City Attorney Elliott Addresses Lack of Enforcement Against Vacation Rentals at OB Town Council Forum

by on May 25, 2017 · 3 comments

in Ocean Beach

San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott

Residents Urged to Contact City Council and Mayor to Break Logjam Over Lack of Policy on STVRs

At the Wednesday, May 24th Ocean Beach Town Council forum on short-term vacation rentals, San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott faced an energized audience of some 70 residents and explained why there is a lack of enforcement against the illegal mini-hotels that have sprouted up within coastal residential zones.

Invited to the forum on the rentals, Elliott was joined by residents who have been displaced by vacation rentals and also by John Ambert, chair of the OB Planning Board, who gave an update on what the his Board has been doing.

Gretchen Newsom, president of the OBTC, opened up the forum portion of the monthly meeting, by saying that just about one year ago, the town council held a hearing on short term rentals, and ended up supporting the position of the main city-wide organization fighting for tighter restrictions, Save San Diego Neighborhoods, that short term rentals are illegal.

We should note here that it was last August when the town council sent an open letter to the mayor and city council on their position. In it, they stated:

Until STVRs are formally addressed by the City Council and the Mayor with a new ordinance and/or revisions to San Diego’s municipal code, the OBTC is in full support of the position of Save San Diego Neighborhoods as stated:

Enforce the existing Municipal Code, which makes STVR unlawful in all San Diego residential zones, to rid our communities of absentee-owner commercial mini-hotels.

Amend the Municipal Code to allow true “home-sharing” (room rentals with owners present) and home-swapping with some restrictions.

Create and implement effective enforcement policies to support those positions.

Save San Diego Neighborhoods is requesting the City of San Diego to enforce its current municipal code as it relates to Visitor Accommodations which prohibits Short Term Vacation Rentals within residential neighborhoods.

The letter ended with the OBTC calling upon Mayor Faulconer “to enforce the current Municipal Code until this matter is resolved legislatively by our City Council.”

Since then, one year has passed, Newsom reiterated, and no new policy has emerged from the city council. The city is not enforcing any ban as the mayor has stated that the city will not crack down on vacation rentals in residential zones until there are new regulations. Newsom quoted from the mayor in a Voice of San Diego article, in which he stated, “We’re not changing our enforcement actions until polices are clarified.”

However, the voters of San Diego did elect a new City Attorney, Mara Elliott, Newsom said, who formed a legal opinion that short term rentals are illegal.

Newsom then introduced Elliott who briefly outlined her position, and bravely took questions from a clearly frustrated audience. Tensions have been building up in OB over this issue and some of them bubbled up during the meeting. No politician has dared to appear in public recently in Ocean Beach to address these type of rentals, until this meeting.

Elliot stated that the city’s code enforcement is not enforcing any complaints against vacation rentals currently, because code enforcement doesn’t have direction – other than complaints of noise, trash, etc. Elliott is waiting on the city council to docket a vote on short term rentals, but they haven’t done that. The issue, she said, is not docketed for any future city council meeting. She said:

“We need regulations on the books and I’m not empowered to write them.”

Later, when pressed by this reporter on why the City Attorney couldn’t send investigators to known short term rentals, she answered that her office does not have enforcement officers, plus any case that her office took on would be considered a civil matter. In fact, she said, code enforcement complaints are not filed in her office and she’s not aware of them until they result in criminal or civil charges.

Newsom pointed out that the budget of the City Attorney is determined by the mayor. So, even though the city attorney is elected independently of the mayor and council, funding for the office comes from the top floors of city hall.

Elliott joined with Newsom and others from the town council who greatly encouraged everyone to contact City Council members and urge them to place the issue of STVRs on the council’s docket.  The City Attorney was given several rounds of applause despite being the brunt of some frustrations.  Elliott stated: “Civic action is absolutely needed now.” (See names and contact info).

More specifically, people were asked to contact council members of the Smart Growth and Land Use committee -Scott Sherman, David Alvarez, Chris Cate and Georgette Gomez-, as well as Council President Myrtle Cole who sets the council agenda.

Newsom explained Councilwoman Zapf’s position, which is in line with Councilwoman Barbara Bry; short term rentals are illegal in residential zones.

Next, a woman named Jodie was introduced to recount her story of being displaced by a vacation rental. She’d lived in OB for 20 years and raised her kids here. At her apartment building over on Muir, her landlord allowed a vacation rental in next door to her unit. It was a 1 bedroom and 4 to 6 people would cram into it, Monday through Thursday. “It was super loud,” she said, as the walls were very thin, and she kept getting woken up at night by the noise. Jodie complained to the landlord but nothing happened.

Then some “dude”, she explained, contacted her landlord and offered him hundreds of dollars more per month than what she was paying. And unfortunately for her, the landlord took the deal and Jodie was evicted. The “dude” never moved in; he just flipped the unit and began leasing it out as a vacation rental. Jodie said that she’d seen the same guy approach other landlords on  her block. Her old complex “is being run as a mini-hotel,” she said, and “it’s breaking up families.”

