SLO Council will reconsider the city's ban on vacation rentals

The San Luis Obispo City Council will consider revising the city’s longstanding ban on vacation rentals Tuesday—prompted by a thrust from a group of homeowners fighting for the right to rent rooms in their homes to travelers.

Residents renting rooms in their homes through popular travel websites such as Airbnb and VRBO.com that focus on short-term stays, began receiving enforcement letters from the city in March.

The citations, which told them to stop or face fines that can escalate up to $500 per violation, infuriated many residents who have been quietly renting out rooms to vacationers for years; many of them say they didn’t know it was illegal.

The homeowners, now organized as a group called SLO Hosts, want the ordinance changed. The group is mostly middle-aged, long-term residents who say they enjoy the social aspect of renting a room to travelers but also want the economic boost.

The city ordinance banning vacation rentals, drafted in the 1980s and revised in 2006, bans such rentals from all areas of the city. 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.

The City Council must now decide if the city’s rules should be re-written to allow short-term vacation rentals in owner-occupied homes.

That could come at a cost to the group advocating for the change. City staff is recommending that the $11,795 bill tied to the possible ordinance change should be the responsibility of SLO Hosts because they will ultimately benefit from it.

“I think that is ridiculous,” said Kurt Friedmann, a spokesman for SLO Hosts. “We didn’t start this mess—it was the city that changed the policy of non-enforcement. The city should bear the responsibility.”

Friedmann said the group is not asking that the vacation rental ordinance be overturned. Instead, SLO Hosts wants a special provision created under the city’s ordinance allowing for “homestays”—rooms rented on a temporary basis by homeowners who are living in their homes at the time.

Those homeowners would then pay transient occupancy taxes to the city. Those taxes would generate about $45,000 of additional revenue for the city, according to city staff.

“None of us are advocating for uncontrolled vacation rentals,” said Friedmann. “We are all homeowners who don’t want every house on the block to be an uncontrolled vacation rental. These are our homes and none of us want that.”

Some homeowners say that the added revenue allows them to keep and maintain their homes instead of being forced to sell them. Currently about 40 percent of the city’s homes are owner-occupied with the remaining 60 percent rentals, Mayor Jan Marx has said.

The council is being asked to define what regulations, such as maximum occupancy limits, property maintenance standards and required licensing, should be included if such temporary vacation rentals are allowed.

Sky Bergman, one of the first homeowners to receive a citation for using the social lodging website Airbnb to rent a room in her home, appealed the decision to the Planning Commission in October. The appeal was denied. Bergman remains hopeful that the council will change the ordinance.

“There is something to be said for strength in numbers and there are a lot of really sharp minds all coming up with different ideas and trying to make a change,” said Bergman of the SLO Hosts. “We are all willing to work with the city to figure out how this can be a win-win situation. There are so many of us that the city had to take notice and we aren’t going away quietly.”

The City Council meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Council Chambers, 990 Palm St.