Ky Johnson has been frustrated by her neighbor’s short-term vacation rental. Tourists smoke in the driveway they share, she said, and valuable parking has disappeared.

So when the Portlock homeowner received a letter from the City and County of Honolulu saying that she may be suspected of running an illegal rental – and if so, warning her to stop the operation or be fined up to $10,000 a day – she was surprised.

“I actually get really mad about all the illegal rentals in the area, so I was like, ‘Seriously? Me?'” she said.

Senator Sharon Moriwaki holds a map showing some vacation rentals in her district.

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki holds a map showing some vacation rentals in her district as small blue dots at a May 2019 hearing.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The letter stated that if the illegal rental is being operated by someone else, the recipient should call the city and, if possible, identify the culprit.

“It kind of felt like a shakedown to rat out your neighbors,” Johnson said. 

The city said it sent letters to 5,000 property owners this week. Johnson is one of 390 of them who called the Department of Planning and Permitting to proclaim their innocence, according to the department.

DPP identified recipients of the letters by using a city-developed program that generates “a list of possible illegal advertisements” that violate Bill 89, Acting Director Kathy Sokugawa said in an email. The new law prohibits advertising rentals of less than 30 days with the exception of fewer than 800 non-conforming use units and rentals in resort zones.

The city’s program relies on information posted in ads on platforms like Airbnb and VRBO, said DPP spokesman Curtis Lum. Those services don’t publish precise addresses, so the city cast a wider net.

“The software we are using is able to plot the drop pins that are used in the ads,” he said. “If the drop pins are not exact, this may result in property owners receiving a letter even though they are not renting short-term.”

Lum did not immediately respond to a follow-up question about whether this same program will be used starting Aug. 1, when DPP will start issuing actual violations.

Sokugawa said the letters are simply intended to remind property owners of the new law.

“These are not notices of violation but are letters to inform homeowners of possible unpermitted rental activity,” she said. “The letters are meant to give the owner adequate time to remove the ads from the platforms and stop the illegal activity.”

Sokugawa said anyone who believes they received a letter in error should contact DPP at 808-768-8127 or 808-768-8159.

Johnson said the “fishing” expedition made her feel obligated to tattle on her neighbor. But she’s holding off for now.

“If they send me any more letters or do start fining me, I’ll be happy to throw my neighbor under the bus,” she said. “For the time being, I’m going to let it slide.”

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