After weeks of preparation the City of San Diego unveiled its proposed ordinance to regulate short term vacation rentals (STVR’s) on August 12. While the proposed ordinance more or less cleared the way for STVR operation in San Diego, the draft contained a number of critical ‘blanks,’ including – for example – whether San Diego would set a minimum duration on STVR rental periods. San Diego’s District 2, headed by Councilwoman Lorie Zapf, took the lead on ‘filling in’ the blanks in the initial draft, and proposed a crippling minimum 21 day rental period for all STVR’s.
On September 22, San Diego’s Community Planners Committee (the CPC) met in open session to discuss the draft ordinance, including Councilwoman Zapf’s amendments. The September 22 CPC meeting wasn’t just the first time that the draft ordinance was publicly vetted. The meeting was, as it turned out, an example of how the best intentions can lead to a spectacular failure of democracy.
For those of us who rely on short term rentals, September 22 was the first time for us to share our thoughts on the proposed ordinance. It was also our first opportunity to introduce ourselves – the real us – to the Community Planners Committee. We are not corporations. We are not millionaires. We are not renting out our houses and then laughing all the way to the bank. We are San Diegan homeowners from all walks of life, and we came out to this Committee meeting in droves.
The meeting room was a packed house. By visual observation it clearly skewed in favor of people supporting short term rentals. In spite of the groundswell of support that we brought to the meeting, the Committee elected to limit the public comment period to one hour, and to split that hour roughly 50/50 between two sides. The ‘two sides’ being those who supported the proposed ordinance and Councilwoman Zapf’s amendments (anti-STVR) and those who opposed the ordinance as written (pro-STVR).
According to the Committee Chair’s notes, by the conclusion of the meeting the Committee had heard comments from nine people speaking in favor of the ordinance, and twelve people speaking against the ordinance. The nine people speaking in favor of the ordinance were speaking on behalf of 27 anti-STVR opponents. The twelve people speaking against the ordinance as drafted were speaking on behalf of 48 pro-STVR participants. By the Committee Chair’s own numbers, 72 people who opposed the ordinance and attended the meeting did not get an opportunity to speak, or to cede their time to a speaking individual.
Before you get out a calculator, let us give you the bullet points of what those numbers mean:
- Every single person who attended the Community Planners Meeting to oppose STVR’s had an opportunity to voice their opposition. If you gave the Committee Chair a speaker slip, you got to speak. If you ceded your time to someone, then that person got to speak. No voice was left unheard.
- By contrast, 72 people who attended the Community Planners Meeting to show support for STVR’s did not have an opportunity to be heard. They did not get to speak, even though they represented over 48% of the people in attendance who registered a request to either speak or cede time.
- Adding insult to injury to confusion, the Committee kept a low bar for what it meant to speak in ‘opposition’ to the proposed ordinance. Speaking in ‘opposition’ either meant that you opposed Councilwoman Zapf’s amendments to the proposed ordinance (pro-STVR), or that you opposed the ordinance entirely. Time was a precious commodity in this Committee meeting. Yet the Committee handed several minutes of ‘opposition’ time to individuals who spoke unambiguously against STVR’s.
After an approximate hour of public testimony, the Committee voted to end public comment and turn discussion over to the Committee members. It quickly became apparent that the Community Planners Committee was, almost uniformly, opposed to the continued operation of STVR’s in San Diego.
Yes, we were disappointed with that result. But we weren’t just disappointed. We were disillusioned. At least one Committee member commented that further public discourse was unnecessary because he had been ‘watching the issue for months.’ Another Committee member stated, without reservation or apology, that he had come to a decision on STVR’s before the Committee meeting had even begun. We were disillusioned that the Committee failed to understand that while the issue has been pending for months, this was the first time that the City’s draft ordinance had been presented for public discussion.
We know the nights are long, and the job is thankless. We know what it feels like to be stuck in a chair listening to one more person talk about short term rentals. We know because we, like the Committee, have been pulling late nights and missing dinner to be at these public meetings.
But this is the unavoidable nature of the public process. We have made a commitment to eachother to struggle through these issues as a community. I have made a commitment to you that I will hear you out, and you have made a commitment to me to do the same. This is the attention that our elected officials must give to the process going forward if we, as a community, are going to bring the short term rental issue to a successful resolution.