Two years after passing one of the most restrictive vacation rental ordinances in the nation in order to curb neighborhood AirBnbs, the City finds itself defending the ordinance on two legal fronts.
Last week, a District Court judge allowed an 82-year-old senior citizen to continue with her lawsuit against Santa Monica’s restrictive vacation rental ordinance based on an alleged violation of the Coastal Act. Meanwhile, rental giant AirBnb has also challenged the ordinance based on Federal Laws.
Arlene Rosenblatt and her husband contend they should be able to list their home on a website like AirBnb while they are traveling out of town. Rosenblatt wrote in a letter to the editor in the Daily Press in 2015 that she and her husband relied on the income from vacationers to supplement their social security checks.
Santa Monica’s ordinance prohibits listing a home as a vacation rental unless the homeowner is present. The ordinance aims to keep Airbnb hosts from taking away from the City’s already tight supply of housing. In January, the City Council updated the ordinance to also require home shares list their information on a public registry.
Judge Otis Wright struck down Rosenblatt’s claims based on the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, but allowed it to move forward on the alleged violation of the Coastal Act. The Act gives the California Coastal Commission the authority to approve development projects within 1,000 yards of the beach, unless the City has a Local Coastal Program (LCP). The City is in the midst of filing an LCP.
Whether the lawsuit has any merit depends on whom you ask.
“The Coastal Act says that before implementing any ordinance on properties in the coastal zone, the City has to obtain permission from the Coastal Commission,” Rosenblatt’s attorney Jordan Esensten said in a phone interview.
“We believe that the ordinance prohibiting vacation rentals does not maximize access to the coast and that conflicts with one of the core goals of the Coastal Act.”
While Esensten believes the lawsuit will be wrapped up quickly, the ruling left Santa Monica’s deputy city attorney scratching his head and calling the argument “bizarre.”
“The statue is fairly clear, it involves nails and boards,” Michael Cobden said, claiming the Coastal Act restricts developments, not ordinances. “Developments are physical things … buildings.”
However, in December, the Chair of the Coastal Commission wrote a letter to city development directors, claiming that the Commission does indeed have jurisdiction over short-term rental bans since they represent “a change in the intensity of use and of access to the shoreline, and thus constitutes development to which the Coastal Act and LCPs must apply,” Steve Kinsey said.
The letter does allow that some restrictions on short-term rentals may be appropriate if the proliferations of vacation rentals hurt community character and the city has a good stock of hotel options.
It’s not clear how Santa Monica’s ordinance squares with those guidelines. However, it is apparent from Kinsey’s letter that the Commission expects to have a say in City ordinances.
“We look forward to working with you and your community to regulate vacation rentals,” Kinsey said.
The District Court ruling comes on the heels of a City victory over vacation rentals operating in violation of the law. A separate found Globe Homes, Llc been operating illegally in Santa Monica, affirming 35 out of 36 charge against the rental broker. The City hailed the ruling as a sign its ordinance could withstand the pushback from large companies.