Illegal vacation rentals in Napa

Ashfin Gooya was photographed outside his illegal vacation rental on Linda Mesa Way in Browns Valley in August 2016. 

Napa city leaders agree with grand jurors that work remains to be done in catching illegal vacation rentals in a housing-short community – but disagree that city law itself requires an overhaul.

A report published last week described the various ways in which Napa is trying to keep better watch over homeowners offering bedrooms – or entire residences – to tourists in violation of city curbs on the practice, which advocates have blamed for worsening a long-running housing shortage.

The four-page statement, signed by City Manager Steve Potter, was a response to a June report from the Napa County Grand Jury that described city and county governments as outmaneuvered by scofflaws who quickly post and then remove online vacation rental listings – often during nights and weekends when enforcement officers are off duty.

The grand jury report outlined the difficulties in enforcing laws meant to maximize scarce housing for local residents rather than tourists by banning most overnight stays of 30 days or fewer. Napa County maintains an absolute ban on short-term stays, while the city limits the practice to 60 fee-paying homeowners renting out bedrooms and 41 others offering entire homes.

However, the popularity of Airbnb, VRBO and similar websites allows hosts to take on paying customers with ease, often ignoring local ordinances and not paying the room taxes collected from hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns.

Napa currently employs two code enforcement officers, one of whom devotes half her work week responding to reported vacation rental violations, according to the city letter. But despite the grand jury’s assertion that such a 20-hour-a-week schedule is unequal to the task, the city said it can keep abreast of in-home lodgings thanks to its contract with Host Compliance LLC, a San Francisco firm that monitors home-sharing platforms on behalf of local governments. The city officer assigned to vacation rentals also can work weekend hours to follow up on specific cases, according to the report.

Ninety percent of tips about allegedly illegal rentals stem from Host Compliance’s work, with local tipsters accounting for the rest, Planning Manager Erin Morris told the City Council on Tuesday.

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City officials conceded that some in-home hosting scofflaws still avoid detection, but pointed to successes in enforcing its vacation rental law. Most verified cases of unlawful vacation rentals result in citations and orders to take down online listings, said Morris, but the city has gone as far as fining and briefly jailing one Browns Valley homeowner, Ashfin Gooya, who ultimately agreed to pay $25,000 and sell his house in 2018 after repeated noise and traffic complaints from neighbors.

Napa opened about 350 vacation rental cases during the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the city letter.

The city statement also disputed the grand jury’s description of Napa’s ordinance as “outdated, unwieldy and in need of revision,” pointing to its creation of a vacation rental licensing program in 2015. Up to 60 homeowners at a time can pay an annual fee for the right to offer up to two bedrooms to overnight guests, so long as they collect the city’s bed tax, submit to safety inspections and meet other requirements.

Napa has waiting lists for both in-home hosting permits and whole-home rental licenses, all of which the city issued in 2009, Morris reported.

All five council members signed off on the city reply, although some asked Napa officials to keep a tight focus on protecting local housing for local residents given the city’s persistently tight supply.

“I want as much of our housing as possible to be local housing, workforce housing,” said Liz Alessio, “and I want us to be stern about it.”

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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.