Honolulu officials are reiterating that the law on short-term vacation rentals is clear: no properties may be rented for fewer than 30 days without the proper permit.
Their statements came in response to questions about a Civil Beat report that the owner of President Barack Obama’s Winter White House violated the law when he rented the president his home without such a permit.
“The bottom line is that rentals of less than 30 days are considered transient and are not allowed in residential districts,” Department of Planning and Permitting Director David Tanoue wrote in an e-mail to Civil Beat.
The owner of the property, Glenn Weinberg, told Civil Beat he believed it was legal for him to rent it to the Obamas for about two weeks, as long as he kept a 15-day period closed to other tenants either before or after the first family’s stay. Tanoue confirmed that such a short-term rental would still be illegal.
“As in long term rentals, we do not require that the tenant be present each day in the rental,” Tanoue wrote. “Often time renters may spend a weekend or a couple of days on a neighbor island and return. This is different from what some think is allowed: one rental per 30 day period. The rental must be for 30 days.”
Those found in violation of the law are subject to a fine of up to $1,000. Tanoue said his department hasn’t received any complaints of a violation by Weinberg, but said DPP will investigate any complaints it receives and issue citations only when the department proves “clear evidence that a violation had occurred.”
Mayor Peter Carlisle told Civil Beat the issue is best handled by Tanoue. City Council Chairman Nestor Garcia did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But other City Council members said the illegal rental represents a single high-profile example of a much greater problem that needs to be tackled. Many said they believe the law needs to be clarified for people like Weinberg, who appear to misunderstand its application.
“I think the law has to be clarified,” City Council member Ann Kobayashi told Civil Beat. “Rentals less than 30 days are not allowed. It’s not just about a 30-day block, but so many people think that way. If someone violated it, there has to be a fine. That’s the law.”
City Council member Romy Cachola echoed Kobayashi’s call for issuing fines.
“If they’re in violation and they did not follow the law, they should be fined,” Cachola said. “Pure and simple.”
But City Council Vice Chair Breene Harimoto took a more cautious approach.
“If you cite one, you’ve got to start citing the others, and I’m not sure we’re equipped to do that right now,” Harimoto said. “I’m really of the opinion that we need to address this situation once and for all, and we haven’t done that. So before we talk about citing one owner, I think we really need to look at what the real solution might be.”
City Council member Ernie Martin said the case represents an important opportunity to show that law enforcement doesn’t offer special treatment to certain citizens — like someone who rents his house to the leader of the free world, for example.
“In any other situation, this individual warrants a citation, so there should be no exception,” Martin told Civil Beat. “In terms of transient rentals, I know it’s something we’re going to revisit soon … We will look at introducing legislation. We have’t had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the DPP, who would be the responsible entity.”
Meantime, Martin also dismissed concerns from those who say the Obamas will opt not to return to Hawaii for vacation if the city doesn’t make more short-term rentals legal.
“It’s better, of course, to ask the president himself,” Martin said. “And knowing him, a fellow attorney, I don’t think he would take any action that would circumvent the law. But I also don’t think this is something that would, how can we say, discourage him from continuing to vacation in Hawaii. He’ll probably look at other places. He can stay on (the Marines Corps Hawaii) base. He’s going to continue to come to Hawaii because this is his home. This is his home state, contrary to what Chicago, Illinois, might say!”
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