Residents want L.A. to do more to enforce short-term rental regulations

In the tranquil neighborhood of the Venice Canals, residents said they were fed up — and ready to take action.

Dozens signed a petition complaining about noise and nuisances such as a fraternity "drunk-athon" at one home along the picturesque waterways. They told Los Angeles officials that the house had been illegally turned into a kind of hotel, rented out for a few days at a time through websites such as Airbnb and VRBO.

To back up their claims, residents piled up evidence, including online listings displaying photographs of the home. They even furnished a rental contract for someone who had scheduled a short stay, confident that would prove their point to city inspectors.

The Venice homeowner was eventually ordered in December to stop using the house as a hotel. But months after the city handed down its order, neighbors contended the house was still being regularly rented out for short stays. This spring, they again provided documents showing that someone had booked it for five nights.

Yet the city terminated its case in May without taking further action "due to insufficient proof," according to Department of Building and Safety spokesman David Lara.

As Airbnb and other platforms make it easier to rent out rooms or whole homes for short stays, the debate over regulating such rentals has revolved around what kinds of rules Los Angeles should enshrine. But for many Angelenos, the bigger question is whether the rules will have any teeth.

"They're talking about writing a new law, when all they need to do is enforce the existing law," said Patricia Rickles, one of the Venice Canals residents.

The Venice Canals rental host, Daniel Goodman, said he had stopped renting out the home for short stays, instead offering it solely for longer periods that are legally allowed. He disputed claims about excessive noise and partying at the house and said he had paid nearly $1,000 in fines.

"The bottom line is, I paid the fine and I stopped," he said.

Neighbors aren't convinced. Making the rules stick is a perpetual worry in a metropolis where the zeal to make laws often outstrips the willingness or ability to enforce them. Critics fear that even if Los Angeles prohibits what City Councilman Mike Bonin has dubbed "bad" rentals — operators buying up apartments or homes and renting them out nonstop like hotels — it will be powerless to control them unless platforms turn over information about their hosts, an idea that Airbnb has resisted.

As it stands, renting out apartments or houses for short stays is illegal in many residential areas, according to city planning officials. At a recent hearing at City Hall, housing department head Rushmore Cervantes said officials have received dozens of complaints about "illegal usage" of apartment buildings this year.

Yet housing officials so far, Cervantes said, have been unable to muster enough evidence for City Atty. Mike Feuer to prosecute any of the owners — nor has the Department of Building and Safety, which has not turned any such cases over to Feuer, according to his spokesman, Rob Wilcox. Wilcox declined to specify what kind of proof Feuer and his attorneys would need to take such a violation to court.

The lack of action has convinced some critics that the online platforms need to lend a helping hand. "No city has the resources to send inspectors to all these properties," said Judith Goldman, one of the co-founders of Keep Neighborhoods First, a group concerned about "commercialized" short-term rentals. Instead, she argued that Airbnb and similar companies must "give the city the data they need" to enforce the laws.

But Airbnb, the biggest player among the online rental platforms, has resisted turning over host information without a subpoena, arguing that it violates privacy to turn over "broad swaths of confidential, personal information to bureaucrats."

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In Portland, Ore., for example, some officials have tangled with the company over providing data to help track down hosts who failed to register with the city. Its law requires hosts to undergo a home inspection. As of this month, only about 10% of rental hosts in the Portland area have sought or received the required permits, city officials say.

"There's rampant noncompliance," said Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish. When critics say the city needs information to find the scofflaws, Fish said, Airbnb and other platforms "raise the specter of Big Brother, which is complete nonsense. We have an obligation to make sure guests are safe."

Airbnb also vigorously opposed a California bill that would have required it and other rental platforms to regularly turn over data to government agencies about the addresses, amounts paid and number of nights occupied for its rentals. And it is pushing back against a San Francisco ballot initiative that would require it to report regularly on how many nights a unit was rented.

Airbnb regional policy head David Owen argued that relying on the companyto hand over data to enforce city rules would be unfair. "We're one business model. We happen to have that data. There are many others that do not," he said. He added that the company was not alone in raising privacy concerns: In Portland, the ACLU of Oregon said it was wary of ensuring government access to such information.

As the debate simmers in Los Angeles, city inaction has left some Angelenos convinced that officials are deliberately ignoring complaints about such rentals. Venice Canals resident Ed Rucker, who worked for decades as a criminal defense attorney, was galled by the idea that Los Angeles investigators had too little evidence to pursue their neighbors.

When Goodman, the Venice Canals rental host, was asked about the rental agreements that residents provided to the city, he said both bookings had been canceled. Neighbors, however, point out it was the visitor who canceled and remain unconvinced that Goodman stopped the day-to-day rentals, since online listings appear to continue advertising the house with minimum stays of less than a week.

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In a lengthy email to his neighbors this year, Rucker said a council aide to Bonin had indicated that such violations were not being pursued as "a policy decision."

"It doesn't matter how much evidence is produced — they will not enforce it," Rucker said recently.

Bonin spokesman David Graham-Caso said that wasn't an accurate reflection of what the council aide said, countering that the staffer had simply told Rucker that the city had limited resources to deal with the problem. "It is very, very challenging to enforce the city's current rules, but it can be done," Graham-Caso said in an email.

New regulations would make enforcement easier, by focusing city resources solely on the "bad" rentals, Graham-Caso added. Owen, the Airbnb representative, also argued that adopting clear and simple rules would ease the enforcement challenges for the city. But in the Venice Canals, some residents are skeptical.

"The city doesn't enforce stuff," Venice Canals resident Darryl DuFay said. "I don't know if they won't or they can't or they just don't."

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesEmily for breaking news from Los Angeles City Hall.

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