Opinion: Airbnb’s War on Truth Won’t Kill Bry’s Vacation Rentals Compromise

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Barbara Bry. Photo by Chris Stone

By Matt Valenti

Truth with a capital “T” takes a beating in San Diego, especially when lies with a capital “L” fly into town on the wings of corporate cash.

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The latest example is a referendum backed by billion-dollar behemoths Airbnb and HomeAway, aiming to destroy a hard-fought compromise recently passed by the City Council. The widely praised ordinance on short-term vacation rentals, championed by council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry, came after years of efforts to reach a consensus.

The truth is that Bry’s ordinance opens the door for Airbnb and other vacation rental operators to come out of the black market. San Diego actually legalized short-term vacation rentals for the first time.

The lie pushed by backers of the referendum is that the council “banned Airbnb,” and homeowners who need a little help paying their mortgage won’t be able to rent a spare bedroom on Airbnb.

Yet thanks to Bry’s ordinance, they’ll be able to do just that—and legally. After the ordinance goes into effect they can offer their spare room as a vacation rental all year long, and their whole house for up to six months.

This means San Diego’s homeowners—from Mission Beach to San Carlos, and La Jolla to San Ysidro—will now be able to legally put that spare bedroom up on Airbnb, and rent out their entire home while they’re away on vacation themselves.

Before Bry’s ordinance, they were violating the zoning code and could have been fined tens of thousands of dollars for each violation. After, they’re fully legal.

Matt Valenti

That’s hardly “banning Airbnb,” is it?

Widgets Magazine

In fact, Bry’s compromise ordinance went much further in legalizing vacation rentals than community groups like Save San Diego Neighborhoods (of which I’m a board member) advocated. Our position has always been that the City should enforce the existing code which forbids vacation rentals in residential zones.

Nevertheless, rather than celebrate their legalization, the industry sent paid signature gatherers out in full force, telling people to “sign to save Airbnb”—as if Airbnb is somehow struggling.

You know who’s really struggling in San Diego? The middle class. Community college students. Retirees on a fixed income. The homeless.

The truth is that rising housing costs are a top reason they’re all struggling. When yet another house, condo or apartment in our residential neighborhoods is converted to a vacation rental, it takes yet another unit off the market—leading to evictions, higher rents, and higher home prices.

The signature gatherers stalking the thresholds of Trader Joe’s won’t ever tell you that.

The lie they will tell is that vacation rentals are a necessary and inevitable part of our housing market. Or, that San Diego’s tourism industry will suddenly shrivel up and die if outside investors can no longer flip homes into hotels.

What the referendum backers are truly upset about is the way Bry’s ordinance retains the part of the existing zoning code which protects multiple homes from being snatched up by investors.

The only people who stand to lose from the ordinance are big-time vacation rental operators. Your “Mom and Pop” who decide to use their own home as a bed and breakfast are fully protected. Isn’t that what the “bnb” in Airbnb is supposed to be all about?

But the truth is this referendum isn’t about “Mom and Pop” at all, it’s about “Inc. and LLC.”

And in politics, if you throw enough money around you can usually buy the results you want. Airbnb’s legion of signature gatherers will likely succeed in getting their referendum on the ballot, by hook or by crook. Then the real onslaught of misleading statements, wild exaggerations—and yes, outright lies—will begin.

But I don’t think it will work.

A bipartisan coalition of town councils, housing advocates, and politicos of all stripes throughout the city have turned against the vacation rental industry. Long-term renters see Airbnb coming into their neighborhood as a precursor to higher rents and evictions. Young couples on the market for a home to raise a family in see themselves outbid by cash investors building a Monopoly-style empire of mini-hotels.

The overwhelming evidence that vacation rentals erode our housing supply and increase its cost has drastically shifted the debate in favor of residents and against corporate investors.

In other words, we’re all seeing through the industry’s lies, despite the millions of dollars spent to disseminate them.

I strongly believe the referendum will fail, and Bry’s reasonable compromise will win the day.

Because what Airbnb and HomeAway haven’t counted on is that there are enough voters in San Diego who have studied the vacation rental issue long and hard enough to be able to separate the truth from the lies.

And they won’t be fooled this time.

Matt Valenti is an attorney, former San Diego city council candidate, and board member of the community advocacy group Save San Diego Neighborhoods.

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