I Hope I Don’t Go To Jail
by Michael Koepf, August 9, 2017
It was such a lovely summer. The novel I’m working on was already at 200 pages and more. I decided to take a break. We went to France—Finisterre and Brittany on the Atlantic coast. We visited Normandy. Standing on the bluffs overlooking the bloody sacrifice of Omaha beach, I saw where Americans landed without benefit of service pets to assuage the fear they felt. Oh, what a generation was that! We spent two nights in Audierne, a walled city by the sea. (Think sister city of San Malo if you’ve read All The Light We Cannot See.) Bubbles made a reservation through airbnb. We stayed in a two story, stone house built in 1752. Our host was a chef from England, who formerly ran a four star restaurant in Paris. She cooked us a private meal. We had the pick of two spacious rooms, both with fireplaces and luxurious baths. I heard knocking in the middle of the night. In the morning, our airbnb host said it was the ghost that hunted the house, an owner, who left for the revolution of 1789 and unfortunately failed to return. Our host was a font of information—local history and where to go, and it only cost 100 bucks a night; not 250 at a nearby, expensive hotel. However…after I returned to Mendocino, I discovered I was going to jail.
Somebody had snitched me off. My crime was unforgivable—I was an airbnb host myself, and I had failed to pay my TOT, my temporary occupancy tax. No excuse. I’d heard about the tax, but since my airbnb guests were infrequent, I thought—what the hell it wasn’t much? So did Al Capone. I file federal and state taxes; pay a fortune in sales tax; gasoline taxes; a tax for my volunteer fire department, and $124 a year for CalFire to promise that they’ll save my home in the event of a forest fire, even though I’ve already paid Cal Fire with my taxes to the state. I pay bottle deposits, and I pay a tax in San Francisco if I drink a coke in order that the children of fat people won’t end up looking like them. I’m tired of paying taxes; especially my county property tax wherein I receive little in return. I submit county roads and rest my case.
However, in the threatening notice I received from the county, the language was quite clear. When it came to my TOT, I could be fined or go to jail. Sheriff Allman here I come. I’ll need a toothbrush and one of those new computers you’re trying to provide for the inmates, but I’d prefer a stay in your nut house unit, if it’s ever built, because I don’t do meth or have tattoos. I’m too old to survive in jail.
So…on a sweltering Ukiah afternoon, I went to the tax collector and paid them what was owed—about 145 bucks. I was told I also needed a business license. They waved the $500 fee, because as a veteran, I spent a year and a half in the great Southeast-Asian suck. I also learned that since I lived on a shared road, I would need a use permit from the County Planning Board. The application fees were about $6,000 bucks to see the process through.
I’d have to drag my neighbors into this. It would take me years to recoup that money at $100 a night; renting, on average, once or twice a month for five months out of the year. Thus, I decided I was out. However, one day as I went to down to my mailbox, I met a neighbor with her brand new baby girl. My neighbor grew up next door. I’ve known her all of her life. She’s an intelligent spunky gal. Her husband’s an Army veteran too. Like a lot of young couples in our neck of the woods they do what they can to survive working at various jobs. Airbnb was one of those things, but she informed me that she also had been snitched. That’s when I thought: sometime wrong is a-foot.
In the end, I discovered exactly what it was.
I started to pay attention. I did my diligent Googling, and thanks to a post on Next-Door Elk, I learned I could watch my county supervisors on YouTube. I tuned these characters in. There was an emergency before the board—an immediate threat to the public health, safety and welfare of the people of Mendocino County. This was serious. Were wood rats infected with plague? Was there another Aaron Bassler on the loose? Had Jim Jones returned from the dead? (He claimed he did before.) Was Doug Bosco returning to Congress? What the hell was the hue and cry? The alarming threat was this: short-term vacation rentals. Mama head for the hills!
Metaphorically, and taking care to exclude the actual participants, watching the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors in action is like watching banana slugs mate. There’s bound to be some slime. Viewing the tedious proceedings on YouTube, I think I learned a lot. Supervisor John McCowen is the chairman of the board. He’s an inland mega-lib, who picks up after the so-called homeless to demonstrate the goodness of his heart. As chairman, he’s the quarterback of the game, and the forward pass on the day I watched was to adopt an urgency ordinance on establishing interim restrictions on short-term vacation rentals, which meant a moratorium on airbnbs.
In the interim, as I knew, anyone currently involved with the evils of short-term rentals can apply for a business license along with a Use Permit. After that, they can go before the planning commission like Hebrews at an Inquisition followed by an intrusion onto their property by the building inspector; septic tank inspector; water-quality inspector; air quality inspector; kitchen sink inspector, and Vladimir Putin to check things out. Realistically, anyone connected to airbnb will be out of business in our neck of the woods, unless they want to jump through impossible hoops to entertain the laughing bureaucrats and the politicians on the county board.
As I watched on YouTube, chairman McCowen asked for comments from the floor. Save for one, every citizen commentator was against the emergency decree. One, amiable, young woman spoke extemporaneously. She said she was born to hippies in Mendocino. After living in the city, she returned to the county with her husband and her kids. It was hard to make a living until she got into the short-term rental game, which was keeping her family afloat. An old timer said he needed short-term rentals to survive. Another lady had prepared intelligent, bullet points, but was rudely interrupted and cut off by John McCowen when she spoke 24 seconds too long. 24 seconds! This was a telling moment. It was obvious that McCowen was determined to put the emergency regulations in place.
