By Cheri Sugal
On July 27, the Placer County Board of Supervisors approved a 45-day moratorium on the issuance of new short-term rental (STR) permits which has since been extended until March 31, 2022. Those of us with Take Back Tahoe, a new coalition advocating for limits on STRs in the Tahoe Basin, applaud this pause as an opportunity to stop the bleeding and propose viable solutions.
Implementing a new ordinance that limits the number of STRs would address a multitude of problems they have caused, including the exacerbation of our housing crisis, the degradation of our neighborhoods, and the ever-increasing fire risks in our area. We can do this in a fair and reasonable manner for all stakeholders.
Like so many mountain towns, Tahoe is in a housing emergency.
Moonshine Ink has extensively covered the impact of the housing crisis on local businesses (see No Housing, No Employees). Affordable housing has always been scarce in Tahoe but the situation has become dire. We all know families losing their homes because the owner sold them and converted them to STRs, or people who have been displaced or are living in their cars; we’ve seen restaurants and retail establishments reducing hours or closing entirely due to lack of staff while existing employees increasingly commute from Reno. The Village Market in Incline announced they are closing after 42 years due to the worker shortage. Even our firefighters are commuting from Reno. That should scare all of us.
Of course, part of the reason we have so many STRs is that Tahoe’s housing stock is increasingly in the hands of non-primary homeowners; in 2020 only 4.6% of homes were sold to primary residents, compared with 9.7% in 2010. The rise of online platforms like VRBO and AirBnB greatly simplified the STR process. Now, a full 15.5% of our entire eastern Placer County housing stock is permitted STRs (2,446 out of 15,747 homes), plus a few hundred unpermitted ones.
If you converted just 20% of the 2,446 homes to long-term rentals (or roughly 500 homes, with an average of four people living in each unlocked housing option), over 2,000 new local residents could be housed.
Unregulated STRs are not just a nuisance but also a danger for our residential neighborhoods. I didn’t buy a house in a residential neighborhood 15 years ago thinking I would be living next to a clerkless motel. Yet here I am, paying property taxes each year and every day I am forced to deal with the dangers of living next to an unregulated motel 10 feet from my beautiful home.
My next-door neighbors in Kings Beach are real estate agents in Rocklin. This is their third house. They have never used the house except as a profit machine. Prior to their purchasing, the house was always a long-term rental for locals who lived and worked in our community. This phenomenon artificially inflates the real estate market so locals are being driven out. Prospective second homeowners can buy homes at inflated prices, often above their budgets, because they earn thousands per month from short-term renters.
Sure, there is an STR ordinance in Placer County to deal with trash, noise, and parking nuisances, but by its very nature the ordinance is inadequate:
First, it doesn’t capture the majority of nuisances or dangers STRs create. The county reports that it received 308 complaints in the past nine months, yet many issues go undocumented because the behaviors aren’t outlined in the ordinance. For example, there are new people coming and going every day, at all hours, just a few feet from my bedroom window; a couple months ago I found two strangers standing in my kitchen thinking they had arrived at the STR next door! The most serious and life-threatening issue in Tahoe is fire. Yet the owners of the STR next door to me continue to allow their renters to light a fire pit, just feet below a cloth awning, even on Red Flag days when all propane fires and BBQs were banned. Neighbors called the Placer County hotline, 911, and Cal Fire came to the house, but no one seemed responsible for preventing fires at STRs.
Secondly, the ordinance cannot prevent issues from occurring, but can only respond to them after the fact. The stories of ongoing noise, safety, parking, public health, and trash issues have become part of almost every conversation in Tahoe. My neighbors were forced to sell their home; they purchased an empty lot at the end of the road, away from STRs, because the noise from a nearby STR kept their 5-year-old daughter from being able to sleep in her own bed.
Thirdly, enforcement of the ordinance, including citations, is almost nonexistent. Even the most egregious and dangerous violations don’t result in a citation; it is near impossible for a host to lose their permit. In the past nine months only 6% of complaints resulted in a citation (19 out of 308) and this was actually a major increase over the past year. The house next door had more than 50 complaints from neighbors for renting every single day during Covid, while the county had a ban on STRs in place, and the county never issued a single citation.
There is another path for Tahoe that virtually every other tourism destination in the country has already taken: putting rational limits on the number and/or location of STRs.
Hotels are designed to accommodate tourists; they are located outside of residential neighborhoods and have staff present to address real-time issues and essentially contain the mess that tourists inevitably leave in their wake. And I would argue that condos and townhouses that have always been vacation properties, such as those in Northstar, could stay what they are. If there is someone living in a house and renting out a room to subsidize their mortgage, or if the house is divided into multi-levels and they rent the other level, or if the owner has two houses on their property and rents out one of them … all would be fine.
We do, however, need serious limits on single-family, detached homes in residential neighborhoods being used as STRs without someone present to mitigate the inevitable issues.
It’s not extreme; it’s necessary. Even AirBnB advocated for primary residence requirements when a representative called into Placer’s July 27 board meeting.
At the very least, the board should significantly limit the number of nights per year a house can be rented, depending on owner occupancy. For example, a primary residence with an on-site manager could rent 200 nights per year; secondary homes or primary homes without on-site management could rent 60 nights per year. This would keep home ownerships accessible to locals and allow off-site homeowners to make money, but would discourage people and companies from buying our housing stock just for profit.
Finally, the existing ordinance needs to be completely overhauled to deal with the vast array of nuisances and dangers created by STRs. It should require bear boxes, snow removal contracts, 100% compliance with fire safety rules. Placer County should significantly increase permit fees and fines for noncompliance and implement a three strikes rule (three complaints automatically result in a citation and three citations in a revoked permit). This would eliminate ongoing nuisances and encourage homeowners to put their own occupancy limits in place. Also, anyone operating STRs who violates a Red Flag day warning, or any fire code, even once, needs to lose their permit forever. Full stop. Period. We are well beyond the point of allowing anyone to create a fire danger in our area.
As is, our housing emergency is worsening and Tahoe residents are left with degraded residential neighborhoods and diminished quality of life, taking on all the costs and risks so that people who do not live here can make a profit. It doesn’t have to be this way.
~ Cheri Sugal has been a full-time resident of North Lake Tahoe for almost 20 years. Her career has taken her to 65-plus countries to work with national and local governments, communities, NGOs, and the private sector to finance sustainable land use and climate change mitigation. Seeing the problems of overtourism in her own backyard, Cheri founded Take Back Tahoe in 2021 to advocate for rational limits on STRs.