Honolulu officials estimate there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of Oahu property owners who break the law by renting their houses to vacationers without the proper permit. If that’s the case, a long-held complaint about a lack of enforcement also holds true.

A Civil Beat examination of a year’s worth of records detailing citations issued for violating the short-term rental ban shows the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting reprimanded 18 property owners for 24 total violations in 2010. Four property owners were cited multiple times. Honolulu fined only two of the 18 cited for violations, for a total of $4,433 in 2010.

Planning Director David Tanoue told Civil Beat he knows his department needs more tools for enforcement, and is asking the City Council to introduce a measure similar to a 2008 bill the City Council never passed.

“This bill would provide more enforcement tools for the department,” Tanoue said. “It would provide some restrictions on advertising, so we hopefully can prevent these illegal operators from advertising so freely. Also, it corrects some technicalities like the definition of a transient vacation unit.”

Since 1989, the city has banned vacation rentals of fewer than 30 days, making an exception for a privileged few permit holders. Residents who were granted permits more than 20 years ago are allowed to renew them, but no new permits are granted, and lapsed permits are ineligible for renewal. Illegal short-term rentals on Oahu are classified either as:

  • Bed-and-breakfast or B&B units: In which the property owner stays with the vacationers renting the property.

  • Transient vacation units or TVUs: In which the owner is not present while vacationing tenants stay on the property.

For now, the department relies mainly on tips from residents to investigate who might be breaking the law. There is vocal opposition to illegal B&Bs and TVUs, and many opponents have organized into groups like Keep it Kailua and Save Oahu’s Neighborhoods. The executive director of the latter group, Larry Bartley, said better enforcement will require more support from city leaders.

“Underlying the lack of enforcement is lack of political willpower,” Bartley told Civil Beat. “Administration after administration chooses to look the other way by not addressing it. I don’t blame David Tanoue or any of the people in the Department of Planning and Permitting. They have a big workload and very few people. If you’re not backed up by the corporation counsel, and if the mayor isn’t fighting it, you’re not going to waste your people-power and your hours for nothing.”

The city’s records of 2010 violations also confirm anecdotal reports about where the illegal activity is taking place. All of the properties cited in 2010 were on the North Shore, Hawaii Kai or the windward side of the island, areas where neighborhood groups are most vocal about their opposition to short-term rentals.

People say short-term vacation rentals change the character of the neighborhood they’re in. Parking spots become scarce, strangers come and go, and those on vacation tend to throw loud parties with more frequency than the neighbor who has to wake up for work the next morning.

A Neighborhood Visit

The owner of a four-bedroom Hawaii Kai property got the most attention from city officials last year. The house is on a cul-de-sac off of Kalanianaole Highway, where busy road noise is hushed by tall walls that also give the houses privacy. Property records show Andrea Eltinge received four notices of violation for illegally renting out her home in 2010. The first violation was in January 2010, and the department closed its case against her in August.

“The Eltinge one, we issued the notice of violation, and we kept going back,” said Art Challacombe of the Department of Planning and Permitting. “They said they corrected it and every time we’d go there and make a surprise visit, we’d catch them. We went to civil fines, and we were actually fining on a daily basis. Finally, they got the message.”

During their investigation, city officials concluded Eltinge, the California resident who owned the house, was unaware that her property manager was renting it on a short-term, illegal basis.

“It was subsequently determined that the Property Manager, Francis Fletcher, was responsible for the violation,” Challacombe wrote in a later e-mail to Civil Beat. “The violation was corrected on August 24, 2010, which, after the due process time allowed to correct, was 14 days of daily fines.”

The city can levy fines up to $1,000 per day for people who break the law on short-term rentals. Challacombe said Fletcher racked up $15,000 in fines, but the amount was later reduced to $4,000 in a settlement. Fletcher began paying the fines in installments but he was ill, and died in December 2010. The city allowed his widow to pay $2,000 to settle the case for a total of $3,443.

The man who lives next door to the Eltinge property said he knew there were illegal rentals happening there.

“It’s easy to tell,” Ron Nichols told Civil Beat. “You see rental cars. You hear parties. I know it’s a vacation rental because I used to run one myself. I decided not to do it anymore for a few reasons.”

