Illegal vacation rentals in Napa

Ashfin Gooya was photographed outside his home on Linda Mesa Way in Browns Valley in August 2016. The house was cited as an illegal and unlicensed short-term vacation rental by the city of Napa, and Gooya eventually agreed to pay $25,000 in penalties and back taxes, and sell and vacate the residence, after a protracted legal fight with the city.

Just over 100 Napa dwellings are licensed to accept paying tourists for the night, a room or a house at a time. But three years after the city began licensing in-home hosts and collecting taxes from their guests, sorting homeowners taking in vacationers without permits from the law-abiding hosts continues to keep staffers busy.

Code enforcement officers last year worked on 382 cases involving Napa’s vacation-rental ordinance on stays of 30 or fewer days, according to Planning Manager Erin Morris. City staff currently have 73 open cases on possibly unlicensed residential lodgings, she said Wednesday.

A report Tuesday by Morris to the City Council pointed to the continuing difficulties getting residential hosts to toe the line on overnight guests – and to steer to Napa the room taxes collected by hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, but widely flouted by homeowners.

Currently, one code enforcement officer spends 50 percent of her time investigating violations of Napa’s vacation rental ordinance, according to Morris. Staff time devoted to enforcing in-home lodging rules totals three days a week plus occasional weekends, she said.

To cope with the sheer volume of listings, Napa has contracted with Host Compliance LLC of San Francisco to review, date and screen-shot vacation rental ads on Airbnb, VRBO, Craigslist and other websites. Such online patrolling supplements the work of two city compliance officers who respond to complaints filed by neighbors about unlicensed lodgings, as well as noise and parking complaints from suspected similar locations.

Violations for accepting short-stay guests without a permit start at $500 for a first offense, a figure increased fivefold by the ordinance that took effect in 2016.

Despite such potential penalties, Morris described code enforcement as often “a cat-and-mouse game” in which scofflaws attempt to lay low by omitting addresses, avoiding exterior photos, and frequently delisting and relisting homes across several websites in hopes of avoiding detection. Other hosts may advertise a 31-day minimum stay and coach guests not to leave time references in their online comments – though guests’ references to the length of their stays sometimes point city officers toward infractions.

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The need to crack down on non-taxpaying vacation rentals was especially acute to two local in-home hosts, who shared with the council their struggles competing against a host of unlicensed competitors but declined to give their names for fear of retribution.

One man described combing a dozen web listings for three hours earlier Tuesday and seeing nightly rates as high as $1,170 – with no revenue flowing back to Napa – and complained of legal hosts having to set their own rates much lower in order to compete.

Tuesday’s vacation rental discussion was part of a report on the enforcement of various city codes, including regulations on signage, neighborhood preservation, illegal construction, and derelict or dangerous buildings. About 90 percent of filed complaints result in a property owner’s voluntary compliance, Morris reported.

The report comes a little over three years after Napa passed its first ordinance to govern the renting of individual bedrooms within private homes to short-term guests, a practice popularized by Airbnb and other online home-share services but previously banned within city limits.

Napa set a maximum of 60 permits for in-home hosts, who must pay a $570 application fee and submit their residences to annual safety reviews. Participants can let out up to two rooms at a time but must sleep on the premises when guests are present, as well as collect the same 14 percent transient occupancy tax as other lodgings.

Separately, the city in 2009 authorized whole-house vacation rentals – where the owner need not be present – at 42 residences, but has not added to that number since.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.