My, but SLOTowners are a civilized bunch. At least the 100 or so who showed up last night at the City Council chambers were; well-spoken, smart, witty and courteous, even on an issue as controversial as the recent "home stay" controversy.
SLOTown has an ordinance that forbids "vacation rentals," any home rented less than 30 consecutive days. The ordinance is in place to keep homes from being bought up by speculators and turned into short-term Animal-Houses Isla Vista Summer Party Houses. Forty percent of SLOTown's homes are long-term rentals -- in large measure Cal Poly students, but also many adult "workers" who also rent. The rental percent is a high enough number to keep neighborhoods in churn and homeowners unsettled and in fear that any change in the rules could send their neighborhoods into one long frat-house decline.
Which accounted for two groups to show up for a showdown. The larger a group called itself SLO Host and were private homeowners who, for years, have been quietly renting out a room or two in their house for tourists. (Or, in many cases, offering their extra bedrooms for visiting musicians coming to the community as part of the Festival Mosaic and other cultural events.) This practice really took off with the internet and companies such as Airbnb. Tourists could now easily book a room in somebody's home and likely save a bit over a higher end hotel, but also have the experience of staying with a host family. Since this was all under the radar, unlike hotels/motels, the Home Stayers paid no Transient Occupancy Taxes.
And, as the economy tanked, many more people found themselves needing the extra cash that came with "home stays." This was also all part of what's being considered "the new economy," the "sharing generation," the younger, internet-connected generation realizing that you don't necessarily need to "own" stuff; you can share/loan/rent and often end up with a far more interesting experience (and dollars in your pocket.) All part of what's being called a Peer to Peer business model.
So lots of people throughout the town quietly welcomed travelers in violation of the vacation rental ordinances but with no discernable problems being reported until somebody complained. Nine someones, to be exact. Well, more like 4 non-specific complaints about the whole "home stay" idea in general, and 5 actual complaints with a specific address listed. Among the complaints listed were the usual ones about parking, noise and this deliciously odd complaint -- the apparently unsettling " problem" to one complainer of "strangers wandering the neighborhood." This brought a few snickers since anyone using the public sidewalks, taking a stroll, walking the dog, visiting a friend, has the potential to be a "stranger wandering the neighborhood."
On the "complainers" side of the issue, was a group of homeowners who are the "Residents for Quality Neighborhoods (RQN), a watchdog group mainly concerned with keeping neighborhoods for homeowners as part of an effort to keep those neighborhoods safe and stable, thereby protecting their homes and their property values. The RQNs listed a series of sliding slope concerns, from "strangers wandering," to Frat Boy Animal House Isla Vista Summer Party Blowout disintegration of neighborhoods, drunken, loud foreigners wandering around at all hours, making noise, scaring the dogs, and other ills that can slowly grow from ordinance changes that aren't regulated carefully and can creep up on a neighborhood while nobody's looking.
In short, the room was filled with good arguments on all sides and filled to the brim with context, subtext and nuance and often unconscious reactions to our disturbed and disturbing zeitgeist: There's ongoing Town and Gown issues, a long simmering battle in SLOTown with a growing Cal Poly enrollment turning into the real elephant in the room. And class divisions, "Haves" having the luxury of large homes that can be quietly rented out, while regular working people can't afford to even get into SLOTown's housing market. (Or, conversely the irony of former "Haves" financially needing to become inn keepers and housemaids in their own homes, servants waiting on paying customers from . . . eeeuuuu, France!) Fear of a permanently altered economy that's changing all the rules, turning "The Happiest Place on Earth" into a tourist playground for the rich, all others need not apply. All forming around a changing demographic and generational mind-set that's new and unsettling and can't help to ramp up unspoken and often unrealistic anxieties.
Despite that potentially explosive stew, all the SLOTowners kept their admirable cool and the City Council moved quickly. The general consensus was a kind of "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It" combined with, "Let's refine this ordinance carefully to allow this new business, watch it carefully (get some nice tax money), use our traditional nuisance ordinances if there's any problems, but keep the door firmly shut on a far bigger elephant -- 'vacation rentals.' Then see how it goes."
So, if you're a SLOTowner with rooms to rent to travelers, you're good to go. The fine print will be crafted and clarified. If you live elsewhere and want to do the same, you'll have to check our local ordinances and go visit your city councils or the BOS. Who knows, if this type of business works out well for everyone, it might go countywide.
It's a brave new world, a connected world, and The Happiest Place On Earth, whose economy is heavily dependent on the tourist dollar, needs to get with it. So, stock the guest soaps and towels and little chocolates for the pillow and we'll soon become The Happy Inkeeper to the World.
Bring 'em on!