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Atherton will consider allowing Airbnb-type short-term rentals

Original post made on Mar 3, 2017

After hearing from local residents who urged the town to explore allowing at least some legal use of short-term rental services such as Airbnb, the Atherton Town Council asked to have the issue further explored and brought back to them.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Thursday, March 2, 2017, 12:39 PM

Comments (20)

Posted by WakeUpAtherton
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Mar 3, 2017 at 6:58 pm

Elizabeth Lewis - please think about what you are saying - really? Do you need to take it that far to try to intimidate the council with your opinion? There is no town in the US or World that has had every one of their parcels join up with Airbnb. Why on earth would you even suggest such an outrageous statement? Everything in moderation - why doesn't Atherton consider how lovely towns such as Mill Valley and Palo Alto are handling Airbnb? They allow it and in fact are getting a piece of the action in tax revenue that Airbnb makes is super easy by collecting it for the city and forwarding it directly to the city.

How many of the 2500 parcels have even noticed this happening in our lovely town? Why would hosting a guest in your home be considered as potentially "changing the character of our town" the people that use Airbnb are visiting our community and how hospitable for our residents to invite them to stay a few nights while they are visiting Stanford, or using one of the local hospitals, coming to town for a Venture Capital conference. We have a lovely town and why would you be afraid to be hospitable to guests? Should we consider a wall too? Not let anyone pass through the town?

From what was shared at the meeting there has really only been a few complaints and why are you reacting so negatively and closed minded? There are so many positives to this that you haven't even mentioned and considered. Please open your minds and be hospitable to our residents and any guests they invite in their home.

"Our general plan document says we are a rural community, residential only," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis. "We have 2,500 parcels and if every one of our parcels started to do this ... that would change the character of our town significantly."

"I think your story is really a lovely story," she said to the speaker, "but I just don't see that we as a town .. should relax those regulations at this time."

Posted by Question
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 3, 2017 at 10:33 pm

If Elizabeth Lewis is really interested in preserving the quality of neighborly life in Atherton, why did she build a house that violates every aspect of the Atherton building code insofar as to get around the relatively small lot size, it extends right up to the fences of the neighbors.

This was brought up a few years ago at the council level, and then city attorney Wynn Furth gave Lewis a "pass", perhaps because Lewis was in charge of setting her salary and whether her contract would continue? (The pass said it was the former building inspector's fault,[portion removed).

I'm thinking if the current city attorney William Conners wants to make sure there is no gifts of public money for trees and AirBNB, he should look at the gifts that take place in the guise of barter of favoritism, as they undoubtedly affect the lives of the residents much, much more than these various peccadillos.

Another example is the police union financing the Lewis campaign. Now she's a stout supporter of them, their large pay and pensions, and the town center that's being customized for their comfort and well-being. That sure seems like a gift of public money to me.

Posted by Open Minded
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 3, 2017 at 10:34 pm

I host many amazing guests from my little home in Menlo Park as an AirBnB host. The comment I read from Lewis is laughable, absurd, teeny brained, and just plain stupid! I would be embarrassed to have her on our city council. Most likely she asked only stay at the Ritz Carlton and the Four Seasons when she travels and has never interacted with real people !!!
People who stay in a room in a private residence at Airbnb home are much different than the Motel 6 crowd. These folks are seeking a "home" experience while traveling. My guests have mainly been Stanford connections. Loving, brilliant, funny, clean, and engaging people. I have had a few folks that needed to be at Stanford Hospital and I find it very very rewarding to offer my home to these needy folks who cannot afford our new normal Silicon Valley rates. Atherton Town Council must be on another planet...
Having a couple of rooms for guests is nothing like renting out your whole home to perhaps crazy people. I am always in residence and enjoy sometimes multi lingual conversation with my guests during the evening with a cup of tea. I hope Atherton reconsiders their silly out-dated ordinances. Does absolutely nothing to change the character of a neighborhood. Menlo Park does not allow on street parking overnight so that is the only situation that one might incur but luckily I have two driveways spots for my guests.

Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 4, 2017 at 8:50 am

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.


haven't you heard? The rules don't apply to Lewis.

