A fight over vacation rentals is tearing Playa del Rey apart

By Gary Walker

Tiny community, tense conflicts: The Jungle, as seen from the Playa del Rey bluffs Photo by Inae Bloom

Tiny community, tense conflicts: The Jungle,
as seen from the Playa del Rey bluffs
Photo by Inae Bloom

In lower Playa del Rey, the signs are everywhere.

On one home, “We Support Short Term Rentals.”

On another, often right next door: “Short Term Rentals are Illegal in Los Angeles.”

It’s a pattern that repeats all along the beachfront homes of Trolleyway and other residential streets below the bluffs south of Culver Boulevard, a historically tight-knit community that locals have called The Jungle since the 1950s.

The signs have become physical markers of broken relationships — battle lines drawn between those who vigorously oppose short-term vacation rentals and those who operate or approve of them.

In Venice and other high-profile vacation rental hotspots, opponents worry about losing permanent rental housing to gentrification-fueling tourist dollars, while proponents counter that vacation rental revenue can help residents afford to stay in their homes.

But in The Jungle, disagreements about vacation rentals have become personal issues causing irreparable damage to longtime friendships and dividing a neighborhood that once prided itself on togetherness.

Opponents of home-sharing have taken to social media to publicly accuse former friends of treachery and running illegal enterprises. Meanwhile, vacation rental supporters complain they’ve been unfairly targeted in sting operations by former friends who have called out city inspectors to investigate them.

Animosity has become so widespread that it threatens to dampen this Saturday’s turnout for the annual Jungle Cleanup, a decades-long tradition of collaborative neighborhood tidying followed by an afternoon block party along Trolleyway.

Bob Hughes, a Trolleyway homeowner who’s been involved with the Jungle Cleanup for 20 years, says neighborhood tensions have gotten so high that he’s taking the year off from the event.

“I hope we get a good turnout, but in many ways it won’t be the same,” he said.

Maria Reyes, vice president of the homeowners association that organizes the Jungle Cleanup, is also sitting this one out. Reyes is still upset after a neighbor and former friend who suspected her of renting rooms to tourists went behind her back to get city inspectors to show up on her doorstep.

Things have gotten so bad that even Jeanne Moody — a 50-year resident of The Jungle and one of the founders of the Jungle Cleanup — is skipping it too. The neighborhood divide, she says, has left her angry and disheartened.

“We’ve been such a close-knit community for so long. I’m not sure if [the cleanup] will be the same this year,” Moody said.

Eviction Friction

Lucy Han, a Trolleyway homeowner of 10 years, and six-year homeowner Jan Haagen are the leaders of a 10-month campaign to cast a spotlight on local property owners they accuse of breaking the law by leasing units out to tourists for days at a time.

Their group, Community Above Profit, claims lower Playa landlords have illegally evicted longtime tenants in an effort to cash in on the lucrative vacation rental marketplace.

Current listings on brokerage websites Airbnb and Homeway offer vacation rentals in lower Playa del Rey that include $80 per night for a room in which homeowners are present, $400 per night for private use of a beachfront downstairs unit, and more than $700 per night for the run of an entire beachfront home.

Han said her involvement began when a neighbor’s landlord looking to cash in on the bonanza “evicted the people downstairs and upstairs in order to turn their building into a short-term rental” and promptly listed the units on Airbnb. Fearing possible retribution, Han declined to name the landlords she accuses of illegal evictions.

Community Above Profit claims these evictions were illegal because the landlords allegedly violated the Ellis Act, a 1985 state law that allows landlords to evict all tenants in a particular building for the purpose of taking it off the rental market.

Vacation rental detractors say landlords “emptying out” their buildings and converting them into short-term rentals are skirting the Ellis Act because those properties are still engaged in the rental market, even if the building becomes a single-family home.

Jack Jackals, a Trolleyway homeowner of 35 years, lives next door to  a short-term rental and has experienced problems that residents in other communities with vacation rentals have complained about: temporary renters parking in his driveway, people coming and going at all hours, and hordes of strangers suddenly living next door.

