Screenshot of Thursday’s Humboldt County Planning Commission meeting.


During this week’s regular meeting, the Humboldt County Planning Commission took its first look at a draft ordinance to regulate short-term rentals in unincorporated areas of the county.

The proposed rules, which have been in the works for several months, would provide a regulatory framework for the permitting and operation of short-term rentals (dwelling units that are rented to guests for 30 consecutive days or less, through services such as Airbnb or Vrbo) to avoid adverse impacts to the county’s available housing stock.

The goal of the ordinance is to “protect the values of the community,” Keenan Hilton, an associate planner with the county Planning and Building Department, explained during Thursday’s meeting. “In particular, prevent[ing] the loss of housing stock … and preserving neighborhood quality.”

On the other hand, Hilton said, short-term rentals offer economic gain for property owners who aren’t interested in renting to long-term tenants. “There are hundreds of members of our community that are involved in this industry and have invested a lot in it.”

Of the 34,093 residential units in unincorporated Humboldt County, approximately 567 are being used as short-term rentals. “That number constitutes 1.66 percent of the total housing stock of the county,” Hilton said. 

The draft ordinance differentiates between specific communities and separates the greater Humboldt Bay region – “where housing availability has been impacted and housing costs have risen ahead of the pace of wage growth” –  from the rest of the county, according to the executive summary of the ordinance. To ensure short-term rentals don’t overwhelm the Humboldt Bay region, the total number of permits would be capped at two percent of the total housing stock.

“If the number of permits issued for existing short-term rentals exceeds the cap … then no permits will be issued for new short-term rentals until the number of permitted short-term rentals in the county falls below the cap,” Hilton said. “So, if through attrition the number drops down below the cap at that point, we would accept new applications.”

Who is considered “existing” under the proposed rules? Anyone who establishes a short-term rental before the ordinance goes into effect.

“Optimistically, that’s in December of this year,” Hilton said. “If you established your operation in November, you would be considered an existing operation as it’s written right now.”

The draft ordinance notes that no permits will be issued during the first two months following after it goes into effect, but interested parties can still apply. “Two months after the effective date of this ordinance the department will issue permits for qualifying locations with existing short-term rentals,” the document states. “If the number of permits issued for existing short-term rentals exceeds the cap … then no permits will be issued for new short-term rentals until the number of permitted short-term rentals in the county falls below the cap.”

The draft ordinance would also limit the number of rental permits for a single property owner to no more than five parcels.

Speaking during public comment, Lissie Rydz, founder of the Do Nothing Society, an Arcata-based community engagement project, called attention to the county’s housing crisis.

“There is a monumental housing crisis happening right now,” she said. “I just checked Craigslist and there are only, like, 300 rentals on Craigslist. There are 150 Airbnb rentals right now, today. … My first rental in 2011 in downtown Arcata was $550 [per month] for a studio, a big studio. I saw last year that the same place is $1,300. … I’ve met so many people that I didn’t expect [that are] sleeping in cars. … This is it hurts me a lot to, like, hear all these stories and to not feel like there’s enough being done.”

Arcata resident Raelina Krikston presented several data points to illustrate why property owners would be incentivized to list properties as short-term rentals rather than long-term rentals. 

“[In] Arcata [there are] 237 listings, each generating an average of $41,000 a year,” she said. “Eureka with 277 listings, each one of these generating an average of $43,000 a year. McKinleyville, with 154 generating $54,000 a year. And Trinidad with 157 listings. Each [short-term rental] in Trinidad generates an average of $83,000 annually, and has an occupancy rate of 74 percent. So again, it’s easy to see why property owners would choose to list their properties as short-term rentals based on this income potential.”

Speaking on behalf of the Humboldt Association of Realtors, Bernie Garrigan, a real estate broker with South Fork Real Estate, asked the commission to delay its decision on the short-term rental ordinance.

“The complaint process [outlined in the ordinance] specifically seems to lack any sort of guidance or implementation as to what quantifies as a complaint,” he said. “Our recommendation overall is to delay any sort of adoption of the short-term [rental] ordinance until we can totally fulfill – with clarity – what measures would need to be taken to protect community members and their rights and property owners.”

Jessie Reichenbach, a local short-term rental operator, urged people who are concerned about the proliferation of short-term rentals to consider both sides of the issue.

“I lost my dad about five years ago to cancer and then I got diagnosed with cancer last year,” she said. “[I] went through several surgeries over the winter to try and remedy that. … We started renting out our home when I was going through the surgery so I didn’t lose my home, and now we are planning on living out of the county for just a year or two while we spend time with our remaining family members. It’s not greed and it’s not always us trying to invest and then make the money somehow, we’re just trying to cover our mortgage so we can come back once we’re back on our feet financially and live in the home that we love.”

As the meeting approached the four-hour mark, Commission Chair Noah Levy said he’d have to cut public comment short due to time constraints. “What are our options for moving forward on this?” he asked.

“Our plan is to bring this back on Oct. 5,” said Planning and Building Director John Ford. “I was thinking, because you really didn’t get a chance in [this] workshop to really make comments or explore things, we could continue the workshop [on] Oct. 5 and we can put that on first on the agenda.”

Commissioner Brian Mitchell asked if the commission would be willing to hold a special meeting on the topic. “I strongly feel like we need to have a separate meeting directed solely for this,” he said. “It’s not fair to have so many people waiting on topics that are completely not germane to what they’re interested in. And it’s very hard for us to switch gears between all these different topics.”

Ford noted that staff has agendas “projected through the end of the year” and said an extra meeting would be a viable option if the commission was open to it.

After some additional discussion, the commission unanimously agreed to continue the workshop to Oct. 5.