Napa County cracking down on illegal, short-term vacation rentals

Blog note: this article references a 2018-19 grand jury report.

Napa County is hiring help to hunt down illegal, short-term vacation rentals in the unincorporated areas outside of cities.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday approved a one-year, $37,000 contract with Host Compliance, LLC. The firm will track home rental advertisements on more than 40 websites on the county’s behalf.

House rentals for less than 30 days in the unincorporated county are illegal. Host Compliance under county direction will send violators notices asking them to stop and alert county code compliance of repeat offenders for further action, possibly a court case.

A previous county study estimated unincorporated areas have about 450 illegal, short-term vacation rentals.

“It’s really a significant problem,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said. “I really hope this works.”

Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said illegal, short-term vacation rentals cut into housing availability.

“People ask, why do we care about illegal vacation rentals? Every other word in our lexicon right now has been ‘housing’ and trying to increase the stock of housing,” he said.

Dillon said the state should pass a law making it illegal to even advertise short-term vacation rentals in areas where they are banned. But that hasn’t happened.

Host Compliance CEO Ulrik Binzer said his firm works with 110 California communities, including the city of Napa since 2016.

The firm documents the matches of online ads to addresses and identifies the owners, he said. It does so by cross-referencing with other available online records and county records.

If there is a dispute about whether the homeowner was illegally advertising, the county has bullet-proof evidence, he said.

“It’s a very comprehensive suite of services. It’s been battle-tested,” Binzer said.

Some people advertising illegal vacation rentals on websites offer the legal 30-plus days until 5 p.m. Then, when county staff that might be monitoring the situation goes home, they switch to illegal, two-day rentals.

“They play games,” Binzer said after the meeting.

Starting soon, Host Compliance will be watching at all hours. The firm will provide the county with screen shots of illegal vacation rental advertisements.

Mount Veeder resident Gary Margadant told supervisors that this area west of the city of Napa has a lot of illegal vacation rentals. He favored the move to hire Host Compliance.

The 2018-19 grand jury called on the county to do more to stem illegal rentals. Its June report said that the county reacts to complaints from the public, rather than hunts the violators down, largely because of limited staffing.

Now Host Compliance has joined the county team.

Board Chair Ryan Gregory said the county in the past has gone after two or three illegal vacation rentals annually. Host Compliance provides a systematic way to deal with the huge problem, he said.

The county recently went after an alleged illegal vacation rental by Calistoga Wine, LLC in a house on Silverado Trail near St. Helena. The parties settled the Napa County Superior Court case, with Calistoga Wine not admitting fault but paying the county $100,000, with another $150,000 due if there are future offenses.

December 14, 2019

Napa Valley Register

By Barry Eberling