Sonoma imposes moratorium on new vacation rentals

The Sonoma City Council responded to concerns that Airbnb and other vacation rentals are eroding housing for families and putting property values out of reach.|

The Sonoma City Council on Monday moved to impose a moratorium on new vacation rentals, due to concerns they are eroding housing for families and putting property values out of reach.

Councilmembers unanimously agreed to halt the proliferation of the short-term rentals until they can better assess how to deal with them in the long run.

“I hear stories of families not being able to live in Sonoma,” said Councilman David Cook, echoing the concerns of colleagues that vacation rentals are eroding housing stock and destabilizing neighborhoods.

“We are in a housing crisis, some say housing emergency. I probably agree with that,” he said.

“When you talk about the welfare of the community it is about stability that actually exists,” said Mayor Laurie Gallian, who said the vacation rentals are leading to “disjointed” neighborhoods.

Short-term vacation rentals have mushroomed in recent years with the advent of websites like Airbnb and Vacation Rental By Owner. The sites provide an alternative to hotel stays for tourists while providing extra income for property owners.

But some cities intent on preserving housing stock and maintaining neighborhood integrity, such as Healdsburg and Calistoga, have gone so far as to forbid short-term rentals, generally defined as rental of a residence or room for less than 30 days.

On Monday, Sonoma City Council members heard both from people worried that vacation rentals are contributing to escalating housing prices and those who say the rentals provide a way for homeowners to make their mortgage payment.

“It’s an economic lifeline to keep our housing affordable,” said Charles Metz, a Santa Rosa man who rents out several rooms in his house and is also a member of Sonoma County Coalition of Hosts.

He said an elderly Sonoma woman who found a way to make her house payments by renting out an extra room for $75 a night was given a cease and desist order by the city and now has to sell her home.

But Jim Bohar, a vacation rental critic, said some people have multiple short-term rentals. One in his neighborhood rents for $400 a night. He estimated it is occupied 80 percent of the time and brings in more than $9,700 in rent per month.

“That drives up the costs of housing and takes rental housing off the market,” he said.

Conflicts also can arise between long-term residents and short-term guests who can arrive in large, sometimes noisy groups and can increase vehicle traffic.

“Often there are noise complaints. People come in to have a good time. Maybe they’re here for a wedding,” Planning Director David Goodison said of the typical problems that arise. “They’re here to enjoy themselves. Very regularly that can lead to complaints about nighttime noise.”

He said every housing unit is important in this market, where rents and home prices are high and it’s difficult for people to find a place to live.

There are currently ?55 recognized legal vacation rentals in Sonoma, which represent roughly ?1 percent of the city’s ?5,645 residences.

The problem has been a long time coming. In 1999, the city became concerned that a proliferation of vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods was creating conflicts with long-term residences.

As a result, new vacation rentals were prohibited in residential zones, other than as an “adaptive reuse” of a historic structure, subject to a use permit review.

But the city agreed to allow vacation rentals in some commercial and mixed-use zones subject to use permits.

With the advent of Airbnb and similar online booking services, Sonoma officials said, the city experienced a proliferation of illegal short-term rentals. The city in 2014 hired a consulting firm that identified 32 unauthorized vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfast inns and decided there were too many for planning staff to investigate.

That led to a decision earlier this year to establish a part-time code enforcement position, which city officials said was successful in identifying and resolving illegal vacation rentals.

Over the past three years, the Planning Commission has approved nine applications involving the conversions of commercial spaces to vacation rentals.

Recently, two tenants’ spaces within Sonoma Court Shops were approved for conversion to vacation rental use. But they were unusual in that they already had uses approved for office, apartment and live-work.

The City Council deadlocked 2-2 last month on whether to overturn the Planning Commission decision, so the vacation rental conversion was upheld.

As a result of Monday’s action, city staff will bring back a resolution to the council to take a formal vote to enact an extended moratorium on new vacation rentals and possibly eliminate new ones altogether in the future.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.