Sky Bergman has used the social lodging website Airbnb to rent a room periodically in her restored home on Mill Street in downtown San Luis Obispo.

The website allows homeowners to market their homes to short-term renters for as long as a night or a weekend or as long as a month.

Bergman is one of seven homeowners who were recently issued citations telling them to stop or face fines that start at $100 but can escalate up to $500 per violation.

Eight more notices are being sent out soon, and the city is investigating 35 other properties for possible violations, said Joseph Lease, chief building official.

Bergman, the department chairwoman of the art and design program at Cal Poly, said the extra income from renting a room short term allows her to keep the home she loves. The flexibility of not doing a longer-term rental, to a student for example, is something she enjoys because she often has family and friends visiting.

She’s hosted international travelers, had pleasant conversations and made lasting friendships.

“I love having people come in,” Bergman said. “People stay in a place versus a hotel because they want that connection.”

Bergman has also used the website for her own travels, booking rooms in Rome and Paris.

“It is an outdated … code on the books,” Bergman said. “The people who are in support of keeping it are not the people struggling to live in this community.”

Bergman is appealing the citation and plans to make her case before the city’s Planning Commission in October.

The city ordinance, drafted in the 1980s, is clear: Vacation rentals are not allowed in any zone.

A vacation rental is defined as a residence or part of a dwelling that is furnished and rented for fewer than 30 consecutive days.

The only exceptions are: fraternities, sororities, convents, monasteries, hostels, bed-and-breakfast inns, hotels, motels or boarding/rooming houses.

Bergman says there is plenty of street parking in her neighborhood and her visitors make little noise.

“These are changing times, a changing economy,” she said. “Thirty years ago, you weren’t paying a bazillion dollars for your home. People are now either having to rent to students or renting a room in order to stay in their house.”

Of the 52 properties being investigated as vacation rentals by the city, 32 were found on Airbnb.com, 19 on VRBO.com, and one on Homeaway.com.

Lease said the city’s ramped-up enforcement comes in response to complaints made by surrounding neighbors or from people in the hotel industry.

Community Development Director Derek Johnson said the city’s concern is about commercial activity in residential neighborhoods.

“Generally, it puts more people onsite then a traditional family home is zoned for,” Johnson said.

He said some hoteliers have raised concerns that temporary rentals are unfair competition because they aren’t paying taxes.

“I love competition. All I ask is that it’s fair,” said John Conner, who with his wife, Dianne Conner, has owned the 16-room Petit Soleil hotel on Monterey Street for 11 years.

To create an even playing field, John Conner said, vacation rental owners should do everything that’s required of any lodging that’s within city limits — including paying licensing fees, submitting to Fire Department inspections and collecting taxes.

Bergman said she has no issues with paying transient occupancy taxes — in fact, she says, she inquired with the city when she started to use Airbnb about just that.

Bergman says she was told to get a business license and that was all.

Tribune staff writer Julia Hickey contributed to this report.

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