Posted by Sorry but not all alike
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 4, 2017 at 10:50 am

Sorry guys, but I live off Middlefield in the Lindenwood area and not all experiences are alike. There is a small street near me where there are two AirBnB homes. I have complained about both due to loud parties, short-term rentals where there are numerous vehicles coming and going at all hours and the property owners live out of country so they don't care. Managed by a third party. If you want this next to you every day - go for it, but I think protecting our community against this activity is important and a very slippery slope when we start allowing it. Not everyone's experiences are the same and I applaud Lewis and Widmer for speaking out.

Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 4, 2017 at 4:40 pm

If Atherton permits Airbnb, there will be more properties seeking overnight rentals. It won't be every property, but there will be more. Some blocks may have a lot. Some may have none at all.

While most guests are well-behaved, the bad apples ruin it for everyone else. They annoy the neighbors, then force the police and code enforcement officers to spend time dealing with the problems.

For the Airbnb supporters, what can the town do about hosts that allow poor guest behavior? From the Airbnb website, it says Airbnb will report neighbor complaints to hosts, but it doesn't say anything about removing those host listings permanently.
Web Link

And even if Airbnb does, what happens when that owner moves to VRBO or another website?

I think that's what Lewis and Widmer are getting at. If Airbnb is permitted, the town would have to spend a lot of resources stopping the bad hosts. It's not worth the trouble for a small amount of tax revenue.

At the same time, I don't think they are unsympathetic to hosts that are conscientious of their neighbors. From the article, Widmer hinted that the Airbnb ban would only be enforced on a complaint basis. If no neighbors complain, Atherton won't do anything. If one property gets frequent complaints, Atherton can shut down the operation immediately since they are illegal.

Ultimately, Atherton residents really just care about the negative externalities from Airbnb rentals.

Posted by Question
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 4, 2017 at 4:44 pm

Apple, sounds good as you state it, but all of human history has proven that rules with selective/subjective enforcement are unjust and wind up disenfranchising people.

Of course, the simple way to achieve what you say you think the council is after is for them to pass a regulation on AirBNB rentals, such that they are allowed, but with an infraction system escalating to a ban on the property based on complaints.

It really makes no sense to ban them outright and to state "we'll just enforce the law when we think there's a problem."

Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 4, 2017 at 9:34 pm


All laws are selectively enforced because all governments create numerous laws, but are constrained by revenue they get from their tax base. Does Atherton code enforcement sit outside every construction site to make sure no work occurs at night nor weekends? Do the police watch every Atherton road to make sure there are never any speeders?

They can't because their budgets are limited. They do random checks and respond to violation complaints. Yet, no one considers speed limits and weekday daytime construction hours unjust and disenfranchising.

And so it will go for any Atherton Airbnb regulation. Whatever the council agrees to will not be 100% enforced. That's because whatever Airbnb tax money comes in will pay for maybe 5% of a code enforcement officer's salary. That's equivalent to 2 hours of a 40 hour work week.

The challenge for the council is not whether to allow or not allow Airbnb or even under what restrictions. The real challenge is how does Atherton enforce those restrictions CHEAPLY. And because enforcement will likely be on a complaint only basis, "cheaply" translates to: how do we ensure there will be limited neighbor complaints if we permit Airbnb?

If you can answer that question to the council's satisfaction, then permitting Airbnb in Atherton is a piece of cake. I'm sure what the council doesn't want is to permit Airbnb, have a bunch of new rentals come to market, then get angry phone calls from voters.

Posted by Question
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 5, 2017 at 8:34 am

Apple, again, nice words, but no real points on why the regulation needs to be an outright prohibition (with selective enforcement) instead of the infraction system I proposed above. One does not take more resources to enforce than the other. Arguably mine takes less.

Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 5, 2017 at 12:08 pm


Legalizing Airbnb would take fewer town resources if the number of complaints are expected to decrease. The problem is everyone expects the opposite, especially with regulations that are more nuanced.

An outright prohibition is easier to enforce. If the house appears on the Airbnb website, that's a violation. The due process is straightforward and quick.

