City officials will soon begin cracking down on most vacation listings that are available for rent on sites like Airbnb and VRBO.

On Tuesday night, City Council unanimously approved an ordinance that reiterates the fact that vacation rentals are already illegal in the city. As a result, council members agreed to hire three new staff members to enforce that law.

Additionally, they agreed to allow home-sharing — the rental of a space for less than 30 days while at least one of the primary residents lives on-site throughout the stay.

These home-sharers would have to register with City Hall, pay a business license and transient occupancy tax, and follow rent control laws.

City officials estimate that there are currently 1,700 short-term rentals in the city and that most are operating illegally for one reason or another. Until now, council’s taken a low-priority approach to enforcement of local laws when it comes to these short-term rentals; despite such a high number of apparently illegal operations, only 10 citations were issued between July and February.

Code enforcement officials have said that the process of cracking down on the short-term rentals is trying on the already overworked enforcement department.

The three new full-time positions would cost taxpayers $410,029 next fiscal year and $266,898 in the following years.

Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights, the city’s largest political party, teaming up with the hospitality union Unite Here Local 11, have been working toward this ordinance for months. They gathered on the steps of City Hall prior to the meeting and many members of both groups spoke in favor of the regulations during the public input portion of the meeting.

Members of the community who host on sites like Airbnb spoke in opposition to the ordinance, claiming that they need the additional income to get by in Santa Monica, where the rents are expensive.

One man told council that he has to rent out his second bedroom to afford to live in Santa Monica. Mayor Kevin McKeown explained that he’d still be able to do that under the ordinance as long as he remains on-site. The speaker said he didn’t want to pay the proposed taxes — a statement that drew laughs from the audience in the Council chambers. A subsequent speaker pointed out that if he can’t afford to live here, he should downgrade from a two-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom apartment.

Councilmembers Gleam Davis and Ted Winterer noted out that these short-term rentals have never been legal in the city. Even home-sharing, which will now allow residents to operate businesses in residentially zoned neighborhood, previously fell in a legal gray area.

“It’s also important to remember that it’s not legal to do the short-term rentals now,” Davis said. “We’re not really changing that much. We’re not changing something that’s currently legal and making it illegal. Really what we’re doing is acknowledging that we don’t want it to go on but trying to actually — I think it was Councilmember Winterer who pointed it out — liberalize the rules so that people who do what is defined as home-sharing can do that.”

Currently, most of the offerings on Airbnb are for full-unit rentals, meaning the host is not present. These are the rentals that council has directed city officials to crack down on.

Mayor Pro Tempore Tony Vazquez lauded the general support that the ordinance received from typically divisive groups.

“I think it was refreshing to see both — I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it actually — the landlords and our SMRR folks come up and support a staff recommendation, which is telling,” he said.

The ordinance will go into effect 30 days from its second reading, which should occur next month.

Councilmember Pam O’Connor asked that city officials keep in mind families who booked trips to Santa Monica prior to the ordinance’s existence.

She also took issue with community members who blame the platforms.

“I think what was really sad was attacks on groups like Airbnb,” she said. “Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights just starts outright attacking Airbnb. The issue is not necessarily the platform. I mean the sharing platform is here. It’s coming … It’s when there’s abuse in the sharing economy, that’s when we need to be watching.”

dave@www.smdp.com

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