Gretchen Newsom also had a story to tell; on her block on Santa Cruz Avenue, she knows of 6 units that have been turned over to STVRs. In fact, she told the rapt audience, she even received a flier at the address where she rents addressed to the home owner. It was an ad from a company on how to flip their house into a vacation rental.

A woman from Loma Portal complained of all the STVRs on her street and expressed her concerns that there is no protection for children from people vacationing there. She had filed a complaint about her neighbor’s vacation rental but wondered whether all of this would be resolved before all the large conventions come to town. No, was the City Attorney’s response.

Standing up next with a story was well-known local Mercy Baron who outlined her experiences on the 4900 block of Saratoga. She watched as her neighbors, a nice family with kids, had to be evicted from a craftsman next door because it was turned into a vacation rental.  Then the very same owner approached the OB Planning Board with a permit to build a garage in the rear of that craftsman with a new unit over it. But he lied, as he told the Board that his mother would be moving in.

Baron had attended the meeting and busted the owner with photos off Airbnb showing his vacation rental at that very location. The Board rejected his application unanimously. (Of course, the owner could appeal and then it would go to the San Diego Planning Commission.)

Now Mercy feels threatened, as her new landlord has demanded two $100 raises within the last 6 months; she fears that someday she too will be displaced and then having difficulty finding affordable housing in OB.

Kathy Riley, the head of the Pacific Beach Town Council, then addressed the crowd. She made the excellent point that visitors do not support community-serving businesses other than restaurants and bars, like the dry cleaners, the hair salons, the furniture stores.

Newsom then introduced John Ambert, chair of the local OB planners, who polished off the forum with his presentation that ended with a big push for everyone to get involved in helping to deal with the issue.

OB Planing Bd Chair John Ambert

Ambert explained that the OB Planning Board has been dealing with the issue of STVRs for the last two years, and in particular, one project stood out: the prefab homes installed at Voltaire and Abbott. When the owner came before the Planning Board with his project, he pledged to live on site. Now, all the units are advertised on Airbnb.

“Projects coming before us are changing the landscape,” he said, “making hotels where they’re not allowed.”

How many vacation rentals exist in OB? Ambert asked the crowd, and then proceeded to tell them. The Board’s committee on STVRs has cross-checked the different vacation rental advertisers and estimate that there are 450 units in the one square mile of Ocean Beach that are short-term.

There are about 7600 dwelling units in OB, he said. If 450 are vacation rentals, that means that 6% have been removed from the over-all housing stock in the community, and that is very significant. Less rentals for long-term rentals drives up the rents for everyone. In Pacific Beach, Ambert said, it’s 7%. And in Mission Beach, it’s a whooping 42%.

Ambert introduced Kevin Hastings and his map.

So, Ambert continued, the OB Planning Board is doing an inventory of STVRs in Ocean Beach, and trying to determine who is disobeying the rules; also they’re working with other coastal groups to persuade them to do inventories in their communities.

This data set, he said, is what is needed by the California Coastal Commission, as currently, the Commission views vacation rentals as “low-cost” coastal housing. With this data, they can be shown how this view is incorrect. “STVRs widen the gap between housing needs,” Ambert said, “and housing that’s available.”

Ambert urged people to call Councilman Scott Sherman who chairs the City Council meeting on the issue, as well as the other members, Alvarez, Gomez. “They’re being lobbied by Airbnb,” John reminded the audience. Also he asked people to attend the meetings of groups in other communities and advocate against the vacation rentals.

Newsom chimed in, and pointed out that there’s no representative of the coastal areas on that committee.

Ambert also believes that perhaps the issue can be resolved with tight regulations for coastal communities west of I-5, and allow those districts east of there to do what they wish regarding vacation rentals.

At the end, Gretchen took over and pressed everyone to contact Councilwoman Myrtle Cole, Council president, as she sets the Council agendas.

This was the message getting out: it will take the grassroots to pressure the city council and mayor to act, and it was time, because it is getting worse. Short term vacation rentals are rampant.

Here’s Channel 8 coverage, and here’s Fox5′s.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

DSD link May 26, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Could someone post a link to the San Diego Development Services Department complaint page? John Ambert mentioned that one additional way to make our problems known to the city is to report them all and often to DSD.


nostalgic May 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm

It is easy to post on OpenDSD. Go to
2. Scroll Down to Get it Done.
3. Under I need to: select Report.
4. Under Report, select: Noise Complaint.
5. Click Report Now.
This will take you to:
It enables you to select complaints other than Noise once you get there.
I don’t know if you select: Housing, Land Development, or Zoning from the list. Any ideas?
You need the exact address, the cross street, your own contact information, and answer some questions. You also need to supply owner information.
Moving on, It is helpful to know the number and title of the Municipal Code being violated. You will need to provide that, or your best description of it.
This isn’t the complete answer, but once you get the hang of it, your complaint is in the system.

The city has provided this method for the citizens to complain, and this is the best way to do it. After all, we paid for it. This isn’t EVERYTHING, but it should get you started.


nostalgic May 31, 2017 at 6:50 am

The Open DSD selection should be Zoning. Although Housing seems like a logical choice, the violation is for Residential Zoning restrictions.


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