Desert Residents Favorably Disposed Toward Short-Term Rental Limits

The effort by county land use division officials to institute stricter regulations on short-term rentals in the region’s more exotic locales was given a rousing endorsement last month in Joshua Tree.
The area of the desert surrounding the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park or leading toward it is one of three districts in the county, the other being in the Mountains and on the Colorado River, where, for a decade now, the proliferation of single family residences converted into short term-rentals has been an issue of controversy.
Taking stock of the reality that there was an endless stream of wealthy residents of San Diego, Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, Riverside and lower San Bernardino counties who are looking to tour Joshua Tree National Monument, engage in mountain trail hiking, boat on Lake Arrowhead or Big Bear Lake or enjoy a “white weekend” during December, January and February, property owners found that they could rent out a property to one or more occupants on four weekends and make two to three times the amount of money that could be made renting the property on a long-term basis over a comparable one-month period.
This had a host of consequences. The short-term rental phenomenon, the transformation of homes, duplexes, condominiums, apartments, cabins and even trailers into quick money-making assets, is an outgrowth of the Airbnb phenomenon. It was in the Bay Area more than two decades ago that young members of the workforce just out of college who were barely able to make ends meet found that they could pick up an extra $250 to $500 by simply allowing a visitor to the area to stop in on a Friday or Saturday night, sleep on an air mattress in the living room and then providing them with a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs in the morning. The Airbnb – the air mattress bed and breakfast – was born. The phenomenon spread to Southern California. The original Airbnbs involved weekend visitors staying in the host’s homes, without the hosts leaving. That has evolved now to the hosts making themselves scarce, at least for the weekend, and the entire home being turned over to the visitors. The price has evolved, as well. It is common for a renter to lay down $400 or $500 for a single night or $750 or $1,000 for a weekend. In many cases, the hosts no longer live in the rental or in property near it. They merely operate the rentals as businesses.
Several locations in the desert have long been, and are becoming increasingly more, popular with tourists and so-called “snowbirds” fleeing harsh winter weather elsewhere in the country as well as Canada.
In places such as Mt. Baldy, Big Bear, Lake Arrowhead, Lake Gregory, Crestline, Joshua Tree and Yucca Valley, newly created “transitory neighborhoods” came into existence in which homeowners who live on their property are at times surrounded by homes or cabins which are owned by investors and occupied by “neighbors” who are not in place long enough so their acquaintance can be made by the actual inhabitants of those districts.
While the permanent residents of these areas were supportive of the county’s efforts at regulating the short-term rental market, the rules put in place have not undone the transitory nature of the districts in question. Conversely, some San Bernardino County property owners in these districts no longer value their mountain or desert properties as their own domiciles but are using the residences they have there as a means of generating income by renting them out at a relatively high rate for short periods of time, essentially converting their units into hotels.
The 2019 ordinance applies to permanent structures that are utilized as short-term rental units and accessory dwelling units, including stand alone homes, cabins, guesthouses and casitas.
The City of Big Bear Lake is a skiing mecca in the winter and early spring, a co-claimant with Lake Arrowhead as the boating capital of San Bernardino County from spring until mid-fall, a major swimming venue in the summer, a place where hiking, camping and fishing are ongoing year round and the spot for upland game bird and California mule deer hunting in season. As such, Big Bear Lake attracts tourists like no other place in San Bernardino County per capita, given that its 5,102 population makes it the second smallest of the county’s 24 municipalities. For at least half the year, Big Bear Lake has as many or more outsiders breathing its rarefied,1.277-mile-high oxygen-thin atmosphere on a daily basis than natives who call it home.
Big Bear Lake’s status as a tourist community first and foremost has proven highly profitable and advantageous to the operators of the community’s skiing resorts, lodges, hotels, motels, boating rental businesses, the owners/landlords of short-term rentals, property owners, investors, real estate speculators and the like. Still, the influx of temporary residents into any given locale and in particular the 6.5-square mile city limits of Big Bear Lake has create nuisances for those living in proximity to properties that have been leased out or rented on a temporary basis.
In at least some cases, homes or cabins have been simply converted into temporary accommodations without regard to local ordinances or regulations. Nearby residents have been put at the disadvantage of having, for a short time, neighbors they do not know and who in some cases have little or no regard for others they are not likely to ever see again. On occasion, those guests have proven to be poor neighbors, creating disturbances, inviting dozens, scores or even hundreds of others to parties on the premises they have leased or rented, involving parking and traffic problems. Rarely but still potentially, such parties can prove to be raves, with highly intoxicated participants. Excessive noise has been an issue in some cases. Bonfires are a staple of such gatherings. In some isolated cases, those lodging at the rental properties or their guests grow aggressive or confrontational with nearby residents.
Efforts by residents of Big Bear Lake, which is an incorporated city, to regulate short-term rentals and the impacts of tourism generally have been effectively blocked through lobbying and political efforts put on by the tourism industry.
A previous county ordinance relating to short-term rentals in the mountains was instituted by the county in 2015. In late 2018 the county took up the issue once more with an eye to revamping and updating those regulations. A newly drafted form of the ordinance extending the regulations to the desert was considered in public hearings held by the San Bernardino County Planning Commission in August and September 2019 and was passed by the board of supervisors in November 2019.
The ordinance applied to short-term residential rentals and short-term accessory dwelling units, requiring owners of such properties to register at least once every two years any property being utilized for rentals on a less than continuous basis, meaning, in practical terms, for thirty days or less. The ordinance further required identification of and signatures from renters, the maintenance of records showing compliance with the county code, and gave the county the authority to revoke a short-term rental permit, based upon violations. A permit revocation recorded against an owner entails a follow-up application fee of twice that for a permit to undo the revocation. A violation of the ordinance committed by a short-term occupant of the property accrues to the detriment of the property owner, which county officials believed to be an incentive to have the owners ensure compliance with the rules by their tenants.
