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Editorial: Vacation rental ordinance seems to be working

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Psst! Illegal vacation rental scofflaws… those online advertisements for your “cozy wine country hideaway” may not be the goldmine you thought they were.

That was one takeaway from Sonoma City Prosecutor Bob Smith’s Nov. 18 report to the City Council on enforcement of the city’s vacation rental ordinance.

Another is that, despite constant gripes from residents and city officials that many city regulations are simply not being enforced, the vacation rental ordinance – passed in 2017, limiting vacation rentals within the city to 40 licensed addresses – appears to be working.

In fact, the City of Sonoma has assessed nearly $63,000 in taxes and fees owed by illegal vacation rentals so far this year, according to a report released by code-enforcement officials this week.

The report, one of two updates of the city vacation rental ordinance expected to come annually before the Sonoma City Council, showed city code enforcement officers had identified 23 illegal vacation rental violations since January 2019. According to city attorney Bob Smith, the fees owed to the city from the vacation rental outlaws – including back taxes, interest, late-payment penalties and fraud – total $62,850. Of that, the city has collected $19,673. And Smith expects full payment on the balance in due time, as most who dip their hand in the VRBO cookie jar tend to pay their back-taxes when caught.

“One guy said, ‘I told my wife this was a bad idea. How much do I owe you? I want to pay it right now,’” Smith told the council.

The enforcement process, as detailed by Smith, requires a bit of simple sleuthing, but city officials tend to be about 95 percent certain the code is being flaunted when they contact a violator.

It goes like this: The city contracts for $8,000 a year with a company called SVR Helper, which conducts weekly “sweeps” of various short-term vacation rental websites to compile data on the rentals being advertised within the city limits. Once a list is compiled, said Smith, a “human validator” reviews those VRs against the city’s list of 40 legal short-term rentals and hands over the names of suspected “noncompliant violators” to Smith’s department. “Then we take that and start over” with the city’s own investigation, said Smith.

By the time the city prosecutor’s office notifies the property owner of the suspected violation, they’re fairly certain they’ve busted an AirBnB bandit. At that point, if the violators ‘fess up and agree to pay their taxes, they’ll avoid further action.

But if they “misrepresent the activity they’ve engaged in,” said Smith, the city may hold a more formal hearing, subjecting them to additional fines and penalties. “If you tell me, ‘Oh, I just made it available to relatives,’ and I’m (seeing) 74 reviews knowing that reviews at Airbnb at a max are only about 30 percent of the stays there,” Smith gave as an example. “Well,” said Smith, “that’s a large family.”

Of course, paying back taxes is only part of what’s expected when catching code violators; the larger question is: does it curb the illegal vacation rentals?

“For the most part,” said Smith, “it does.” He told the council he’s only had one second-offender – a woman whose husband had died and had been renting out a room for the extra income.

“We were a little bit gentle on her,” upon the first violation, said Smith. “But then she got caught again and weren’t as gentle. I don’t think she’ll do it a third time.”

But such heart-tugging stories of seniors turning to AirBnB to save their houses are rare, stressed Smith.

“Most of these people (hosting illegal vacation rentals) are second-home owners,” Smith said. “Some are making $1,275 a night with two-night minimums.”

The issue of proliferation of vacation rentals was a much-debated issue four years ago; today it seems “so 2015.” And that’s largely because the city and its residents have addressed it in a textbook manner: community members raise the issue, city officials discuss solutions in public meetings; City Council approves regulations; and local authorities enforce the regulations.

Granted, not all code violations are as easy to police. Short-term vacation rentals are beholden to listing their sites on well-known websites; unless a “dark-web AirBnb” arises, the black market for vacation rentals seems almost anathema to the business model.

But, whatever. Sonoma may have found a way to control a community problem.

Thanks Sonoma, and pass the stuffing.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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