The ads are all over the Internet: Charming, private cottages, perfect for a weekend getaway, minutes to restaurants, shopping, hiking and local wineries. They promise an idyllic taste of the wine country, a carefree Sonoma Valley weekend (or week, or longer). But while many of these vacation rentals deliver on what they promise, more than half of them are in violation of City of Sonoma or Sonoma County ordinances on vacation rentals, according to informed realtors and officials.
Tracking unpermitted vacation rentals is a task that 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin has been focusing on of late, in response to rising complains from her constituents. “It should not be OK that we have renters coming in, renting a house for party purposes, and having wild parties in the backyard that disturbs the serenity and slumber of people in the surrounding neighborhood,” she said.
And according to Matt Sevenau, “Vacation rentals are very hard to track.” Sevenau, a realtor for Sonoma’s Pacific Union office, added, “My guess is no more than a third are permitted.” His colleague at the vacation rental agency he co-founded in 2009, Sonoma Valley Escapes, is Heather Hanlon. Using popular online services, such as Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) and AirBnB, she calculated that there are as many as 3,000 such units available in Sonoma, Glen Ellen and Kenwood, though there is the possibility of overlapping listings.
But according to the county Permit & Resource Management Department (PRMD), there have been only 775 user permits for vacation rentals issued since 2011, when they began to be required. The City of Sonoma reports only 50 such permits on 35 properties. Not only are the other listed properties illegal, they are dodging payment of the required 9 percent Transient Occupancy Taxes (TOT) that other lodgings, such as hotels and resorts, must impose on their guests. “It would be nice to level the playing field and ensure that all vacation rentals are in compliance with rules and regulations that keep Sonoma safe and quaint,” said Hanlon.
Vacation rentals are defined as a dwelling unit or guesthouse rented for less than 30 days; a bed and breakfast is a single-family dwelling, with an owner in residence, with up to 10 guest rooms. Both are subject to regulation, but the evidence is strong that while most B and Bs go through the permitting process, many vacation rentals are still under the radar.
The issue is not a new one in Sonoma County, and it became newsworthy early in 2010 when a deck collapsed from the weight of a large crowd of young revelers at a house in Guerneville, sending at least one person to the hospital and crushing a Lincoln Town Car parked beneath it. At that time, there were estimated to be 1,000 vacation rentals in the county, a number that has surely increased in the nearly five years since.
Nor is the issue confined to Sonoma. The San Francisco Chronicle last year reported almost 5,000 rentals available through Airbnb, and the city attorney there has taken landlords to court for illegally converting residential buildings to pricey tourist hotels and evicting longtime tenants. Even in Europe, the freewheeling online vacation rental market has been curtailed by regulation in some cities, including Berlin and Paris.