San Diego

Vacation rentals turn hundreds of San Diego apartment buildings into pseudo hotels

The city of San Diego's ordinance allows property owners to list entire buildings as vacation rentals

NBC Universal, Inc.

In the thick of a housing and homelessness crisis, hundreds of San Diego apartments are off the market – off limits to San Diegans and set aside for tourists.

Those units are listed on short-term vacation rental sites, and allowed under the city’s Short Term Residential Occupancy ordinance. That new law was intended to increase the number of long-term rentals available, helping to solve the housing crisis.

While many licensed properties are in more traditional vacation destinations like Mission Beach, Ocean Beach & La Jolla, a large number can be found in neighborhoods that are typically rented long-term to locals.

Jay Goldberg considers himself a short-term rental compliance watchdog and has spent months analyzing housing and short-term rental data. He used the city’s short-term rental license database and the county’s property parcel data to determine how many units at each property have licenses. He found at least 273 buildings in San Diego where 50% or more of the units are licensed for vacation rentals. Goldberg shares his findings online at a site called

“What worries me the most is a few people getting their way to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else, and everyone else not seeing through that,” Goldberg said.

NBC 7 Investigates also analyzed that data to verify his findings. We found many apartments had 100% of their units licensed as vacation rentals in neighborhoods throughout the city, including in:

  • North Park
  • University Heights
  • Mission Hills
  • Crown Point
  • Ocean Beach
  • Pacific Beach

And NBC 7 Investigates believes that Goldberg’s results may be an undercount of the problem. 

We discovered San Diego County’s property data lists many buildings with multiple units as only having one unit. There are even properties listed as having zero units. An official with the Property Assessor’s Office says there are many reasons why unit numbers could be inaccurate and that the office is working to correct and update their parcel data.

San Diego apartments with 50% or more units with STRO licenses

Goldberg says landlords can make double or triple what they get from a monthly rent check by charging a premium nightly rate to out-of-town visitors to stay in the same apartment.

“That's the risk to you,” Goldberg said. “Now you’re competing with tourists.”

Marcos Ramirez is a member of the Tenant Councils of San Diego, a group that helps renters band together to fight for housing rights.

“We’re pushing people out of San Diego,” Ramirez said. “I think we’re in the middle of an eviction wave.”

Ramirez says it’s a wave we can’t really see. He says most tenants would rather leave, than go to court and risk an eviction on their record. This makes it impossible to track the true number of displaced tenants. Still, Ramirez knows San Diegans are being displaced. He says he sees emails every day from renters told to move out. And lately, more of those tenants are finding their former homes already listed vacation rental sites.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Ramirez said. “I think it flies in the face of the very notion of housing people.”

AirDNA, a company that analyzes vacation listings on sites like Airbnb and VRBO, broke down the rentals and found 60% of all active listings in San Diego are one or two-bedroom rentals.

Jerry Locke is a property owner and a member of the Short Term Rental Alliance of San Diego. He runs two newly licensed vacation rentals in Ocean Beach. Last month, he told NBC 7 Investigates that short-term rentals not only benefit hosts, but the city as a whole, through tourism dollars.

“When you travel, hotel rooms don’t fit for everybody,” Locke told us. “When you say no to short-term vacation rentals, then you’re kinda shutting down a lot of families coming here.”

With the exception of Mission Beach, where the cap is 30%, San Diego caps the number of STRO licenses to no more than 1% of all dwellings citywide. 

“Even one percent is incredibly damaging,” Ramirez said. “Every unit that is turned into short-term housing is another unit that someone could have lived in. Right? A family could have lived there!”

Councilmember Jennifer Campbell spearheaded the STRO ordinance, a process her office says took years of planning and negotiating. We asked if she was concerned about the number of buildings with so many short-term rentals and their impact on housing for San Diegans. Her staff declined our request for an interview. Instead, they sent us this statement from Campbell, which didn’t directly answer our questions:

“My staff and I continue to work closely with the Office of the City Treasurer and other city departments to ensure that STRO hosts are abiding by the STRO Ordinance. The Office of the City Treasurer administers the application process, which includes a periodic review of the application information submitted for accuracy and duplicates. All active STRO licenses data is updated hourly and is available on the City’s Open Data portal.”

Two other councilmembers and Mayor Todd Gloria also declined our requests for interviews about this topic.

Other issues with San Diego's STRO ordinance

In June, NBC 7 Investigates revealed a loophole in the city’s law which allowed one property owner to obtain 114 short term rental licenses in Ocean Beach alone. He told us he did that by asking friends and family to act as hosts. The offices of the city treasurer and city attorney tell NBC 7 Investigates using other people as hosts is not a violation of the ordinance.

And in July, NBC 7 Investigates exposed problems with how the city treasurer’s office processes applications. Officials admit the city’s system sometimes grants several hosts more than one STRO license, which the ordinance strictly forbids. 

The city treasurer’s spokesperson said the city reviews license data every month to identify anomalies like duplicate hosts, but does not keep track of how often that happens.

NBC 7 Investigates also reached out to Airbnb and VRBO to give them an opportunity to respond to this situation. Neither responded with a statement.

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