City puts moratorium on vacation rentals

Let’s just say the City of Sonoma is going to take a vacation from vacation rentals.

That’s the essence of what the Sonoma City Council decided Monday night, when members unanimously approved a moratorium on new vacation-rental applications.

None were more enthusiastic than Councilmember David Cook.

“I got pretty beat up over the Sonoma Court Shops,” said Councilmember David Cook, in reference to his vote last month that essentially allowed two residential units to be converted to vacation rentals. “So I’m very happy to be supporting this moratorium.”

In a time when the “crisis” of diminished housing stock in the city is being further exacerbated by the lucrative allure of property owners using traditionally residential units for short-term stays, all five council members were in unison: it’s time to put vacation rentals on an extended holiday.

The specifics of the council’s consideration were possible updates to the city’s regulation of vacation rentals, which the city development code currently defines as a rental of up to two residential units — with bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms — for a period of less than 30 consecutive days.

Among the council options offered in the staff report were changing VR use permits to “licenses”; eliminating conversions of residential units to short-term rentals; or barring vacation rentals altogether.

The city staff report also said that an interim moratorium on vacation rentals should be enacted if the council found that any new vacation rental allowances would result in a “current and immediate threat to the public health, safety or welfare.”

While there are currently 55 permitted vacation rentals in the city, it is estimated that from 100 to 200 additional VRs operate unpermitted through such home-sharing online sites as AirBnB and VRBO.com.

Some members of that granny unit black market emerged from underground Monday to plead with the council for leniency.

Kathy Harold implored the council not to “lump hosted vacation rentals” — in which the owner resides on site — in with all types of vacation rentals.

Harold said that since her husband died a few years ago, she’s earned income renting a room and bath in her house to one or two guests on a short-term basis. That was until she received a cease-and-desist letter from the city’s code-enforcement officer, summoning her to a hearing about her alleged illegal vacation rental.

Charles Mattson, of Santa Rosa, echoed her lament, saying he’d come before the council to “speak on behalf of people who open their homes” to others. Mattson related the story of an elderly woman, needy for money, who made ends meet by renting her own bedroom for $75 a night — until she received a cease-and-desist order from the City of Sonoma. Mattson said the woman was too scared to come before the council herself because she had operated outside the law.

Those heartfelt tales aside, most of the public commentary on the issue favored a moratorium.

Sonoma resident Jim Bohar said the internet has made it too easy for people to make a living by renting out multiple properties through vacation rental websites.

“This is driving up housing rates and bringing down inventory of long-term rentals,” said Bohar.

Former Sonoma City Councilmember Larry Barnett urged the council to take a broad interpretation of whether vacation rentals pose an “immediate threat to the public health, safety or welfare,” as the staff report suggested, and approve a moratorium.

“In regard to the policing power of the council (to determine) what’s for the health and welfare of the community,” he said, “it’s a generalized view of what’s good for the community or bad for the community.”

In the end, the council didn’t need much convincing. Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti lamented the advent of online companies like AirBnB, Uber and Lyft, which skirt the regulatory oversight of similar old-school businesses like bed and breakfasts and taxi services.

“Nobody goes by the rules,” said Agrimonti. “We need to catch up with technology.”

Councilmember Rachel Hundley described herself as “fiercely concerned” about the balance between vacation rentals and housing stock, saying she opposes differentiating between “hosted” vacation rentals and others.

“I would like to wipe out any possibility of any new vacation rentals,” she said.

In the end the council directed staff to prepare an interim moratorium on applications for vacation rentals to likely come before council on Monday, Oct. 17. The council is expected to consider more permanent changes to the vacation rental ordinance at a later date.

Email Jason at Jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.