Amid the rise of vacation rentals, such as those marketed online at Airbnb.com, the city of Half Moon Bay is now looking at ways to regulate the units.

On Jan. 28 the Half Moon Bay Planning Commission held a study session to consider ways to potentially monitor the use and availability of short-term rentals. While the city collects transient occupancy tax from short-term rentals, there currently are no zoning ordinances regulating them.

At last estimate, the city had about 45 listed short-term rentals, according to Community Development Director Jill Ekas. But she noted that the number changes during certain peak times of the year, such as summer or during pumpkin festival season. 

About two years ago, the city held a similar public study session to get input from the community, but Ekas said that since then there have been issues with short-term rentals that offer an entire house operating in a residential neighborhood. 

In response, the city conducted a survey of 175 respondents that revealed that generally short-term rentals were seen as desirable when properly regulated. And many people in attendance at the meeting on Tuesday were short-term rental property owners in the city. Some said they offer their rentals as a way to make extra income to afford to live here. 

Maria Portello-Swagel, a teacher at Cunha Intermediate School, said she rents out the bottom of her house on Airbnb.

“I do not think I could afford to live here if we did not have this,” she said. 

Local contractor Tim Pond said he’s hosted about 1,500 guests in his Airbnb rental in the last three years. 

“It provides me with money to send my kids to college and pay my taxes on my house,” he said. 

Pond, who also builds accessory dwelling units, said he does not think there is an issue with short-term rentals in Half Moon Bay. 

But others noted that in some cases short-term rentals would otherwise be available units for people looking to rent.  

“Having too many short-term rentals may decrease our housing and inflate rent costs,” Half Moon Bay resident Margarita Vasquez said. 

There were also concerns from those in attendance about vacation rentals when the owner is not on site to maintain order. 

“We have no issue with Airbnb, but something needs to be done about the absentee investor owner,” resident Brian Wilson said. “… It’s absurd.” 

Wilson referenced a house on his street that is listed as available to host 14 people. He said he can recall instances where guests reportedly left large amounts of trash outside.

“The tenants that come, they do not care about the appearance of the street,” he said. 

All four planning commissioners present at the meeting recognized the balancing act of allowing for rentals, addressing housing availability and preserving the character of neighborhoods. Commissioner Rick Hernandez was absent. 

“With regards to the bad actors, the absent owners, thinking about ways to address that,” Commissioner Sara Polgar said. “… let’s target the problem, rather than go after the outliers.” 

Commissioner Steve Ruddock agreed. He said that since the number of short-term rental units is small, it does not make sense to invest in a lot of legislation policing them. However, he realizes the importance of wanting to hold owners accountable for following city codes, such as complying with the noise and trash ordinances. 

“If there are repeat offenders, I think it is appropriate to bring a heavy hammer on those folks,” he said. 

Some coastal cities in California put caps on the number of days rentals can be listed, but Ekas said the city would have trouble enforcing such a rule. San Mateo County passed a short-term rental ordinance in 2017. It regulates how many people can rent units in unincorporated areas, how many days a year they can be rented and who will be responsible for units while rented. The city is still considering whether a similar ordinance is applicable, but it already has some restrictions on what types of units can be used for short-term rentals. The updated accessory dwelling unit ordinance, for example, prohibits new ADUs from becoming short-term rental units. 

“There are about 10 ADUs grandfathered in, but the intent is new units to be meant for supporting housing needs,” Ekas said. 

Other things the commission is considering include limiting short-term rentals in mobile home parks and in certain zoning districts, such as areas with duplexes and triplexes and whether to require a host to be living on the property of where there is a short-term rental. 

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