Hundreds of homeowners surprised to receive letters from city accusing them of short term renting

Local News

The city’s vacation rental crackdown goes into effect on Aug. 1, 2019.

The new law makes it illegal to advertise short term rentals outside of resort areas (Koolina, Turtle Bay and Waikiki).

Earlier this week, the city sent out 5,000 letters to homeowners they believed were short term renting to remind them of the new law.

But it turns out, many of them were sent to people who have nothing to do with short term rentals or renting in general.

“We’re hoping that with this new law it will be easier to crack down on those who continue to violate the law and the first attempt to make the job of Department of Planning and Permitting easier is sending these letters,” Mayor Kirk Caldwell said on Thursday during a press conference.

But hundreds of people received the letter who have never rented out their home before or have always rented out their house long-term.

One Waimanalo resident received the letter and said he’s never rented out his house in the 20 years he’s lived there.

His letter notes his address, a TMK number, and states that he’s renting out a studio for $135 a night.

The letter reads:

“Our preliminary investigation revealed that the above property or ones close to it, maybe involved in short term renting and advertising. You may not be directly involved in this commercial activity; perhaps it is a tenant. In any event, the law says the fee owner is ultimately accountable, including advertising the home as available for short term renting.”

After Richard Ubersax read the first sentence, he guessed the city sent him a letter based on “pins” that show up on hosting platform maps.

“To me, that was a flag, [DPP] looked at the pins and based on what I’ve found over the years, those pins are not accurately placed and that they [DPP] looked at the pins and said ‘ah-ha here’s one,’” Ubersax said.

His home is about a quarter-mile from the nearest rental that goes for $135 a night. The rental on one of the platforms shows it’s located in the woods in Waimanalo. But his house is located closest to that “pin.”

Ubersax knows there are several vacation rentals in his area and he studied the online hosting platforms two years ago when the city said it needed help on finding illegal rentals. That’s when he first learned how inaccurate the “location pins” are.

“I’m familiar which properties in Waimanalo are rentals and if you went to the website and identified the one you could see that the pins sometimes were as much as three or four blocks misplaced from where that rental actually was,” he explains.

After receiving close to 400 complaints up until Friday, the DPP admitted the mailed letters in fact were based on the “pins” used in advertising platform ads.

In a statement, the city said if the drop pins were not exact, it may have resulted in property owners receiving a letter even though they are not renting short-term.

“We surfed the websites, the most popular ones, and we gathered information based on those ads,” Kathy Sokugawa, acting director for DPP said on Thursday.

“We worked on that and we cross tabbed it with our real property data information,” she explained.  

“We’re doing most of it by looking at the websites but again we have a list still of outstanding complaints that we have yet to resolve,” she said.

She adds people are still calling in to make sure a certain vacation rental is on DPP’s list.

“We’re hoping this letter will result in a change of behavior,” he explained. “Meaning there will not be an illegal vacation rental on the island of Oahu, but if there are coming Aug. 1, we will be looking at websites and we will be taking action.”  

But in the end, the city wants everyone to understand the new two-part law.

“The first part takes place Aug. 1, 2019, and that is if you’re advertising and you have an illegal vacation rental, you’re in violation of the law and there are heavy sanctions that can be levied against you, heavy fines,” Mayor Caldwell said.

“Basically if you have a vacation rental, whether it’s hosted or not hosted outside of a resort area, without a non-conforming use certificate (NUC) you’re in violation,” Mayor Caldwell explained.

The DPP wants people to understand the letters were not a violation.

“We’re not issuing notices of violation yet,” Sokugawa said. “That starts Aug. 1.”

“We will be issuing a notice of violation once we confirm enough evidence that there is a violation,”

“A person who gets a violation notice has seven days to take off the advertisement,” she explains. “After that, we can start to issue a notice of order and that’s when we start to impose civil fines and as the mayor said, if you continue with the advertising it can go as high as $10,000 a day.”

Some residents who received the letters believe the city is phishing to have people turn in their neighbors.

“I was kind of shocked they would use this tactic to try and phish out properties to go after,” said one North Shore realtor. “It’s kind of misdirected and causing a lot of conflict in the community.”

He said the letters were sent to several people who have nothing to do with nor know anything about short-term renting.

“The way [the letter] states itself is pretty much, ‘We think you’re doing it, and if you’re not, and you can identify who it is, you need to let us know.’”

One paragraph in the letter reads:

“If this is not your property, we ask that you contact us, particularly if you can identify which property is involved. You can also inform your neighbors of this letter.”

“It’s causing a lot of conflict with people who even have long terms, and have nothing to do with short term and that ripples out to their managers, their tenants and all of a sudden they can get to the point where they’re accusing their tenants of possibly short-term renting,” he explains.

“I’m all for community policing, but when you’re directly contacting people’s neighbors and trying to get them to identify their neighbor it’s wrong,” the realtor said.

But the DPP says it’s just trying to weed out those who may break the new law.

“We’re not interested in penalizing or fining ads or advertising per se, it’s just a tool to get the actual occupancy of those units that are making a negative impact on our residential communities so the whole goal is to get better tools to better enforce the occupancy laws of the city,” Sokugawa said.

After receiving the complaints, the city said in a statement:

DPP is learning from the complaints on how to improve the search for potential illegal operations.  More importantly, DPP believes the letters are already reducing the advertisement activity levels, which means an immediate reduction in the actual number of housing units available for illegal short term rentals.

The recent letters begin a conversation between the department and the neighborhoods about short-term rentals.  They are not a precursor to getting an NOV and NOO.  One should NOT assume that getting a letter recently from DPP means you will get an NOV.

Clearly, this first foray into more technology-based operations has shown that such gleaned information can be a powerful tool for improving enforcement capabilities.

It has given DPP the ability to scour the World Wide Web in a matter of hours, versus manual checks, which would have taken months.

However, the recent experience has also shown that there are some rough edges to the programming. DPP should do a better job, to more accurately focus attention, and not unduly stress residents.

DPP needs to refine processes and is already doing so. Further, DPP will need to be, and will be, more methodical and accurate in acquiring irrefutable evidence of short-term rental activity before issuing an NOV, and is committed to doing so.

The city did receive many compliments from homeowners too. Saying they were happy the city was starting to crack down on illegal vacation rentals.

However, if you did receive the letter in error and are not short-term renting, you can call 768-8127 or 768-8159.

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