One of those reasons, Nichols said, is that it’s against the law. But he said still believes that certain kinds of short-term rentals should be allowed. He said he stayed on the property he rented, which enabled him to keep tabs on tenants.

Nichols told Civil Beat the home he operated as an illegal B&B was a different property than the one he lives in now. He said he’s lived at this house for 14 months, and remembers just two incidents in which the vacationers staying at Eltinge’s house were boisterous enough to disturb him.

“One of the parties — and it seemed like a great party — this drunk guy came out to talk to me,” Nichols said with a chuckle. “He said, ‘I’m sorry if I’m disturbing you.’ I told him, ‘No worries.’ It was just one night, one party, and he was very considerate.”

But Nichols acknowledges there are problems elsewhere, especially when the property owners aren’t nearby.

“These rentals are happening everywhere,” Nichols said. “All you have to do is go online. Probably 70 percent of the ads (for short-term rentals) are illegal. I think it needs to be self-policed. I would be more than happy to be on a board that formed some rules to regulate it. If you’re working with aloha, on-site with the rental people, and you have a solid set of rules, I believe that would work.”

Attempts to Change the Law

It’s a controversial topic. In the past decade, multiple attempts to lift the ban on short-term rentals have been defeated.

“If they’re really careful, and they live on the property and they really screen their guests, nine out of 10 are good,” Bartley said. “But the tenth one, everyone remembers. They don’t control when people come and go. People want to party because they’re on vacation. It changes the character of the neighborhood.”

Those who oppose short-term rentals say the issue is more complicated still. They say short-term rentals drive up the cost of housing in a market where many people already have difficulty affording their own homes. Some property owners who rent their properties legally — they’ve had permits to do so since 1989 — are also hesitant to talk. One woman who rents a Waikiki property said she didn’t want to comment for fear of “rocking the boat,” or reminding her neighbors she was there.

The Department of Planning and Permitting keeps a list of the hundreds of properties that have the appropriate permit. Because people who allow their permits to lapse aren’t eligible to seek renewal, that list has been shrinking since it was created in 1989. But the department’s Challacombe said successful enforcement of illegal properties is also on the decline.

“Enforcement in this area is increasingly difficult,” Challacombe wrote in an e-mail. “The owners or businesses that run this type of illegal operation are knowledgeable of our enforcement practices, procedures and types of evidence we try to secure to determine if a violation exists on the property … (The department) has paid overtime to our inspectors for after-hours and holiday inspections with little or no results.”

The 18 property owners who were cited in 2010 came from a pool of 749 investigations into TVU and B&B complaints, Challacombe wrote. In comparison, his department investigated 3,626 sidewalk complaints in 2010, and issued 791 violation notices.

Although the City Council inaugurated five new members in the past six weeks, no one has yet stepped up to say he or she wants to revisit the possibility of lifting or otherwise altering the longtime ban. In 2009, the City Council narrowly rejected a proposal to allow about 1,200 more properties to obtain short-term rental permits. The measure failed by two votes.

Planning Director Tanoue said that’s all the more reason for the lawmakers to focus on improving enforcement of the law that’s in place.

“If we’re not expanding TVUs or B&Bs, we should provide the department with better tools for enforcement,” Tanoue said. “We want the council to consider this because it would really help.”

Here’s the list of properties cited in 2010:

Property Number of Citations in 2010
19 Kai Nani Place One
6924 Kalanianaole Highway Four
59-055 Hoalua Street One
54-337 Kamehameha Highway One
47-035/B Lihikai Drive One
47-033 Lihikai Drive One, same property owner as above
1038 Mokulua Drive One
332 Kuukama Street One
112-A South. Kalaheo Avenue One
57-101 Kuilima Drive #89 One
51-006 Puakenikeni Road One
57-101 Kuilima Drive #97 One
57-101 Kuilima Drive #94 One
57-101 Kuilima Drive #109 One
68-339 Crozier Drive Two
47-464 Lulani Street Two
59-672 Kam Highway One
59-575, -579, -579 B Ke Iki Road One
59-038 Kahauola St. One

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