Supervisors should reinstate vacation rental moratorium
By Ed Davis, Glen Ellen
At the Jan. 23 meeting of our Board of Supervisors, the board unfortunately voted to end the moratorium they so wisely instituted on new VRBOs (short-term vacation rentals) right after the fires. In doing so, they removed the one certain protection we had against VRBO speculators eager to profit from our recent disaster, while also unintentionally creating a huge incentive for those very speculators to move as quickly as possible, or risk losing their chance.
Here’s what happened. The board understands that their current VRBO regulations need work, particularly in light of the recent fires that cost us over 5,000 homes for families who actually want to live here. The board expressed some promising ideas about how to do this, and seems open to others. That’s good. But by both ending the moratorium, and signaling that rule changes are coming, they sent a clear message to VRBO speculators; act NOW! Buy up burned-out properties or existing homes (many probably already have), and get them licensed as VRBOs immediately, before things change.
Whether or not you like short-term rentals as a concept, whether or not you would welcome them in your neighborhood – or would like to have one next door – we can certainly all agree that every home converted to a VRBO is one less home for families. Having just lost over 5,000 homes, don’t we owe it to ourselves as a community to hit the “Pause Button” on creating new ones until the smoke actually clears?
Do we need more family homes right now? Yes, desperately.
Do we really need more VRBOs… right now?
There is an opportunity here for the board to do a very good thing. Bring back the moratorium as an action item at the Feb. 6 meeting, and extend it long enough to give county staff ample time to evaluate and implement suggestions BEFORE reopening the VRBO application process.
VRBOs can make a lot of money, which is why outside investors are flocking to them. They were already spreading like wildfire before the real fire hit, and many neighborhoods had already started to strongly resist. Prior to Oct. 9, the actions of cities like Sonoma and Healdsburg, and the county’s limited exclusion zones, had provided some protection, but that only put more VRBO pressure on those areas where they are still allowed.
Then everything caught fire. Now a burned-out homeowner in one of those vulnerable zones faces a hard choice. Do they rebuild as a home, and endure all that comes with that process? Or do they take the insurance money, and sell to a VRBO speculator who has no connection to the neighborhood at all?
Reinstating the moratorium puts that whole process on hold, giving the county a chance to protect those remaining target areas that are now so subject to exploitation.
The ideas expressed by board members on Tuesday to provide that protection were very good.
• Make the burn areas exclusion zones for five years.
• Carefully reevaluate how the initial exclusion zones were drawn, to see how they might be logically modified.
• Look to “Hosted” VRBOs as a possible way forward, so a responsible party will be on site if the “party” gets out of hand.
• Look at the current $10,000 dollar cost for a neighborhood to request becoming an exclusion zone. Neighbors should not be paying for the right to keep their neighborhood a neighborhood, nor should the county. That cost should go to the VRBO speculator.
Reinstituting the moratorium, before a flood of new VRBO applications pour in, will go a very long way toward reassuring those whose neighborhoods have already been gutted by VRBOs, and those who fear that their neighborhoods are about to be gutted, that the board has their backs.
This board’s intentions are good, but they took an unfortunate misstep in ending the moratorium. Please join me in encouraging James Gore (email@example.com), the Board Chairman, to agendize this item for their Feb. 6 meeting, so that this essential protection for our neighborhoods and burned-out areas can be put back into place until such time as the board can update their existing VRBO regulations to reflect the new reality in Sonoma County.
Ed Davis is a longtime Glen Ellen resident who, after the fires, created a Facebook page that enabled fire victims to connect with property owners who had available housing. These efforts enabled over 50 families who lost their homes to find housing.
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