Regulating a legal activity is costly to enforce and adjudicate. Police officers must observe if a guest is making too much noise, littering, etc. And even when the police officer identifies that person, it's not always clear they are associated with an Airbnb rental. The person could be a paying guest or a friend of the family. Suspects do have a right to remain silent and refuse to answer questions. And all that work so Atherton can get paid the cost of an infraction.

Airbnb hosts are on their best behavior now because it is illegal. If Atherton starts permitting Airbnb, there will be more hosts and hosts will not take as much care to vet their guests.

Posted by Peter Oswald
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 6, 2017 at 10:21 pm

Allowing short term rentals has had and will continue to have little effect on the small town feel of Atherton. I've known of a couple that have existed for many years and you'd never even know they were there as you drive past the houses. Furthermore, a number of Atherton residents have enjoyed using these short term rentals while their homes are being renovated or fumigated.

In closing, we all know the kinds of people who own property in Atherton, it would be ridiculous to assume any more than a handful of people will use their homes for short term rentals. Those who do should be permitted to do so, as they are providing a valuable service for guests who would like to stay in a home instead of a hotel. If I was from out of the area and was receiving treatment at Stanford Hospital, it would be a very appealing choice.


Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 6, 2017 at 10:24 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

This is a perfect example of a solution in search of a problem.

Sadly that ability to impose regulations seems to exceed the capacity to use good judgement.

Posted by Roy
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 7, 2017 at 7:03 am

There are a number of regulatory issues (building and fire safety codes, for example) that are an inseparable element of Airbnb’s business model. Certainly, the agencies involved in disseminating and enforcing those issues will want to be involved in the regulation process.

Hotels have increased costs associated with safety regulations, including alarms, sprinklers, and signage. They typically have multiple exits. Those costs are passed on to the customers. Airbnb hosts likely carry none of these burdens. Thus there is a regulation induced gap between costs which Airbnb hosts can exploit to their benefit. They can rent rooms or homes for less than the rates offered by regulated businesses -- hotels and motels.

The government (municipal and special districts) have an interest in gaining compliance with their zoning comprehensive plan. With respect to Atherton, the plan focuses on preserving the rural character of the town. If the town were to only enforce its restrictions when there were complaints, it could be subject to a claim of being arbitrary and capricious in its enforcement of laws.

Though transitory occupancy may be a small problem today, unless it's regulated it will become a larger problem tomorrow. Thus, it is a problem in search of an answer.

Posted by really?
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 7, 2017 at 8:30 am


How is a guest staying in your spare bedroom a change of Occupancy class that would mandate a different classification in either the building or zoning Code?

A house is a house is a house, whether the primary owner is living in it or a different occupant for a year or a week. These houses are not reconfigured into 'separate living accommodations' or 'Guest Rooms' as the Code sets out, so there is no comparison with Hotels and Boarding Houses. Read the CBC. Allow people their rights to do whatever they want with their homes as long as it's not creating a nuisance.

If some Atherton resident with a huge house has a party with 100 people, should we post occupancy notices and have the fire marshall enforce, since they are behaving like and A occupancy. Shut them down for lack of exit signs?

Posted by Sorry but not all alike
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 7, 2017 at 10:12 am

Currently it's illegal and there are problems. If it's going to be made legal, regulate it to the hilt. The homes I mentioned above have converted space - some to include full second and third kitchens. This may or may not have been done with proper permits and review. It's unlikely because the Town would not allow such full conversions as it would change a single-family dwelling into a multi-family dwelling. Sure, when they sell the home this can be picked up via permit review, but until then there is a second or third kitchen installation in a single family residence that is unpermitted and not inspected under the building and fire codes. Potential fire hazard? Safety hazard? Who knows? Would the fire department like to know that they are dealing with a multi-family dwelling instead of a single family home before breaching? Wouldn't they like to know that someone might be living in the basement with a full complement of kitchen appliances (gas lines etc)? Sure, Atherton residents are rich and would likely "do things right" but I'm not betting on it from my current experience.

