Sharp rise in Sonoma County vacation rentals offers mix of benefits and conflicts
Just as it has for untold years, the arrival of the holiday season brings family visitors and tourists into Sonoma County by the thousands for reunions in noisy living rooms on neighborhood blocks and getaways amid the vineyards and on the scenic coast.
Many of those who aren't put up in a spare bedroom or booked into a hotel will stay in a vacation rental, and it might be next door.
The number of people doing just that, paying for short-term stays in residential properties owned by others and reserved online through outlets such as Airbnb, has exploded in recent years, providing an economic shot in the arm worth millions of dollars for rental owners and local governments.
But the sharp growth of vacation rentals also has led to an array of problems, including nuisances for neighbors and trouble for cities and counties in laying down the law and collecting the required bed taxes.
Affordable housing is in short supply these days in Sonoma County, so the most pressing concern is that vacation rentals not overwhelm neighborhoods and displace units that might otherwise be occupied by residents.
That's already happening in locales popular with tourists, officials and housing advocates say.
The proliferation of short-stay rentals in Sonoma Valley led county supervisors earlier this year to pass “exclusion zones” to prohibit any new rentals in Kenwood, Glen Ellen, Agua Caliente and Boyes Springs, among other places.
“Our housing stock was evaporating by the minute in The Springs, and I needed to put a stop on real estate speculation and little mini-hotels that were picking up all of our housing stock,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district includes Sonoma Valley.
In their decision, supervisors also cited the need to preserve residential character, and in some cases problems with poor roads, parking scarcity and high fire danger.
Vacation rentals, alternately praised and reviled, present a dilemma for governments seeking to allow visitors a popular alternative to hotel stays but also rein in unpermitted units and crack down on scofflaws who don't pay lodging taxes.
Elsewhere, some cities have limited the total number of days per year property owners can offer their homes as vacation rentals. San Francisco reduced that limit from 90 days to 60.
Other communities, like Healdsburg, don't allow them at all in residential areas, mainly because of concern they take away scarce housing and can turn neighborhoods into hotel-like districts.
Exclusion zones in county
Sonoma County's newly created exclusion zones affect more than 6,300 parcels in unincorporated areas that are no longer eligible for use as vacation rentals.
They also include Fitch Mountain just outside Healdsburg, the Foothills in northeast Santa Rosa, and Palomino Lakes east of Cloverdale.
For all their controversy, vacation rentals are here to stay and have mushroomed with the popularity of web hosting sites such as VRBO and Airbnb, in which properties are advertised and can be rented directly from the owner, or a company representing the owner.
In most cases they include rental of the entire house, or maybe just a room with the host present.
It's clearly a worldwide phenomenon, as illustrated by Airbnb's reach. The company offers its service in more than 34,000 cities in 191 countries.
Vacation rentals are popular because they can provide a lower-cost alternative to hotels and sometimes a different cultural experience, or a new part of town to stay in.
Daniel Sanchez, government affairs director for the North Bay Association of Realtors, said he has used them all over the world, from Washington, D.C., to Istanbul, Seoul, Lake Tahoe, Mendocino and Lake counties.
“In Istanbul, I got to stay in a neighborhood that doesn't have many hotels and got a much more local feel for my trip,” he said, adding that he prefers hosted rentals when he travels.
It's a great resource if you don't know the area, he said, and “it's a way to meet people in a new city that I'm visiting.”
For many hosts, the extra money from renting to guests helps them afford their homes.
Though his mortgage is paid off, Charles Metz has been using Airbnb for several years to rent three rooms in his four-bedroom Santa Rosa house. He shares the Montecito Road home with an ever-changing parade of vacationing guests who might hail from as far away as Germany, South Korea, China, Turkey, New Zealand or Dubai.
“I totally enjoy it, and my guests seem to enjoy it,” he said. And it helps pay the bills.
But along with the positives, there are also downsides.
County officials say if vacation rentals multiply too much, it can displace long-term residents, impacting school attendance figures and even voter precinct numbers.