Vacation rental advocates say new regulations in Santa Monica go too far

By Gary Walker

Vacation rental supporters rally outside Santa Monica City Hall on May 12 Photo by Robert Craig

Vacation rental supporters rally outside Santa Monica City Hall on May 12
Photo by Robert Craig

Desiree Fenmore has lived in Santa Monica for 19 years. Once saddled with what she called “mountains of debt,” Fenmore was able to obtain a degree of financial stability by renting her apartment to tourists through online short-term rental broker Airbnb.

Now that the Santa Monica City Council has voted to crack down on the practice of short-term rentals, she is unsure how long she can continue to afford her $1,500 monthly rent — and that’s considered a bargain in Santa Monica.

“In this day and age, it’s really hard to have only one job and make ends meet. Airbnb helped me get out of over $20,000 of debt in a year and three months. This vote is going to dramatically change my life and I might have to leave my apartment,” said Fenmore, who works a performer.

Fenmore was among nearly 200 Airbnb supporters who gathered in front of Santa Monica City Hall on May 12 to protest the city’s new short-term rentals ordinance, which as of June 15 effectively outlaws temporary vacation rentals for less than one month unless the permanent occupant is not also present. Those who rent space legally will be required to get a business license and pay the city’s 14% hotel tax, and online vacation rentals must report transactions to the city.

On the other side of the argument, Santa Monica officials say the conversion of long-term residential housing into vacation properties reduces the city’s available housing stock and drives up rents for permanent residents, pitting locals’ paychecks against tourist dollars.

“We’ve always been ardent protectors of our rental stock in Santa Monica. Our apartment rental units should be for people who are living here full-time,” Santa Monica City Councilwoman Sue Himmelrich said.

She adds that most short-term rental situations were already technically illegal in Santa Monica.

“In the past we just weren’t doing a very good job of enforcement,” Himmelrich said.

Airbnb representatives characterize Santa Monica’s restrictions on short-term rentals as unfair — especially to renters who, like Fenmore, depend on the additional income to stay in their homes.

“This proposal fails to provide clear, fair rules for home sharing. We will continue to highlight the importance of fair rules with leaders in Santa Monica and throughout Southern California,” Airbnb spokeswoman Alison Schumer said.

Sherri Akers, co-chair of the Mar Vista Community Council’s Aging in Place Committee, worries that Los Angeles may follow suit and adopt similar regulations that she fears could prevent seniors from supplementing their income.

“The ability to rent out rooms in our home — or the entire home when we are traveling — is a win-win for everyone. For those struggling to make ends meet, it provides an additional source of income. For many seniors, renting a room in their home also provides safety and even some caregiving,” Akers said.

In Los Angeles, there are around 4,500 short-term rental operators, according to a report issued by Los Angeles City Administrator Miguel Santana earlier this month.

The Los Angeles City Council is currently considering new regulations for short-term rentals, which are currently illegal in residential neighborhoods — though, as was the case for so long in Santa Monica, the rules went largely unenforced.

Residents of Venice, where Airbnb lists as many as 1,000 properties or more in peak season, have been at the forefront of pushing city officials for clearer and more restrictive guidelines.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin has proposed an ordinance that would prohibit high concentrations of vacation rentals in specific residential areas and collect city hotel tax proceeds from short-term rental operators.

In January the Venice Neighborhood Council called on Mayor Eric Garcetti and L.A. City Council members to craft an interim ordinance that would provide “basic regulations and controls and collections of all short-term rental related taxes and fees” as well as an oversight body to penalize those who repeatedly flout current or future regulations.

Hotel operators in Santa Monica and Los Angeles support collection of hotel tax revenue from short-term rental operators.

Fenmore said civic leaders should accept short-term rentals as part of a new economic landscape.

“The paradigm needs to be changed on subletting. It should be allowed to be for three days or a week,” she said. “It’s really a state of mind.”