The Cathedral City Council on Wednesday night unanimously agreed to allow voters to decide whether to phase out short-term vacation rentals, teeing up a heated debate before a special election occurs on March 2.
Faced with the decision of repealing a previously passed ordinance to phase-out rentals or calling for a referendum, the council went with the latter, citing the quality of life issues raised by many residents and strong opinions on either side.
“We’re divided here,” Councilmember Mark Carnavale said. “This has to go to the voters for their opinion.”
A working-class community with around 54,000 residents, Cathedral City had around 400 short-term vacation rentals this year before the council passed an ordinance to eliminate them in all neighborhoods but homeowners associations. Their presence has caused significant debate including a lengthy task force report, a moratorium on new rentals, and hundreds of comments from residents on either side of the debate.
Through the referendum, voters will decide whether the city should stick with the council’s September decision to undo its existing regulations and phase out short-term rentals by 2023, or overturn those policies.
After the September vote, supporters of short-term rentals organized as Share Cathedral City embarked on a signature-gathering campaign to overturn the ban. The group is an offshoot of another group called I Love Cathedral City that sprung up earlier this year to support vacation rentals, and both argued that Cathedral City didn’t properly enforce its original short-term rental ordinance before making the decision to ban them.
They gathered 4,304 signatures, and 3,515 were verified by the county registrar of voters as of November 24. That meets the threshold of more than 10% of the city’s registered voters to trigger a referendum on whether to overturn the ordinance.
Past coverage: Cathedral City votes to phase out short-term rentals by 2023
Past coverage: Cathedral City group opposed to short-term rental ban submits petition
Because the group gathered enough signatures, the council could’ve voted to repeal the ordinance or put it to the voters. In casting his vote in support of the referendum, Mayor John Aguilar said he has concluded that short-term vacations are “disruptive to our neighborhoods and a bad idea.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, roughly 40 people spoke during a two-hour-long public hearing on what has become one of the most controversial issues for Cathedral City in recent memory.
Residents on both sides of the debate urged the council to take their side by citing the cost to taxpayers of hosting a special election. The Riverside County Registrar of Voters estimates it will cost be between $75,000 and $85,000, according to Cathedral City documents.
A heated debate
When the city decided to phase out short-term rentals by 2023, it also implemented new protocols for responding to complaints and implemented stiffer fines for disobeying regulations or being a nuisance.
Boris Stark, president of I Love Cathedral City and a former vacation rental compliance officer in Palm Springs who now works for Acme House Company, praised the city for its recent push on enforcement and acting on concerns about renters who are out of compliance.
He and other owners said that enforcement push should have a chance to play out before the phase-out of short-term rental begins.
Some short-term rental property owners said the city didn’t take their interests into consideration during this year’s process to implement the ban. Though I Love Cathedral City had generated thousands of online signatures against the ban, Stark said the council has dismissed opportunities to negotiate.
“I believe we owe it to our community to come to the table to work out the major disagreements about the ordinance,” Stark said.
Short-term rental property owner and resident James Mewes supports the continuation of short-term rental properties, though he said the city has authorized too many vacation rentals in some neighborhoods. He also said he feels the city hasn’t taken property owners’ interests into account.
“I beg you to reconsider,” he said.
Cheryl Williams, who has spent more than a decade in the vacation rentals business, said her home is rented about a third of the year while she travels, and she hasn’t received any complaints from her neighbors. She said she owns her home and doesn’t want to move to a homeowners’ association.
“I should have the right to travel and rent my home out whenever I like,” she said.
Other supporters of the practice point to tourism dollars generated by visitors and the ability of property owners to generate income. In the fiscal year that ended this June, Cathedral City took in about $687,000 in transient occupancy taxes from short-term rentals, which amounts to about a quarter of all TOT revenues that year. The city estimates that its new enforcement plan passed as part of the two-year phase-out will cost nearly $410,000 annually for two years, covered by increased fees to still-working rentals.
Others pointed to the close relationships they have with their neighbors to ensure that there are no quality of life issues, or the measures they take to keep guests in check, such as having noise monitors on their properties.
Many of those who spoke up in favor of the ban said short-term rentals have been ruining their neighborhoods. Some of the speakers have convened a group called Cathedral City Residents with the intention of opposing the referendum.
That group’s president, Danny Lee, told the council that full-time residents like him are up against out-of-town investors as well as corporations who rely on vacation rentals. He said Cathedral City, unlike neighboring Palm Springs, is not a tourist destination but for working people, families, and retirees. Other residents raised concerns about COVID-19 transmission from travelers, though short-term rentals are not prohibited under current county or state guidelines.
In addition to quality-of-life issues, others have raised concerns about short-term rentals taking away housing units that would otherwise be occupied by full-time residents. Doug Evans, secretary of Cathedral City Residents who has lived in the city for more than 30 years, said a couple short-term rentals on his block sold after the council’s decision and he now has quiet neighbors.
“(Short-term vacation rental) investors do nothing to add to the fabric that makes a community,” Evans told the council in a submitted letter. “They impact our neighborhoods and take their money back home.”
Another resident, Jeff Bergen who lives in Cathedral City Cove, dismissed the argument from short-term rental owners who say noisy guests and problem properties will be remedied with more enforcement.
“All the enforcement in the world can’t protect the sanctity of our community,” Bergen said. “We need to know our neighbors for practical support, for the safety of our children, for the protection of our homes, and for our mental health.”
Ultimately, that argument was echoed by the city council. Before the unanimous vote to go to the referendum, Councilmember Ernesto Gutierrez said residents’ quality of life is impacted by the “mini motels” in their neighborhoods.
“They live in hell,” he said. “Many have moved out of our communities because they lived next to (a short-term vacation rental) and they can longer handle it.”
Melissa Daniels covers economic development, hospitality and local business in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at (760)-567-8458, [email protected], or on Twitter @melissamdaniels.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Cathedral City voters to decide fate of short-term vacation rentals in March special election