City of Sonoma cracks down on illegal vacation rentals

City officials are cracking down on illegal vacation rental operators.

City Attorney Bob Smith said the city has issued 27 citations recently to owners of properties illegally renting out homes as vacation rentals. Of those, nine went to a hearing on Aug. 23, and 18 will go to a hearing in October.

A vacation rental ordinance passed by the Sonoma City Council on Dec. 4, 2017, prohibited any new vacation rentals in the city limits beyond the 40 legal rentals named on the city’s website. This past spring, the city contracted with an outside company, STR Helper, to take the lead in weeding out vacation rental scofflaws, apparently to some success. In the year prior to hiring the outside company, the city had cited only about a half dozen violators, Smith said. STR Helper bills itself as providing local governments with “software solutions for short term rental licensing and compliance.” The Utah-based company uses sophisticated technology to sweep more than 20 national vacation rental websites such as VRBO and Airbnb to find homes that have not applied for or received approval from the city for short-term rentals.

Of the nine violators whose citations were scheduled to be heard in August, five settled prior to their hearings. The results of the hearing for the remaining four were not yet concluded at press time, but Smith said the likely outcome will be about $60,000 to be paid to the city for unpaid transient occupancy taxes (TOT), fines and fees.

Under the ordinance passed by the city council in 2017 vacation rentals are no longer a conditionally permitted use unless they are an “adaptive reuse of a historic structure.” Permitted vacation rentals approved prior to the ordinance were “grandfathered in,” and are considered legal.

Tracking down and citing owners of the prohibited rentals is largely a quality of life matter, said City Manager Cathy Capriola. The goal is to have folks understand the law and gain greater compliance, she said.

Part of the council’s original intent was to “protect neighborhoods” and ensure that “folks are using our hotels and registered” rental homes, Capriola said.

Another point is that short-term vacation rentals could be converted to long-term home rentals for people in an area that struggles to provide affordable housing, Smith said.

“They are a detriment to the City of Sonoma and the renters’ market,” he said, adding that is unfair to those who are abiding by the law.

Most of the scofflaws have been cooperative, Smith said, some voluntarily providing information on the number of nights rented per month and the rent charged so that the city can calculate what is owed in hotel taxes.

Capriola said she will bring a report to the council this fall about how the ordinance and use of the third-party vendor is working.

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