Posted by Roy
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 7, 2017 at 1:44 pm


Reducing these sharing services to the notion of someone offering a room to a guest or a ride to a friend over simplifies the policy problem. Of course people are free to host guests. The difference is when the activity is being conducted for commercial purposes. With respect to Airbnb, there are extreme cases where the service is used to rent out an entire home under the supervision of a property management company. I suggest that's different than the homeowner who resides in the premise and occasionally offers an empty room for rent. But, neither is offering that room to a guest who might be staying on the residence for free.

The Town is absolutely within its rights to zone land use and it has chosen to make that use residential. There are no businesses in Atherton and that is the right of its citizens. The idea that homes could be rented out as hotel type properties strikes me as being at odds with the intent of the zoning laws.

As for regulation, I pointed that out because the government, particularly the Fire Department, has an interest in making certain the users of such services are safe. I may be going out on a limb, but I speculate some of these rooms don't have smoke detectors, illustrations of escape routes, or fire extinguishers. I was pointing out that the 'competition' does and thus Airbnb hosts are able to undercut the market.

Posted by Craigslist
a resident of Atherton: Lloyden Park
on Mar 9, 2017 at 7:11 pm

Very interesting comments - but I have to say Airbnb is operating in the "Sharing Economy" it is changing the ways communities are welcoming guests. I travelled throughout Europe and stayed in Airbnbs and it was so wonderful to meet the local people and learn about their community. You cannot get his experience staying in a hotel.

I have also stayed in Airbnb places throughout the US and it is a wonderful experience - most of the places we stayed we are guests in peoples homes or cottages and it is not for everyone, but many Americans and Global citizens really embrace the warmness that it brings to a community. Since Airbnb is HQ in San Francisco I would bet we have some employees living in our community that would come to a town meeting and speak more to what the benefits are to our community rather than the very small number of negatives that have been presented.

As far as renting entire houses - this has been going on via Craigslist, VRBO and many other sites and for many years without any regulation required. If there is an issue residents are able to voice their concern to the neighbor and the police department. The problem situations are very small I would venture to say.

There may be a small percentage of the Town Council that have stayed in an Airbnb but I would hope they will take the time to truly understand this new segment of how people are living both as hosts and guests. The key word is HOST, most are hosts and not cheesy property managers.

Posted by Enforcement
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Mar 9, 2017 at 7:13 pm

Speaking of enforcement and non-enforcement - Atherton has an ordinance for no overnight parking on the streets. I would say spending some time enforcing that ordinance would do more to improve the beautiful rural character of Atherton than the very small issue of Atherton residents inviting guests to spend the night with them.

Posted by Roy
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 9, 2017 at 7:19 pm


I believe Menlo Park has such an ordinance, but not Atherton. Can you provide the ordinance text or number?

Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 10, 2017 at 9:34 am

"As far as renting entire houses - this has been going on via Craigslist, VRBO and many other sites and for many years without any regulation required. If there is an issue residents are able to voice their concern to the neighbor and the police department. The problem situations are very small I would venture to say."

Yes, renting of entire houses has been going on DISCREETLY. If no one is bothered, nobody cares. Then, it doesn't really matter from a practical standpoint whether Airbnb is legalized. If the problems are small, people won't complain to the police and town council about Airbnb guests.

When guests are causing an issue today, police and code enforcement can immediately come in and assess major fines to the rental property if necessary. They generally don't because owners will comply right away knowing what they are doing is illegal.

If legalization is the solution, then it must have solved many of the problems that SF was experiencing with Airbnb. Nope, that didn't happen. 70% of hosts are still not registered with SF. When SF tried to assess pricey fines for the illegal listings, did Airbnb help them because they are interested in homeowner harmony? Nope, Airbnb sued to stop the rules.

For those in favor of Airbnb legalization, can you point to a municipality that has legalized the practice and now the community is in harmony with the guests? If you can, Atherton can model legalization based on that model and you would find a lot more support among naysayers.

The real tough question is if Atherton makes Airbnb legal, what rules should be in place? The challenge is to ensure it doesn't cost the town a lot to enforce while minimizing negative externalities.

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