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‘Zero complaints’ from Petaluma Airbnb policy

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Three years after Petaluma adopted regulations on short term vacation rentals, amid public outcry that Airbnb-type sites would rip apart the tranquility of charming neighborhoods with raucous tourists arriving at all hours of the night, the city has received no complaints, according to a new city report.

The city council Monday decided to renew the policy, set to expire in December, as the city looked to increase enforcement of unpermitted short term vacation rental hosts.

“I’m happy to report that since the program was enacted, we have received essentially zero complaints related to neighborhood issues or concerns,” Ingrid Alverde, the city’s economic development manager, told the council.

As Airbnb, VRBO and other vacation rental sites gained popularity, cities have struggled to regulate the industry, which some fear could cause municipalities to lose tax revenue, change the character of residential neighborhoods and remove units from a city’s long term housing stock.

Some cities banned short term rentals outright. Others let the industry exist unregulated. Petaluma’s policy, adopted in September 2015, requires vacation rental hosts to obtain a city permit, pay hotel taxes and only allows a unit to be rented for up to 90 days per calendar year.

The program got off to a rocky start, with many hosts either unaware they needed a permit or ignoring the new requirements. In 2017, the city contracted with Host Compliance, a vacation rental site monitoring firm, which identified unpermitted hosts and sent them letters to compel them to comply.

Alverde said the service has increased compliance from 20 permitted rentals to 64 out of 103 listings on vacation rental sites in Petaluma.

Councilwoman Teresa Barrett said that the minimal complaints from neighbors is a sign that the regulations are working well.

“I’m actually glad it has worked as well as it has worked because this room was totally filled when we were taking this issue on,” she said. “It really is nice to know that the people who are doing it and the neighbors of those people have come to an agreement so that it works for at least those parties.”

Barrett added that she wanted to see the number of permitted hosts increase from the current 60 percent compliance. She said the city is missing out on potential revenue with noncompliant hosts.

Alverde said the city has collected $27,000 in permit fees. Vacation rental hosts have paid $125,200 in transit occupancy tax since the start of the program, she said.

Councilman Dave King wondered why it was difficult to track down the hosts that are unregistered.

“It would seem that they would have an address that people are going to at their house,” he said. “A house is usually easy to find.”

Alverde said that the $6,500 contract with Host Compliance gives the city a weekly report on vacation rental hosts in the city. Data about the true owner of 25 percent of the hosts is difficult to find using the current tools, she said. Also, some hosts move their listings around across multiple websites or take down umpermitted listings for a short time after the city discovers them.

“It’s a game of cat and mouse,” Alverde said.

Addressing concerns that hosts may be exceeding the 90-day limit on rentals, Alverde said the city’s current tools don’t allow officials to see how many days per year each property is rented. She said that number is currently self-reported. With an additional $2,000, Host Compliance can track that number, she said.

Councilman Chris Albertson said he still has concerns about taking housing stock off the long term rental market. He voted against the policy when it came up in 2015.

“My concerns continue,” he said. “Taking full houses off our housing market where it’s short as it is, that’s an issue.”

Councilman Mike Healy wanted the contractor to analyze the current short term vacation listings and see which ones could potentially be long term housing stock. Councilman Gabe Kearney suggested surveying permitted hosts to see what they would do with their property if they were not renting it out short term.

“I’d be willing to guess the majority of these folks would have just sold their house,” he said.

Mayor David Glass pointed out that many vacation rental hosts are elderly residents who rent out a spare bedroom and use the extra income to pay for their homes.

“Many people are only able to stay in their homes by being able to rent out that extra bedroom,” he said. “That was the dynamic we are charged with. Somehow I think we predominantly got it right.”

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)