In a final indignity, on one recent evening Jackals said a group of renters asked him to turn down his music.

“They said I was ruining their vacation!” he recalled incredulously.

Jackals complained that his neighbor’s vacation rentals have turned the house next door into a business.

“Let’s call it what it is: a hotel,” Jackals said.

Haagen, who lives between two duplexes offering vacation rentals, recalls a neighborhood where she knew practically all of her neighbors.

“Now it’s turned into living with strangers all the time after the landlord on one side of my house evicted her long-term tenants,” said Haagen. “One of the landlords on one side has evicted her long-term tenants for people who come for a few days or a week. She’s blatantly breaking the law and there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Community Above Profit has tried to do something about it.

They’ve kept tabs on how many vacation rentals are advertised on Airbnb — counting 116 in Playa del Rey on Independence Day weekend, and 13 active listings on Trolleyway alone last month.

They have written, called and cajoled city inspectors to cite those who they say are operating vacation rentals.

They’ve even lobbied the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office to prosecute property owners in the vacation rental business.

“Those who are against short-term rentals see them as a threat to their longevity in the neighborhood,” Haagen said.

But others tell a different story.

‘Jungle Rules’

A Playa del Rey homeowner for 16 years who is supportive of vacation rentals, Reyes said she and others have been unfairly and falsely smeared by Han and her Community Above Profit allies in a whispering campaign fueled by social media.

Reyes said Han has accused her of brokering illegal rentals, and that those accusations prompted a visit from city inspectors — even though Reyes says she hasn’t had any kind of tenant for years.

“We were set up on sting operations and turned in [to city officials]. You don’t do that to your neighbors and people from your own community without talking to them first,” said Reyes.

Reyes worked with Han last year to convince Los Angeles County officials to build a sand berm to protect The Jungle from El Nino storm surges, but that goodwill is gone now. “Heartbreaking” is one of the words Reyes use to describe the animosity that has pervaded the neighborhood.

Last year Reyes’ mother, a senior citizen with physical challenges that prevent her from working, moved into a unit on her property. Reyes said her mother should be able to home-share a bedroom in the unit she occupies.

“Her future ability to rent her space as needed in her home could serve as a supplemental source of income,” she said.

Those who contacted city inspectors without first trying to sort things out person-to-person violated what Carol Kapp calls “Jungle Rules” — an informal protocol that has long dictated how neighbors interact in lower Playa and especially in The Jungle.

“If someone was being too loud, you knocked on their door and asked them to be quiet. If you parked in front of someone, you left a note on their car with your phone number so they could contact you,” said Kapp, 71, who has lived in The Jungle since 1978.

Moody calls the tactics used by Community Above Profit “very underhanded” and has seen how the vacation rental debate has affected friendships with neighbors.

“It’s hard because you see people that you used to say hi to, but now you’re not sure what to say to them,” Moody lamented.

Knapp, a former apartment manager, has also seen a wall grow between neighbors because of the polarization of vacation rentals.

“It’s horrendous that a small group of people who don’t like them are dividing our community,” Knapp said.

“I’m sure everything, as far as the turmoil, could have been avoided if they had followed ‘Jungle Rules,’” Reyes asserted. “It’s ridiculous and offensive.”

Han disagrees. She asserts that people who feel they deserved a warning before being reported to authorities need to understand what they are doing is illegal.

“This is not just an inconsequential noise violation. People are getting evicted and priced out of the area. It is naive to think hosts would listen to warnings,” Han said.

Tom Turley became ensnared in the vortex of vacation rental animosity three years ago, when he decided to move into a duplex he owns on Trolleyway and evicted his tenants so he could move in.

Turley said that even after the Los Angeles Housing Authority investigated and OK’d the eviction, his former tenants refused to leave for several months and vandalized the property when they did. Then they took to social media and accused him of an illegal eviction — a charge he vehemently denies.

