The City of Santa Fe has such a broadly publicized penchant for social justice that it can apparently afford to occasionally turn in the opposite direction without anyone really noticing.
We officially oppose the war in Iraq, don’t allow our cops to roust illegal aliens and will be a bright blue spot on the electoral map until the end of time. So what if we’re touchy about skateboarding on the Plaza and we dole out refunds to short-term rental property overlords?
Indeed, our courageous City Council stood tall in the face of injustice and, at its Aug. 26 meeting, struck a mighty blow in favor of…incredibly wealthy and bloated property-management firms and second-homers with a tendency to pronounce “Cerrillos” like it’s a skin condition rather than a word in a different language. Partial refunds will be given to all 322 parties who paid for licenses in the first year of the city’s short-term rental ordinance.
It’s true that a state district court suggested the city ensure that fees charged per the city’s ordinance were in line with expenses (while striking down a challenge against the ordinance). It’s also true that City Attorney Frank Katz decided at the end of the year—and in light of the judge’s concerns—that no refund was necessary. The City Council, though likely aware of why Katz gets paid, decided to buck its own legal advice and ensure that Kokopelli Property Management and other vacation rental magnates receive some unexpected dosh in time for the holidays.
Kokopelli and others cried that it was simply impossible to make any money after paying the $1,000 fee, and that limiting vacation rentals in effect tells tourists that Santa Fe doesn’t care about them and leaves them with nowhere to stay. The bit about not making any money is a wild lie fueled by seemingly random numbers (complainers equated a profit of $7,500 with “not making money”). As to leaving the tourists with nowhere to stay—that is a tricky one. If only we had some kind of system of gigantic buildings full of rooms with amenities on hand. Something like that could solve the problem. We could call these places hotels.
The Santa Fe Lodgers Association, which represents enough hotels and bed-and-breakfasts to house a refugee camp along with the regular summer load of tourists, officially opposes short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods for obvious reasons.
Presumably the City Council buckled because it’s afraid of judges and lawsuits or multiple members are extra-cozy with property magnates or both.
It’s a silly idea, however, to suggest that a city can’t profit from fees. Otherwise we could all go to court and ask for refunds on the amount of money collected from parking tickets and revenue that exceeds the parking department’s expenses. If the city simply allocated the excess funds from short-term rental fees to a worthy cause—such as affordable housing or water payment assistance for struggling families—the threat of legal action would likely be muted.
But no, let’s cash up the folks who haunt websites like homeaway.com, which offers tutorials on how to fight vacation rental restrictions, even while matter-of-factly explaining “with the demand for vacation homes so strong, especially in what used to be sleepy little towns, the prices are driving out the locals.” Sound familiar?
The City Council, of course, is always sensitive to the little guy and the local. In this case, to sleep easy, councilors will rationalize that 190 property owners signed a petition. In fact, there is no genuine groundswell of property owners who are up in arms about the high fee and begging for refunds. Rather, there is a group that has been rallied “tea party” style by the large property management companies with the most to gain. It’s all Astroturf, as they say, rather than grassroots. And the mechanism at the top is the same one that has long dominated our shockingly unsustainable financial system.
It’s a dynamic that New Mexico author Woody Tasch would call “fast money”—the short-term trade-offs that amass wealth for a few while screwing the rest of us out of enduring value. Tasch is the author of Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered. From Sept. 9 to 11, Tasch’s growing network of slow-money-minded folks will hold an inaugural national gathering in Santa Fe. More than a dozen speakers from financial, farming and food spheres will deliver presentations on the important business of hashing out real, lasting community value, which, presumably, does not include absentee homeowner profiteering.
The key, of course, to genuine sustainability is always to consider situations systemically. In deciding as it has regarding short-term rentals, the city chose to view the issue within a bubble and isolate problems down to a few key areas, and made a decision that upset the fewest people (or at least the fewest vocal people). What would city government be like, I wonder, if decisions were made on a genuinely holistic level that understood the city as an immensely interconnected organism?