Is San Diego Councilman Chris Ward Catering to Airbnb?

by on October 3, 2017 · 6 comments

in Ocean Beach, San Diego

By John Thickstun, Esq.

In February 2016, Senator Dianne Feinstein received a letter from a concerned San Diego resident about the growing number of short term vacation rentals in her neighborhood.

Senator Dianne Feinstein replied:

“I share your belief that strong zoning laws protect residential areas from certain commercial activities and support families. Legislation that allows private homes to be leased out as hotels will blur the line between commercial and residential neighborhoods, and thereby ruin the distinct character of numerous residential areas.

I believe that the growth of short term vacation rentals will also cause the already high cost of living to further increase and exacerbate the shortage of affordable housing, as homeowners and renters will leave their units to rent them out to hotel users.

Now, keep in mind, this was written at a time when our City Council was laboring under the misapprehension that short term vacation rentals were permitted. Thankfully, that myth was put to rest in March 2017 by City Attorney Elliott, who correctly told Mayor Faulconer and Councilmembers that short term vacation rentals are prohibited – not just in residential zones – but in all zones under San Diego’s municipal code.

Clearly this determination didn’t sit well with Mayor Faulconer, who has refused to enforce the law. But – as they say – the law remains the law.

Unfortunately, it appears Councilmember Ward didn’t get the legal memo.  His proposal – co-authored by Councilmembers Alvarez, Kersey and Sherman – will make the problem far worse by allowing short term vacation rentals in every neighborhood citywide.

Ward says in his commentary that “vacation rentals have been around for decades” as his justification for gutting the zoning laws.

Yes, Chris, they’ve been around for decades, but this is a dim point for obvious reasons.  There were relatively few short term vacation rentals before rental broker Airbnb’s website was rolled out in 2008. Between 2007 and today, the number of San Diego short term vacation rentals has mushroomed from an estimated 750 to over 14,000.

Since the launch of Airbnb, short term vacation rentals have exploded in cities around the world. And San Diego has been hit particularly hard. San Diego is now Airbnb’s fourth most profitable market in the country. Due – in large part – to San Diego elected officials’ misinterpretation of our zoning laws and – since March – Mayor Faulconer’s refusal to enforce the law.

Like so many times in the past, we – San Diegans – are now forced to deal with – and pay for – a mess created by our elected officials. And by his proposal, Chris Ward and his colleagues intend to compound the problem and make the mess harder to clean up.

Chris Ward says in his commentary, “. . . with the evolving sharing economy, it’s clear these rentals are here to stay.” –  suggesting we have no control over the situation and just have to give in and accept it. Absurd, as well as factually wrong. And we’re not going to just lie here and take it.

Santa Barbara, Carmel, Santa Monica, Huntington Beach, Hermosa Beach, Laguna Beach, Long Beach, Manhattan Beach and Coronado are just some of the California coastal cities that have proactively begun to enforce their zoning laws against the explosion of short term vacation rentals.

All of these cities – along with countless other cities throughout California – found themselves in the same position San Diego finds itself now – residential neighborhoods deluged by short term vacation rentals.

And like in San Diego, short term vacation rentals were always prohibited in these California cities. Why? Because, just like San Diego, the use, “short term vacation rental” isn’t listed in their municipal code and/or because their codes prohibit transient uses in residential zones.

In other words, San Diego’s zoning laws are, for all intents and purposes, identical to the zoning codes in other California cities. And officials in these cities have successfully stepped in and enforced their zoning laws. This isn’t rocket science, folks.  Enforcement of existing zoning laws is happening everywhere to stop short term vacation rentals and the havoc they wreak on communities – from depleting housing stock to the destruction of our neighborhoods.

The elected officials in these cities I just listed, from Santa Barbara to Coronado, made the smart policy decisions. Their decisions were guided by concerns about housing, climate, transportation, infrastructure and quality of life. The elected officials in these cities decided to proactively enforce their existing zoning laws for the benefit of the vast majority of their residents, rather than give in to Airbnb lobbyists and a small number of STVR operators.

The officials in these cities did not kowtow to Airbnb and its money. These city officials did not flinch when Airbnb threatened to sue. These city officials acted in the best interest of their constituents.

And these city officials have been successful in enforcing the prohibition – just pick up the phone and ask them, Chris Ward. I suggest you start with the City Manager in Coronado and then maybe the Director of Code Enforcement in Santa Monica. How about the City Attorney in Santa Barbara. I’ve spoken to them all – and more. All are successfully – and proactively – enforcing their city’s “ban”.

So let’s be honest, shall we, Councilmember Ward.  Legitimate zoning laws (which you are calling “outright bans” and “severe limitations”) don’t “further an underground economy that is already present”. That’s just more Airbnb propaganda. It’s like saying, “Those bank robbers have gotten away with robbing so many banks, we should legalize bank robbing.”

So it strikes me that, although Councilmembers Ward, Alvarez, Kersey and Sherman didn’t get City Attorney Elliott’s memo, they clearly received Airbnb’s. They know what Airbnb wants – and intend to deliver, unless we stop them.

John Thickstun is a life-long San Diegan and has been a lawyer for over 30 years.



{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

John Thickstun October 3, 2017 at 1:43 pm

The commentary referred to in the article was published in the Voice of San Diego on September 22, 2016. Filled with Airbnb talking points, it reads like it was written – or at least edited – by Airbnb propagandists. See for yourself. Here’s the link.


Linda McAndrew October 3, 2017 at 8:31 pm

Chris Wards language in VOSD article sounds all to familiar – I hear Airbnb’s playbook.
Council member Chris Ward claims to care about neighborhoods, homelessness, affordable housing, and the housing crisis, but words are cheap and his actions speak louder than his words. He drafted the most disastrous plan that legalizes short term vacation rentals in residential zones citywide. Chris Wards plan will forever destroy our communities and neighborhoods, and worsen the housing crisis if his plan is adopted.


Val October 4, 2017 at 9:29 pm

oh no!!! Alvarez too? That is shocking and deeply disappointing :(


denise willett friedman October 5, 2017 at 10:55 am

AirBnB is buying votes.
The residents of San Diego are losing – 10,000+ housing units off the market, rents out of control, neighborhoods being destroyed….all so a handful of investors can make more money. Disgraceful.


Deja Correia October 26, 2017 at 9:08 am

I have made three public records requests this week. One for City Attorney Mara Elliot’s opinion on proposed changes and two of the following (one for the parties in the text below and the same request of the California Coastal Commission):

“[A]ll written communication (email, US Mail, etc.) between Mayor Kevin Faulconer, all City of San Diego City Council Members, City Attorney Mara Elliott and short-term vacation rental companies such as Airbnb, Vacation Rental By Owner, Homestay, etc., including any and all agents, attorneys, and lobbyists, etc. representing such entities from January 1, 2016, through today, October 23, 2017.”

If our Mayor and City Council respond to this public records request as they are supposed to, we will know shortly whether they have been working with these organizations.

Here is the link to the outstanding request:

And perhaps everyone is waiting for this to resolve. If our code disallows STVRs now, is City Council actually opening San Diego up to lawsuits by trying to add it? Has the Mayor done the same by not allowing enforcement of our code? It appears it is residential-use and homeowner occupants versus the Coastal Commission:

Here is the link to City Attorney Mara Elliott’s Report in response to the proposed changes to our Municipal Code:


John Thickstun November 4, 2017 at 8:16 am

Deja, would you contact me at I’d like to talk to you about the requests you’ve made.


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