South Lake Tahoe’s beefed-up vacation home rental law was supposed to help prevent noise violations, obnoxious partying and bad actors from disturbing the city’s residential neighborhoods.
Three months since the updated ordinance went into effect, however, the law has primarily turned into a tool for doling out $2,000 parking tickets against non-disorderly visitors who rent houses through online sites such as Airbnb and Vacation Rentals by Owner, a Reno Gazette Journal investigation found.
Described as the strictest ordinance in the Lake Tahoe basin for vacation home rentals, South Lake Tahoe’s updated law added caps and steep fines in response to community concerns about the explosive growth seen in tourists using residential homes for lodging. One avid traveler from the Bay Area called the ordinance “absurd” and “arbitrary” after renting a home in the city earlier this year.
A regular user of online listing sites such as Airbnb and VRBO, Shirin Oloumi-Knerr says she enjoys going on ski weekends with her husband and three other couples they frequently travel with. Many times, this means making the drive up the twisting mountain roads of the Sierra Nevada and renting a house together at Lake Tahoe.
“We felt like staying in one house was the best way to cook meals together and hang out in larger common spaces that were still private,” Oloumi-Knerr said.
While visiting in February, however, Oloumi-Knerr noticed something about the South Lake Tahoe house they were staying at.
The property was peppered with warning signs threatening steep fines, not just for noise but also what she considers “harmless, arbitrary acts” such as parking on the street and hot tub use. In addition to paying a minimum $1,000 fine, Oloumi-Knerr says she was shocked to find out that property managers also get fined $1,000 by the city for renter violations, but the fine is typically passed on to guests.
This means vacation home renters essentially get fined twice to the tune of $2,000 total.
For Oloumi-Knerr, the thought of paying that much money for simply parking on the street or using the hot tub at the wrong time was dumbfounding.
“I’m a government lawyer — rules and regulations are my bread and butter,” Oloumi- Knerr said. “However, these rules seem to have no rhyme or reason and have the potential for abusive enforcement.”
Oloumi-Knerr’s concerns reflect an ongoing battle being waged around Lake Tahoe’s shores as the Airbnb economy continues to disrupt traditional lodging and send more tourists to residential neighborhoods.
South Lake Tahoe is just one of many cities around the nation playing catch up to the phenomenon with their laws. After years of community debate and public meetings, South Lake Tahoe approved its updated vacation home rental or VHR ordinance in November, with the law officially taking effect on Dec. 22.
The intent behind the change was to control the explosive growth of the vacation home rental industry, particularly from what critics view as its encroachment on residential neighborhoods. At the top of the list of priorities is curbing incidents of bad behavior by tenants, including the loud noises, trash and occupancy issues that can arise when short- term rental properties are used by large groups or partiers.
A Reno Gazette Journal analysis of complaints filed against nearly 200 properties from Dec. 22 to late March, however, found the ordinance has primarily been used to cite South Lake Tahoe visitors for parking violations.
Reveling partygoers, meanwhile, were few and far between even with Christmas and New Year’s included.
Findings of the RGJ investigation include:
About a third of the complaints turned out to be violations: Of the 186 complaints made by neighbors against properties for allegedly violating the city’s vacation home rental ordinance, 74 — a little over a third — were deemed by code enforcement to be violations. At least one in five complaints were false alarms.
The law is being used to enforce hefty parking violations: Parking accounted for 51 percent of all complaints made by callers and 60 percent of all violations cited by enforcement officers. The total fines levied for parking during the first three months of the updated VHR ordinance added up to about $90,000.
Noise, the second-highest complaint, accounted for just a fifth of all complaints: Out of those 47 noise complaints, 10 were determined to be violations, with only three being tied to partying. The rest were deemed by enforcement officers to be within reason and not too loud.
With parking accounting for the bulk of violations that vacation home rental users are being cited for, the trend raises questions about whether the stricter ordinance is unfairly punishing visitors for minor issues instead of focusing on more serious offenders.
One person who isn’t a fan of the ordinance’s one-fine-fits-all approach is Oloumi-Knerr, who feels it places needless stress on visitors, who have to worry about unwittingly breaking its rules. Oloumi-Knerr says she has such “strong negative feelings” toward the ordinance that she has decided to cross off South Lake Tahoe in her list of places to stay when visiting the area.
“First, it doesn’t make me feel welcome in the neighborhood,” Oloumi-Knerr said. “I don’t want to place myself in a situation where I could be otherwise acting legally but am violating a local, unreasonable and expensive ordinance.”