Yet the conditions in the short-term rentals and immediately around them are not the only problem the massive scale conversion of what were once dwelling units into temporary lodging of those who are passing through the community.
As more and more structures that used to be homes for families are converted to lodging for community outsiders, the availability of housing for those who actually want to reside in the county has decreased. This has caused, or contributed to, the rise in housing costs. In some places, a place to live is not available at any price.
Before the turn of the millennium, reservations for and renting rooms was done directly between visitors/tourists and hotels and cabin operators. Since 1995, the site VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner, operated by Expedia), and since 2008, Airbnb, have made it possible for residential homeowners to share or rent their homes or space therein with members of the public. Other companies are now providing rental arrangement services. The COVID-19 pandemic increased demand for short-term homes in rustic and rural areas. In unincorporated county areas alone, according to Duron, there are over 6,300 units licensed as short-term rentals.
With the advent of VRBO, Airbnb and other booking services, those property owners who previously thought about renting out their units for a week or a few days at a time often refrained from doing so because of the difficulty of getting a reliable flow of renters. That is no longer the case. If a property can be used for short-term rental nowadays in the more exotic spots around the county, chances are it is being, or has been converted, to week-end lodging.
Roughly 93 percent of short-term rentals are single family homes. Close to 99 percent of those renting short term rentals use the entire premises. The number of short-term rentals have mushroomed since 2018. Since last year, the short-term rental frenzy has cooled, but only slightly.
In May 2022, Twentynine Palms set an 8.525 percent cap on how many of the city’s housing units can be utilized as vacation rentals, which practically means that no more than 500 of its 5,797 dwelling units can be occupied by short-term renters.
Through the county’s adoption of its current housing element in September 2022, the board of supervisors sought to address housing needs and the development of affordable housing. An issue identified was the degree to which short-term rentals impinge on the availability of housing throughout the county. The board requested that the county’s department of land use services study the issue, and carry out an assessment of short-term rentals by March 31. The land use services department did not meet that deadline. With the ultimate determination of how to interpret that data once it is collected, it is anticipated the board of supervisors will vote on instituting a policy proposed by county staff, perhaps one containing a percentage or numerical limitation on short-term rentals, similar to that in Twentynine Palms.
The county will consider the rate of conversion of rental housing into short-term rentals and regulations put in place by other counties and cities in the state. The county has hired extra workers to compile that data, including that extrapolated from internet sites offering short-term rental arrangements. The county is also quietly seeking to ferret out unpermitted short-term rentals.
In the meantime, the San Bernardino County Department of Land Use Services is out gathering information and data, interacting with county residents in those areas most likely to have been impacted by the Airbnb phenomenon.
On August 3, Heidi Duron, the planning director with the San Bernardino County Land Use Services Department, and Colin Drukker, a county consultant with the firm Placeworks, decamped at the 5,777-feet elevation Twin Peaks County Offices for a meeting with San Bernardino Mountain Community residents, the purpose for which was to both provide information and take a survey of residents’ attitudes with regard to short-term rentals.
On August 24, Duron and Drukker were at the Joshua Tree Community Center, which is roughly 2,700 feet above sea level, to hold a similar meeting to what had occurred three weeks earlier and some 3,000 feet higher. It was a two-way informational exchange. Residents heard from Duron data extrapolated from the statistics the county had been compiling on the recent trend toward short-term rental conversions. Duron wanted to know from the desert residents, just as she had from the mountain residents three weeks before, their perception of how short-term rentals are impacting the local housing market.
Duron’s presence provoked a torrent of objections to what Airbnb’s have wrought in the desert.
One issue is a staggering increase in water use. Visitors to one of the hottest areas in California tend to use showers to cool down. Many of the short-term rentals have been augmented with pools and hot tubs. In addition, the residents said, the increase in tourism has resulted in repeated trips by the visitors not only to the national park but eateries and stores, tearing up local roads.
The presence of the rentals has resulted in a dearth of housing for those who want to set up residency locally.
According to Duran, short-term rentals monopolize close to 10 percent of the housing stock in both Twentynine Palms, with its population of 27,491, and Yucca Valley, which numbers roughly 21,959 residents. Both the city and the town have set limits on the overall total of short-term rental permits to be issued in their respective jurisdictions.
Joshua Tree, which is an unincorporated county area but, interestingly, features much of the county government’s desert facilities, has a population of 7,398. Many residents there are acceding to pressure to convert their properties to short-term rentals. Others are seeking permission from the county to build secondary dwelling units on their lots, some of which entail one acre, two-acre, five-acre or ten-acre grounds.
The county is mulling a short-term rental limitation of its own. Duron and Drukker were seeking to get a sense of what kind of opposition the county might face from residents if such restrictions are put in place.
Surprisingly, the county’s statistics on what properties have been converted to short-term use are incomplete and in some cases unreliable. In certain cases, properties for decades have been rented or leased; some of the owners of those properties are now claiming their land has been used for short-term occupancy all along and they have a grandfathered right to continue to use it as such. The county in some cases disputes those claims, asserting the rentals were longer term and do not meet the definition of short-term.
One questionable statistic county officials threw out was that roughly half of the short term rentals in the desert were converted to such since 2020.
The short-term rental trend has been in vogue longer than that, some residents insist.

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