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Bakersfield weighs action on Airbnb-type rentals

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Bakersfield City Hall North.

It hasn't quite been a year since Javier Garcia started offering his Oleander house for rent on the short-term rental platform Airbnb, and despite the absence of any city regulation permitting such activities, he said, "So far, so good."

The enterprise makes a little more money than he would otherwise earn renting out the place long term, he said. Neighbors occasionally complain about the disruption, and that's taught him to stay vigilant, but Garcia said he hasn't heard anything from the city.

As for any concerns his rental undercuts local hotels and motels, he said, "competition's always a good thing."

That's a trickier statement than it might appear at a time when Bakersfield city government is weighing homeowners' private property rights against neighborhood compatibility and environmental concerns.

The city made an attempt last year to come up with local regulations for Airbnb and other short-term rental arrangements known as STRs. The proposal would have addressed nuisances, brought in new tax revenues and created a new level of government bureaucracy intended to regulate such activities.

But the fact that the proposal went nowhere shows what a thorny set of regulatory challenges STRs present.

BUSY MARKETPLACE

As of Friday afternoon, about 300 STRs were listed online as being available for rent this weekend in the Bakersfield area, at prices ranging from $39 to more than $200. Some were studios, some guest rooms and others homes with backyard pools. Airbnb's website indicated more than 16,000 guests have used its platform to book stays in the city.

Ward 2 City Councilman Andrae Gonzales said he has met with people for and against STRs, and that he thinks it's time Bakersfield set rules on vacation rentals that would address potential problems ahead of time.

"To proactively enforce every vacation rental would be a futile effort," he said by email. "I think the city should regulate them, charge TOT (transient occupancy tax) like hotels and motels, and address complaints related to noise or other nuisances as it would for any other property."

Skeptics include Ward 5 Councilman Bruce Freeman, who said STRs can disrupt neighborhoods and create a disincentive to hotel development. He said fines await property owners whose vacation rentals spark repeated complaints of excessive noise and other code violations.

DOWNTOWN DILEMMA

The city's absence of cohesive STR regulation recently slowed, if it hasn't stopped, a larger residential development proposed by the owner of the historic former home of The Bakersfield Californian, Harrell Holdings.

The company applied for, and was denied, a permit to convert an annex building its owns downtown into a single rental unit housing up to three people for no more than 13 days at a time.

Explaining its decision, the city said hotels and motels seem better suited for short-term housing and that it welcomes development efforts sharing its vision for downtown.

Harrell Vice President Gizel Bermudez defended the company's proposal, saying it would help tourism and business travel while providing an attractive option to motels of low quality not far away.

She proposed collecting STR fees that would be set aside for security, cleanup, beautification and reduction of crime. The company has also said it wants to resolve that obstacle before moving forward with a larger project converting the former newspaper building next door into long-term residential units.

NO RULES

A statement Wednesday from the city noted its municipal code is silent on the question of STRs. (A story on the cover of Monday's Californian about Harrell's proposal should have said Bakersfield does not permit short-term rentals but neither does it forbid them.)

In spring of last year, city staff took a close look at the issue, having received a referral from Gonzales about possibly coming up with a new ordinance on vacation rentals.

Staff came back with a report that STRs have often been banned in residential areas intended for more long-term housing and that elsewhere problems have ranged from noise, trash and parking impacts to more timely concerns about rentals taking residential units out of what is now a tight long-term housing market.

SURVEY RESULTS

The city surveyed eight municipalities around the state that have regulated STRs and found that most imposed a permit, an application fee, parking restrictions and noise regulations. All required a TOT tax certification. As potential penalties, it referred to administrative citations, nuisance abatement proceedings and a "three strikes" system in which a trio of verified violations results in action against the property owner's license.

Carrying it all out would require significant staff effort and three separate contracts with outside vendors, the report said.

The city said by email work on an STR ordinance is pending. Meanwhile, code enforcement personnel may send correction notices to offending STR property owners or have the City Attorney's Office send a letter of violation, it said.

Besides individual neighbors, the hotel industry may be the loudest critic of STRs.

HOTEL COMPLAINTS

Hotels are heavily regulated and must pay local TOT taxes, but that's not necessarily the case with STRs, said A.J. Rossitto, legislation and communications coordinator for the California Hotel and Lodging Association. He said different municipalities have taken different approaches to regulating platforms like Airbnb, he said, and some are finding STR property owners don't abide by zoning or taxation regulations.

"It does set the stage for an imbalance," he said. "Generally speaking, we just want a level playing field."

The director of sales at Bakersfield's Home2 Suites by Hilton, Denise Taylor-Connor, said STRs do affect her business but perhaps not as much as they impact hotels offering shorter stays. She sees Airbnb-type rentals as having an edge over hotels on cost but not sanitation.

"You don't know how well has the owner cleaned it," she said.

The president of the Bakersfield Association of Realtors, Scott Knoeb, issued a vigorous defense of STRs. He said by email the group would oppose regulations on short-term rentals in an effort to guard against any infringement on owners' right to rent their property.

RIGHT TO RENT

A ban on STRs would be a violation, he asserted, treating an inherent right as a privilege. Mandatory inspections such as those in place elsewhere, it said, violate Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches. And zoning-based restrictions wrongly overlook their continuing residential use, it added.

Instead of taking away long-term housing during a shortage, Knoeb argued, STRs complement it.

"We desperately need more housing," he stated, "and less government interference with the options that are available."