Melissa Tarsky, in her vacation rental home, is circulating a petition to get City Hall to ease up on its restrictions of short-term rentals. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITYWIDE — As cloudy days begin to give way to sunshine and temperatures creep toward 70, evidence mounts that Santa Monica is primed to exit its period of winter hibernation and take its place as a summertime tourist destination.

With the good weather surfaces the now-perennial debate regarding residents’ ability to rent out their homes and spare rooms to the thousands of visitors that flock to Santa Monica’s sandy beaches and shopping districts.

The stakes of the debate are higher this year than ever before now that a newly-minted Code Enforcement Division is actively investigating and shutting down vacation rentals and entrepreneurs are laying the groundwork to change the law altogether.

On the one side of the fight is the Santa Monica Municipal Code, which clearly bans the rental of a home or spare room for under 30 days, calling it a “hotel use” which is illegal in areas of Santa Monica zoned as residential.

On the other are homeowners like Melissa Tarsky, who brings in nearly $40,000 a year in extra income by renting her home, as well as guests that prefer renting out homes rather than staying in high-priced hotels.

The two groups are coming together to sign a petition as a rallying cry against the enhanced enforcement, which has shut down almost 40 rentals in the last year alone.

For years, Tarsky and hundreds of other owners like her operated illegally, renting out their homes and rooms for days or weeks at a time with little fear that City Hall’s reactive code enforcement officials would crack down.

They likened it to going 70 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone — technically wrong, but no one cared.

In October 2011 the landscape changed.

Late last year, code enforcement was taken out from under the wing of the Building and Safety Division and made its own entity with a new manager, ex-Marine Joe Trujillo.

Trujillo and his team have been tasked with taking a proactive approach to a number of widely-flouted sections of the Municipal Code, and with summer coming, vacation rentals will be a prime target.

City Hall has already shut down 37 rentals in the last 12 months, Trujillo said, and for the first time his team is finding homes on websites and literally knocking on doors to see if they’ve been illegally rented.

Complaints also come in from neighbors, and even discontented guests that never realized the rentals didn’t fall under the purview of City Hall.

“Not a lot of people realize that’s where a number of the complaints come from,” Trujillo said.

If the homeowner responds to a simple warning, no citation will be required, but if the activity persists, the City Attorney’s Office gets involved, Trujillo said.

“There’s no reason for us to not continue in that vein, to actively seek out violations and for a number of reasons, like the effects it has on the local community, legitimate businesses, or neighborhoods,” Trujillo said.

Those opposed to vacation rentals say that they create a transitory population of people who disrupt the neighborhood, take up precious street parking and have little regard for the neighbors.

They also deprive City Hall of a 14 percent tax levied on hotel guests.

Patricia Godon-Tann of the Borderline Neighborhood near Venice lived next to a vacation rental for years before the home finally sold to a stable family.

“Sometimes it was a big party. They would rent these houses to have reunions and parties,” Godon-Tann said. “Actually, we had some women who decided they were going to walk around naked the whole time. The neighbors across the street were having a field day.”

She and her husband would report the activity, forwarding on pictures of license plates, copies of websites showing the advertisements and other proof of the illegal activity.

Nothing ever came of it, which was so frustrating that they eventually gave up, she said.

“There was no way to stop it. They did nothing to stop it,” she said.

Sentiment isn’t always in the neighbors’ favor.

Santa Monican Eileen Funke had family stay at Tarsky’s cottage. They had no idea it was an issue, and upon discovering the regulations, felt it was heavy-handed, Funke said.

If the lost taxes were the issue, that was one thing, but pointing to the shifty nature of people renting the houses was quite another.

“Most of the people who are going to come in and rent a home in a community like Santa Monica are established,” she said. “First of all, it’s not cheap. Chances are that they’re coming through a network that already exists there.”

And, short-term rental or long term, there will always be house parties.

“Of course you don’t want that sort of thing happening all the time, but we live in an urban environment, we live among people,” Funke said.

Tarsky and others like her hope that if they can show a groundswell of support, it will help move the mountain of public opinion that has so far stood against vacation rental owners.

“I’m hopeful that if we can get to the point where we can have a conversation, we can work something out,” Tarsky said. “It could be a win for everybody.”

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