Short-term rentals, or STRs, are booming across the nation, including in Bakersfield. But with these “alternative” vacation rentals have come raging conflicts between property owners, neighbors, government officials, and advocates of affordable housing and private property rights.
A proposal by the owners of The Californian’s iconic former headquarters, a mid-1920s building on Eye Street in downtown Bakersfield, recently kicked the scab off a wound city officials would just as soon ignore.
The plan to turn a small annex building next to the main building into a short-term rental, with tentative plans to turn the multistory main building into long-term residential rental units, focused attention on the city’s reluctance to address Bakersfield’s potential local STR conflicts.
Harrell Holdings’ plans to convert the entire downtown commercial building into residential uses go beyond the issue of whether STRs should operate as businesses throughout the city, including in residential neighborhoods.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Changing its use from commercial to residential requires precise plans and the approval of skeptical city officials.
But whether or not Bakersfield “officially” recognizes and permits STRs, they already exist by the hundreds throughout the city without mention in the municipal codes. That leaves potential conflicts to just fester.
A recent check of online listings revealed 300 STRs in Bakersfield. Some were studios, some guest rooms and others homes with backyard pools. Booking website Airbnb, alone, indicates more than 16,000 guests have used its platform to arrange an STR stay in the city.
Ward 2 Councilman Andrae Gonzales has met with STR opponents and proponents. Gonzales is convinced it’s time for Bakersfield to establish rules on vacation rentals that will address potential problems.
“To proactively enforce every vacation rental would be a futile effort,” Gonzales told The Californian. “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.”
But skeptics, including Ward 5 Councilman Bruce Freeman, contend STRs can disrupt neighborhoods and create a disincentive for hotel development. He said complaints about excessive noise and other code violations can be addressed with fines.
Somewhere in the middle of those positions is a starting point for regulating Bakersfield’s STRs.
Complaints about STRs in other cities include disruption of neighborhoods by rowdy vacationers, replacement of scarce affordable housing with lucrative vacation rentals, and the creation of unfair competition with highly regulated and taxed hotels and motels.
Some tourist destinations and popular urban centers have tried to ban STRs. Those efforts have resulted in costly lawsuits and state legislators passing laws prohibiting local governments from banning STRs.
Other communities have attempted to collect transient occupancy taxes from either STR owners, or rental platforms, such as Airbnb. That, too, has triggered fights over who should pay the tax and how the tax should be collected.
In fairness to all property owners — those who simply live in a neighborhood and investors who operate their properties as businesses — some STR rules are necessary.
Certainly, in high-demand areas, where entire neighborhoods have been converted to teeming STRs, the need for strict regulations may be necessary.
But it would be prudent for Bakersfield to take a lighter approach. Identify current conflicts and problems. Address those needs with reasonable rules that can be strengthened, or otherwise adjusted in the future as necessary.
Require property owners to obtain permits similar to the “home occupation permits” all people must obtain in the city to operate businesses out of their homes. Require permit holders to follow consistent, enforceable rules.
And consider, do the number of STRs in Bakersfield today warrant the creation of a costly tax assessing and collection system?
Bakersfield city officials should not overly regulate STRs. But they should not pretend they don’t exist, either.