Short-term rental complaints soar in Joshua Tree area

Concerns about noise, safety risks and a lack of affordable housing are leading residents of the California High Desert to demand tighter controls on the local vacation rental market.

Complaints against short-term rentals in the Morongo Basin – which includes unincorporated communities such as Joshua Tree and Pioneertown – rose from eight in 2019 to 439 last year, according to data from San Bernardino County . Although county officials say the 5,300% increase was driven largely by concerns over COVID, the data follows an increasingly heated debate over the future character of the high desert.

“This was historically a second home or vacant home area,” said Thomas Fjallstam, founder of the Joshua Tree Vacation Rentals Association, a group of short-term rental owners in the high desert. “Many of these homes have never been occupied, or only partially occupied for several years.

As people started to book their homes 50% to 100% of the time, Fjallstam continued, existing real estate has seen a significant increase in usage. But in recent years, a “huge influx of out-of-town investment” has “turned the tide” and pushed the booming short-term rental market to unsustainable heights, he said.

Joshua Tree Vacation Rentals Association founder Thomas Fjallstam is pictured in his rental in Joshua Tree, Calif. On June 23, 2021.

San Bernardino County Board Chairman Curt Hagman said in a meeting this week that the area had “become a tourist destination pretty quickly, which is good because six years ago I used to hear that we don’t have a lot of savings in some places and now we have an economy.

“Now we have to work with you to run this (industry),” Hagman continued, “(and to) manage this uniqueness (of the high desert), maintain the beauty and at the same time allow you to grow your economy at a cost. reasonable. rate. “

For some inhabitants of the high desert, the current cost of this economic growth may be too high. Many residents – and even some in the local short-term rental industry – say careless operators are creating problems in the community and are facing stricter county enforcement. The industry’s fiercest opponents are calling for a moratorium on new short-term rental licenses, similar to the measure currently in place in the nearby desert town of La Quinta.

“A lot of my family and friends had to leave (the area)” because they couldn’t afford the rent anymore, Joshua Tree resident Breana Violanti told the Desert Sun. “What worries us as a community is where we will be when this bubble bursts.”

Violanti, who was born and raised in the Joshua Tree area, said she saw an increasing flow of longtime residents leave the high desert after their homes were converted to short-term rentals and they failed. could not afford rent elsewhere. She said local children no longer play on the streets in her neighborhood due to safety concerns with out-of-town vacation rental guests.

“They are driving their cars quickly on the streets because they don’t live here and they don’t care,” she said. “They are burning things and have no idea about the safety issues (related to the fires)”and restrictions.

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County staff and public commentators at this week’s supervisory board meeting cited similar issues with short-term rentals in the area.

Violanti started a petition on earlier this year for a moratorium on short-term vacation rentals in Joshua Tree, which has since garnered more than 1,700 signatures.

San Bernardino County has received 1,176 applications for short-term vacation rental permits in the Morongo Basin since its short-term rental ordinance came into effect in December 2019, according to the county spokesperson. , David Wert. Of those, 281 were refused, withdrawn or abandoned, Wert said.

There are likely many more unauthorized short-term rental operators in the area, which some short-term rental operators and residents attribute to most of the recurring noise, safety and quality of life issues.

“We cannot verify the number of illegal operators, but all available resources indicate an increasing number,” Wert wrote in an email.

Supporters and opponents of short-term rentals say county enforcement against problematic actors has been limited. Across the county, the code enforcement received about 1,300 complaints related to short-term rentals from January to mid-June of this year and issued 51 citations during the same period, according to county staff. .

“You can make any rules you want, but if you don’t apply them, no one will pay attention to the rules,” board chairman Hagman said at Tuesday’s meeting.

However, the county is attempting to approach this paradigm with two important policy developments.

Scenes from Joshua Tree, Calif., June 23, 2021.

The supervisory board recently approved $ 10.4 million over the next few years to address “community concerns,” including monitoring short-term rentals. Along with the increase in the code’s enforcement budget, comes a set of new ordinances passed on Tuesday that reclassify violations of the county’s short-term tenancy ordinance as criminal offenses. The new rules also dramatically increase fines, from $ 100 for first citations to $ 1,000. The second and third citations will now be subject to penalties of up to $ 2,000 and $ 5,000 respectively.

Opponents of short-term rentals such as Violanti see the recent moves as a “step in the right direction”. The new policies were also approved by some members of the local short-term rental industry.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Robert Brada, co-owner of short-term rental operator in high desert Homestead Modern, told The Desert Sun. “We completely embrace (the changes).”

Brada said illegal operators gave the industry a bad name and turned local sentiment against responsible short-term rental owners. Under current county rules, for example, owners must be available 24 hours a day, Brada noted.

“We are spending a lot of money to have someone available locally,” he said.

“The vast majority (of short-term, problematic rentals) are run by people from out of town who say they’re going to bring in their handyman or cleaner,” he added. “And they’re not going out at 2 in the morning”

Homestead Modern’s business has grown rapidly over the past year, according to Brada, growing from 30 to 40 homes in the area. Despite his support for stronger enforcement, he said he did not support a moratorium on new short-term rentals.

The property manager said a full moratorium would simply drive illegal operators underground, cutting into legitimate business without stopping the most problematic behavior.

Fjallstam was also “happy” that the county had not “turned to” a moratorium, but expressed concern that Tuesday’s order might be too harsh.

“(Local short-term rental owners) believe there is potential for abuse by enforcing the code with very little recourse,” he said.

Violanti, meanwhile, said that while there were many short-term rental operators in the high desert who were “good neighbors” in the local community, she felt that a moratorium would allow the market to calm down. and would prevent some outside investors from competing with the locals. in home shopping.

“I don’t want to ban them,” she said. “We just need a break.”

James B. Cutchin covers business in the Coachella Valley. Contact him at [email protected]

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