On a steamy Sunday afternoon in early August, a Palm Springs code enforcement officer arrived at a luxurious vacation rental property to inquire about a noise complaint that came into the city’s hotline.
The officer could hear “Brickhouse” by The Commodores playing from the side of the street, according to a city hotline log. Ultimately, the officer issued a citation, one of 159 issued to Palm Springs vacation rental properties in June, July and August.
That figure represents a 150% increase in the number of citations issued to Palm Springs vacation rentals compared to the same months last year. The majority of citations stemmed from loud music, which comes with a $500 fine to the guest. Others were issued over parking, operating without a license, or other violations.
The spike was coupled with an unanticipated influx of visitors venturing to the desert in the summer heat for longer-than-usual stays to break from sheltering in place.
Bruce Hoban, the co-founder of the Vacation Renter Owners and Neighbors of Palm Springs said the increased number of bookings this summer stemmed from pent-up demand amid the coronavirus pandemic, where “everything was shut down for three months and then all of the sudden you can go get a vacation rental.”
These stays were also longer; while travelers normally stay for two nights for a desert summer getaway, this year saw more frequent stays of four days or longer, Hoban said.
“We got this very not normal crowd coming into the city to rent vacation rentals who just didn’t want to follow the rules,” Hoban said.
Palm Springs’ vacation rental ordinance has been held up as a model for strict enforcement. The city has a “three strikes” policy that can cause an owner to lose their ability to operate for two years. An individual can only have one vacation rental license, which is limited to 32 guest stays a year plus an extra four bookings during July, August and September.
On Wednesday, Councilmember Lisa Middleton presented along with former code enforcement officer Boris Stark, who now works for Acme Vacation Rentals, at a California League of Cities meeting to talk about “best practices” for short-term rentals.
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But some Palm Springs residents would rather see more restrictions, or see vacation rentals gone altogether. A lawsuit is still working its way through a California appellate court disputing that the city has a right under its land use laws to regulate short-term rental properties in any capacity in residential neighborhoods.
While the city’s vacation rental hotline lit up this summer with concerns from residents about noise and crowds, Palm Springs has no immediate plans to make any changes to its vacation rental ordinance even as other desert cities are them phasing out.
City sees spike in vacation rental complaints
After Palm Springs hospitality activity shut down in March, April and most of May due to pandemic-related protocols, the city saw vacation rental complaints spike during the summer months.
Vacation rental owners say the season was busier than ever. Though the city’s figures on reservations weren’t immediately available, Palm Springs earned nearly $1.5 million more in vacation rentals transient occupancy tax from June through August than it did the year before.
Complaint calls started ticking up in the spring. From April through June, the city received 664 calls to its vacation rental hotline, compared to 635 during the same timeframe in 2019 and 464 in 2018.
Due to pandemic restrictions, vacation rentals were shut down from mid-March to late May, and many calls in this time period involved concerns that people were staying at vacation rentals while they were still prohibited by the city, according to hotline data.
From July through September, the city’s vacation rental hotline received 653 calls, nearly double the amount (365) in the same timeframe last year, and 306 in 2018.
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After Labor Day, the number of citations dropped. City data show there were 36 citations in September, compared to 64 in August and 52 in July.
Overall, the city has around 2,000 vacation rentals.
How did Palm Springs respond?
In response to the high number of complaints, Mayor Geoff Kors said the city made changes to the way it operates its hotline. Late-night calls are now forwarded to a non-emergency police department number to get a response, as opposed to an emergency line, he said.
Kors said the spike in calls also may be due to residents who are used to having an empty home on their block that’s now occupied by an owner, not a short-term visitor.
“There’s a lot of part-time owners who are now spending a lot of time in Palm Springs,” he said.
But beyond administrative adjustments for existing enforcement policies, Kors said there are no proposed changes at this time to the existing short-term rental ordinance, or steps to ban them as other cities have taken.
Cathedral City earlier this year voted to phase out vacation rentals in all neighborhoods except in homeowners’ associations that allow them, though vacation rental supporters have attempted to overturn that decision with a petition drive.
In Rancho Mirage, the City Council will take a final vote Nov. 5 on whether to phase out vacation rentals.
Kors pointed out that 70% of Palm Springs voters opposed stopping vacation rentals in the city when a ballot measure attempted to eradicate them in 2018.
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“That said,” he continued, “it’s something we always have to look at and see its impact. If we need to make changes, then we should.”
While vacation rentals are a way for visitors to get a taste of what it is like to live in Palm Springs, Kors said, travelers still have to respect the area.
“That means you’re in a neighborhood with people who work, and kids who go to school, and you have different rules to follow than staying at the hotel,” Kors said.
Melissa Daniels covers economic development, hospitality and local business in the Coachella Valley. She can be reached at (760)-567-8458, email@example.com, or on Twitter @melissamdaniels.
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: Palm Springs sees spike in vacation rental complaints. No plans to change ordinance