CITYWIDE — Bill Dawson found the keys — in an envelope between the screen door and the front door — and let himself into the Airbnb unit he’d rented.
Inside was a welcome letter and list of recommended restaurants, just like a hotel, he thought.
A note from the host said he should call if he had any problems. Dawson did have a problem, so he called.
“I’m your landlord,” he said when the host picked up. “I’m the one who signed your lease agreement.”
“It was dead silence,” Dawson said. “And then she started to deny it and I said, ‘look, I just rented your unit. I’ve got your house rules.’ And then she confessed everything.”
The tenant was paying Dawson’s property management company, Sullivan-Dituri, a rent-controlled $1,200 per month for a studio on Third Street just off of Hollister Avenue and then renting it for a $100 a night nearly every night of the month on the short-term rental website Airbnb.
Since February, when Dawson first became aware that some of his tenants were sub-leasing on Airbnb, he and his staff have been checking the website weekly. They’ve caught seven other tenants listing their spaces illegally. Once confronted, they all took their listings down immediately without intervention from the City Attorney’s Office.
“I’m kind of using that as the hammer,” Dawson said. “If you don’t cooperate I’m going to turn you in.”
For some landlords this kind of policing is the only way to stop the short-term rentals in their units.
The City Attorney’s Office currently has no short-term rental cases pending. They’ve prosecuted residents in the past, starting in 2010 when they nailed a homeowner for operating his Navy Street house as a hotel without proper permits.
“It’s as if Doubletree just opened up one day without warning,” said Deputy City Attorney Yibin Shen of the legality of short-term rentals. “In no way is that OK.”
There are currently 835 listings in Santa Monica on Airbnb’s website alone. Another 279 Santa Monica properties are listed on the website VRBO.com, or Vacation Rentals By Owner.
There are only 40 businesses with hotel/motel permits in the bay city meaning that many of these sub-leasers are operating illegally in the eyes of City Hall.
Cities like San Francisco, New York City, and even Los Angeles have gone back and forth about the legality of short-term rentals but in Santa Monica, where City Hall considers many of the listings to be a violation of the zoning code, enforcement is the major challenge.
The City Attorney’s Office only prosecutes cases that are referred to them, Shen said, so they’re reliant on Code Compliance to find cases.
Code Compliance Manager Joe Trujillo did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.
Back in November, the Daily Press spoke with Trujillo about the issue and he said that a then-newly-hired office assistant was tasked with scanning the web for illegal short term rentals, allowing Code Compliance to take a proactive approach.
He didn’t elaborate on how many illegal renters had been caught but said they’d proactively managed to stop some. The new zoning code, which is still being crafted, may provide Code Compliance with a greater ability to go after these hosts, he said in November.
The problem, Trujillo said then, was that the sites do not list exact addresses.
“It just gives you a general location of where it’s at,” he said in November. “You have to do some additional investigating to figure out where this address is. Sometimes it’s taking the photo and the officer might say, ‘yeah, I know where this is at.’ It takes a lot of time that people don’t realize.”
Wes Wellman, president of Action Apartment Association, which represents landlords in Santa Monica, said that City Hall is looking the other way on this issue.
When homeowners were posting short-term rentals, he said, City Hall was quick to crack down. But, he said, they are less concerned with tenants in violation.
Wellman said he’d like to see Santa Monica’s City Hall send out a letter to all tenants notifying them that short-term rentals are illegal. In the long run, he said, he wants a uniform policy for dealing with the problem.
“(City Hall) is sort of by default asking us to be undercover police and try to root it out ourselves and enforce the law,” he said. “I don’t think any of us realized that we’d have to serve a quasi-law enforcement responsibility because we own property.”
In some cases it may be impossible to root the violators out. As Trujillo said, the locations are vague. Dawson has had an issue with this as well. In the aforementioned case he had to spend several hours and $100 to prove his tenant’s guilt.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a subpoena last year attempting to secure the addresses of Airbnb users.
Wellman hasn’t performed any stings but he has “become aware” that tenants were sub-renting and put a stop to it.
The zoning code violations are the primary concerns for City Hall.
“You can’t operate a hotel in a residential area,” Trujillo said then. “That’s the way we approach it.”
Dawson points out that while zoning is important (and that, in his case, all of the hosts are violating their lease agreements) these rentals also violate rent control.
Two years ago, Dawson started renting out a two-bedroom apartment at $1,850 per month. The tenant, he learned recently, had been renting the space at $250 a night.
“Even if he rented it for 20 nights a month that’s $5,000,” Dawson said.
Dawson is concerned about bed bugs, which can cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 per unit to get rid of. He’s concerned about the safety of his tenants. He’s also concerned about his legal obligation to maintain peace and quiet in the buildings.
Dawson first learned that short-term rentals were an issue when he heard from Denny Zane, a founding member of the city’s largest political party Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, that a unit near Zane’s apartment was always filled with noisy strangers who were “hoopin’ and hollerin’.”
In one case Zane overheard a loud group of men planning to hire a stripper. To Zane’s knowledge the stripper never materialized but the noise continued through the night.
Aside from the noise, Zane is concerned with the impact short-term rentals have on the housing stock.
“There’s a housing shortage for people to live here,” he said. “These apartments are regulated under the rent control system because the conditions of the marketplace were creating great uncertainty for existing residents and future residents. This kind of practice reduces the housing supply.”
The Airbnb host has since vacated the apartment in his neighborhood and in her place is a “bon fide neighbor,” Zane said.
“It’s a much more comfortable environment,” he said.