“We live on the property. We are not ‘absentee hosts,’” Turley said.

Han said her goal is to protect the neighborhood, not sell out her neighbors, and that she too has been attacked on social media.

“This is not personal. This is about a citywide issue. It’s not just about Trolleyway or Playa del Rey,” Han said. “People are upset and I get it, but they’ve made it personal and it’s not.”

Han said “the tension was inevitable,” but Reyes disagrees.

“I think when you run sting operations and set up your neighbors, it turns an issue that you could talk about with your neighbors into a war zone,” Reyes said. “That’s like saying it’s inevitable to have a war because there are Democrats and Republicans living in the same place.”

Room for a Compromise?

Los Angeles City Hall is currently drafting new vacation rental regulations that would legalize them under some circumstances while banning wholesale conversion of rental properties into de-facto hotels, protecting rent-stabilized housing.

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who cosponsored the proposed city ordinance, has heard from both sides of the issue in Playa del Rey. He says the animosity between neighbors underscores the importance of creating a legal framework for home-sharing.

“This is why we need clear, defined and enforceable rules,” he said. “There are people in Playa del Rey who want everything to be legal, and there are those who want everything to be illegal. What I’m for is a compromise: sensible, enforceable regulations where no affordable housing is taken off the market.”

Reyes, who often uses Airbnb when she travels domestically and abroad, supports Bonin’s proposals.

“I don’t see why anyone would be against opening up their community and sharing it with people who don’t live here. I haven’t met anyone who has had problems with short-term renters, but I can see concerns [about some renters] where that may be plausible,” Reyes said.

In a letter to Bonin earlier this year, 20 homeowners in The Jungle expressed their support for short-term rentals and for the ordinance.

Community Above Profit sent Bonin’s office more than 350 signatures against vacation rentals, although not all signatories are from Playa del Rey.

Jackals blames city officials for the current predicament in lower Playa del Rey, and he doesn’t have much confidence that approval of an ordinance will assuage any hurt feelings.

“They’ve created the adversarial component of this tension by not enforcing the law. They’re pitting neighbor against neighbor, people against people. If past performance is an indication, they’re not going to be able to control the future,” he asserted.

Asked why she did not wait until new regulations are in place, Han said waiting could directly affect some people’s lives.

“People are being evicted illegally. That’s the impetus. And who knows when the ordinance will be finalized? Why wait for more people to be evicted?” Han said.

The cleanup will continue, despite the absence of Moody, Reyes, Knapp and Hughes.

Han said she and a group of friends are taking it over because the founders and residents like Hughes have retired from the event.

Hughes disputes that assessment.

“I’m taking a year off and I’ll see what happens next year,” said Hughes, who attended Han’s wedding.

Han says those in favor of short-term rentals should not mix local politics with an annual event that is as ingrained in the community as its ocean breezes and late-night parties.

“If the people who aren’t going to participate are going to hold things against the community, that’s too bad. This has nothing to do with short-term rentals: this is a cleanup,” she said.

Han is undaunted and unapologetic for her tenacity in confronting vacation rental operators and has no regrets over what has happened.

“I don’t really care because most of these people are not my friends,” she said. “I really don’t know these people, and they’ve done bad things to my friends.”

Reyes said she sees no way that the bonds with certain people can be repaired and irreparable damage has been done.

“Personally, that’s how it is for me. I participated so heavily in leading community efforts for 16 years. At the end of the day, there’s going to be an ordinance, but that’s not going to heal the hurt that they’ve caused,” she said.

With all the lingering animosity, Hughes worries that The Jungle that embraced him and others for so long has been deeply transformed. He expects that’ll extend to Saturday’s cleanup.

“I think there will be a different tone, a different feel to it,” he said. “There’s a feeling that we’re not united anymore and that’s really sad.”

The Jungle Cleanup runs from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Sept. 17, beginning along Trolleyway. The community party is from noon to 5 p.m., also on Trolleyway. Email friendsofthejungle@gmail.com for more information.