Sebastopol hires firm to catch unregistered vacation rentals
At its meeting on Aug. 6, the Sebastopol City Council voted unanimously to declare a 45-day moratorium on new non-hosted vacation rentals that would be rented more than 30 days a year.
The vote was 4-0, with Mayor Hinton recusing herself. The council said the moratorium would give the city time to craft a more permanent ordinance.
“What we’re talking about here is an initial pause for the city to be able to take a look at this and craft a permanent regulation that is well considered,” said Vice Mayor Patrick Slayter. “It allows us time to study the item.”
The council’s discussion kicked off with a review by city planning director Kari Svanstrom of the existing regulations on vacation rentals, which were last revised in fall 2018.
The city recognizes two kinds of vacation rentals: hosted and non-hosted. A hosted rental is when the host lives in the home and is present during the rental. In a non-hosted rental, the owner doesn’t live on site, and the home is usually an investment property instead of a primary residence. (This isn’t always the case, though; sometimes homeowners will temporarily vacate their primary residence while they rent out their home as a non-hosted rental.)
The city of Sebastopol divides non-hosted vacation rentals into two types: those rented more than 30 days a year and those rented for less than 30 days a year.
The city of Sebastopol requires all vacation rentals to register with the city and pay a transient occupancy tax of 12% annually. Hosted vacation rentals and unhosted vacation rentals that are rented out less than 30 days a year require a simple administrative permit.
Non-hosted vacation rentals that are rented out more than 30 days a year require a conditional use permit, a more complicated process that requires approval by both the planning commission and the city council.
City staff estimates that there are between 40 to 48 short-term vacation rentals in Sebastopol — but only 24 have permits from the city. It’s sometimes difficult to tell from looking at the Airbnb and VRBO websites whether a rental listed for Sebastopol is within the city limits or in the surrounding countryside. Of the rentals with permits, 80% are being listed as whole house rentals.
Thinking about new rules
In May, an applicant who wanted to rent out a house on Johnson Street was approved by the planning commission, but turned down by the city council, which, feeling protective of Sebastopol’s limited housing stock, decided to take another look at its vacation rental policies.
The Aug. 6 council meeting featured two separate public hearings — one on the 45-day moratorium and one seeking input on the new vacation rental policy.
After gathering input from the public, the council punted the drafting of the new policy to the Sebastopol Planning Commission, which discussed a new vacation rental policy at its meeting on Aug. 13.
Svanstrom said the staff had several recommendations for the planning commission and the city council to consider.
She suggested that non-hosted rentals whose owners had already registered with the city should be grandfathered in.
“If ownership changes, that use permit would expire, and the new owners would be subject to the new rules,” she said.
She also suggested that all other non-hosted rentals not currently registered with the city would be treated as new rentals and would be subject to the moratorium.
Svanstrom revealed that the city had hired a national firm called Host Compliance, which checks to see whether vacation rentals are in compliance with their local jurisdictions’ rules.
According to Svanstrom, “All the hosted rentals would be welcome to come in, get a business license, pay their TOT (transient occupancy tax) and go on as legal rentals. The non-hosted rentals, who haven’t already registered with the city would be subject to the moratorium, and they would receive a notice to cease operations.”
She recommended that non-registered, non-hosted vacation rentals be given 30 to 40 days to cease operations, in part to accommodate guests who had already booked an upcoming stay.
“Beyond that,” she said, “we think visitors will be able to book other accommodations.”
For and against
Several people spoke during the public meetings, including some who operated hosted or non-hosted vacation rentals. One single mother of three said renting out her home was the only thing that allowed her to keep it and stay at home with her children, one of whom was severely disabled and required full-time care.
Lauren Ryan, who uses her primary residence as a non-hosted rental for over 30 days a year, reminded the council that visitors add to the economic vitality of the town and that, right now, the town has limited resources to accommodate them.
“There are only two hotels in the city of Sebastopol, and there are no bed and breakfasts,” Ryan said. “People are coming here as tourists: they’re going to the Barlow, they’re going to all our local wineries, they’re going to our restaurants.”
Randy Knight, who operates 5StarVR.com in Sebastopol, suggested that the council increase the number of days that people could do a non-hosted rental from 30 days to 90 to 120 days.
“It gives people more options,” he said.
Jan Peterson from Johnson Street said, “I’m completely in favor of hosted Airbnb rentals. I think some people really need to rent out a cottage or a room at their own home in order to make ends meet. But I’m worried about non-hosted Airbnbs — which is really an empty house in a neighborhood that’s rented to tourists and has strangers moving in and out unsupervised all of the time.”
Both Sunny Galbraith and Marsha Sue Lustig spoke in favor of the moratorium.
“We know we have a housing crisis, and this is something easy you can do,” said Lustig, who said she’d like the council to take action even against hosted vacation rentals.
Slayter promised the speakers that their suggestions would be passed on to the planning commission for its consideration.
“We’re not trying to be a heavy hand,” he said. “We’re trying to craft something that will work for as many people as it can.”