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The Bed and Breakfast Battle in Hawaii

Illegal vacation rentals have vexed Kailua and North Shore residents for years. A new city bill purports to solve the simmering issue, but it still won’t be enough. The real problem? The city can’t enforce the current law. We tell you why.


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Gary and Cyndie Quinn named their B&B after a Christmas craft fair they used to host. They’re the only legal North Shore B&B.

Nevertheless, they say that resident complaints often fall on deaf ears. “There’s a general unhappiness with the DPP,” says Bartley. He says residents usually have to make several calls to the department, repeating their complaints each time, though repeated complaints seldom result in the termination of the illegal rentals. The department is also ill equipped to receive “evidence” of illegal vacation use, such as photographs and rental-car license-plate numbers, in order to issue civil fines.

How is the law enforced?

If an inspector catches the renters at home, he or she then can send a violation notice to the owner, giving them 15 days to stop operating, says Mike Friedel of the DPP. But if the owner doesn’t comply, inspectors have to start the catching-vacationers-red-handed process all over again. Only then can the DPP issue fines—up to $1,000—and if the owner doesn’t shut it down, an additional $1,000 per day of violation. Friedel says the department receives about 20 to 30 complaints each month, the majority of them for illegal vacation rentals, particularly those in Kailua.

The City’s Side of the Story

Issuing fines is a time-consuming, bureaucratic process, yielding few results. One major problem is the shortage of DPP inspectors—there are only 13—to make sure owners are following the law. Scoping out illegal vacation rentals isn’t even their main duty. These same inspectors are also responsible for investigating various types of city-code violations, such as sidewalk or street obstructions, hedge overgrowth, housing additions and termite damage, to name a few. They are then given 72 hours to follow up on a complaint, hardly a quick turnaround. With only 13 people on the job, islandwide, working Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (when they’re not furloughed), it’s clear why there are so many illegal vacation rentals.

“We’re trying,” says Mike Friedel, the DPP chief of code compliance. “Vacation rentals are one of the most difficult. The complaints are that our teeth don’t bite deep enough.”

Friedel says that’s why the city is hoping to push an enforcement bill through the City Council this fall. If it passes, it will force vacation-rental owners not living on Oahu to have an on-island manager visiting the property. The bill will also let the DPP issue fines up to $2,000 per day if an illegal operator is merely advertising, whether on craigslist or in a classified. “If they’re listing it, it demonstrates the use or intent to use,” explains Friedel. He says that B&B and vacation-rental owners will now have to list their certificate numbers and addresses on all advertisements. A quick online search shows that legal B&Bs do just that, but many unauthorized rental owners don’t list their names and use a 1-800 number and a P.O. box. Right now, in order for the city to issue citations and fines to the owner, a DPP inspector has to catch vacationers in the house they’re illegally renting. “It’s not uncommon that our inspectors will go back to a site multiple times and never catch the people,” says Friedel. “If you came here on vacation, you’re not going to spend the whole time in the apartment.”

Friedel says the proposed bill will hopefully boost compliance, but the bill doesn’t include adding more inspectors, a major shortfall in the department’s enforcement, which means it’s unlikely the new policies will make a huge difference.

Bartley says neighborhood advocates are eager to look over the new bill, which they hope will “remove [the DPP’s] last excuse for not enforcing,” he says. He adds that he’s asked the city to form a task force comprising DPP officials and community members to address the current law’s shortcomings, but he’s been turned down because “they don’t want anybody’s opinion,” he says.

It all comes down to funding and resources, says Friedel, of which there aren’t enough to form a task force, or do sting operations, another one of Bartley’s suggestions. Friedel says the DPP has reached out to the Honolulu Police for help in the past, but “it wasn’t well received,” he says. “They don’t have [additional] resources either.”

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Honolulu Magazine February 2019
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