One man speaking from the floor said that he had religiously paid his TOT. (He wasn’t a deadbeat cheater like me.) He had a business license. However, compliance with a use permit would be impossible to pay. Another man testified that he switched to airbnb because a previous long-term renter caused $15,000 worth of damage and it took three months without rent to toss this long-term renter out. This was a telling point. In the recent past, a greedy hoard of renters have moved to Mendocino to make money by taking advantage of Mendocino’s lenient rules on pot. I know of three county supervisors, and another who had a relative in the game. They all made money growing dope. Did they have a business license? Did they have a use permit? Did they pay their state and federal taxes on these substantial gains? Nobody snitched them off.
The sole, agreeing voice from the floor was, Don Shanley, a long ago, hippy poet. (And a very good one.) He told the board that he lives on a shared road. There’s a coded gate. Strangers were given the code to drive into a neighbor’s property that harbored an airbnb. Shanley had a point. However, does the bard of Anderson Valley live right next to the road? Are his windows dusty at night, or does he hear the cars in the distance as Baudelaire comes to mind? Did he try to work things out with his neighbors? I live on a shared road. One neighbor is a logger. His wife does horse rentals. The horse trailers come and go. So what? It’s the country. They’ve raised their children here, and when it came to repairing our shared road, they volunteered (without discussion) to pay the lion’s share of the bill.
The comments concluded. The supervisors did their thing, batting verbal balls in the air that always landed on the lap of assistant county counsel, an attorney with comb-over and wispy beard to disguise a diminished chin (I’ve tried that trick myself). He reminded me of that guy — the guy that always sits alone at the far end of the bar. However, he was the smartest guy in front of the room when it came to the labyrinth of regulations in the county and state codes that are akin to hieroglyphics to the rest of us, even though they control our lives. We’re all obedient Germans now. And, when it comes to our county board of supervisors, they listen like obedient children in a schoolroom whenever the county counsel speaks. It was copiously clear that the county council wrote the emergency regulations that would wipe out the menace of airbnb.
This is how the rest of the meeting played out. McCowen was the shot-caller pushing the emergency rules. Supervisor Dan Gjerde was his back up functioning as McCowen’s Mini-Me. I knew Gjerde as a kid, when he was in high school in Fort Bragg. I think he was seventeen. Gjerde has aged—backwards! Currently, he looks fifteen. Scientists should study his genes. Hollywood would like to know. The kid has come a long way. He did a good job on the Fort Bragg City Council, and now he’s making over a hundred grand a year in varied compensations for sitting one day a week on the county board in a county where the annual, average income is about $42k a year. I’m jealous. Nevertheless, according to Gjerde and McCowen, their redundant point was this—short-term rentals have created a crisis; long-term renters are out in the cold.
There’s a newcomer on the board, Georganne Croskey. She replaced a board member who was forced to resign because of mental illness, which, we all hope, wasn’t exacerbated by sitting on the board. Croskey is an attractive lady professionally dressed. She raised two significant points. One: why the need for the alarmist language when it came to the emergency decree. Was there really an impending crisis that affected the public, health safety and welfare of the people of Mendocino? (In my words) Has somebody been injured or killed? Are serial killers renting short-term homes and rooms?
Two: Croskey wanted to know if there was hard data on the insufficiency of long-term rental properties? Gjerde responded post haste. He claimed rental availability was down to 1%, but he failed to reference data. It was obvious he pulled it out of his butt. However, on Croskey’s salient points, Dan Hamburg came awake.
Dan’s my supervisor. I admit to being critical of handsome Dan in the past—his past association with a sexed-up, human-potential cult, because we have a sad history in Mendocino of what happens with cults—for instance, the hundreds of dead in Guyana. Nonetheless, despite Dan’s history of hanging out with the hoity-toity libs blabbing on about saving the planet from melting, I believe there’s still a tiny piece in Danny Boy’s heart that still cares about the little gals and guys disaffected from the controlling class.
Hamburg took note of Croskey’s points, (and undoubtedly note of her looks—that’s my Danny Boy) adding that the use permit that McCowen and Gjerde were pushing on short-term rental owners might be excessive. Hamburg suggested a short-term use permit, although what that means was not explained—$3,000 instead of $6? Will four bureaucrats come tramping onto your property instead of eight? McCowen reluctantly noted Hamburg’s suggestion indicating that it might be included in the final language of the emergency decree. Of course, it had to be referred to county counsel to interpret the legal Tarot cards.
It was apparent that McCowen was miffed at Hamburg and Croskey for questioning the decree. What is it with McCowen? He may pick up after the drug bums so that they can continue to litter again, while, in fact, the best way to get rid of the trash is to first get rid of the bums. McCowen may go home at night to sing and dance crazy around his house, but in his professional capacity he appears to be a cold and humorless cat. You can watch it all on You Tube. He gets haughty when things aren’t going his way. Also, call me petty, but something annoyed me about his face. It probably wasn’t his fault. It must have been the video camera, but there appeared to be a brush mustache under his nose.
And what of the other supervisor, Carre Brown? She wore a pink sweater; her hair appeared affected by static electricity, and she had a pleasant smile. Other than that, she didn’t have much to say. She hails from a Potter Valley ranching family. In her mind, perhaps she adheres to that old time, Mendocino maxim once common to rural folks: help your neighbor if you’re asked, but mind your business if they don’t. When I think of this so-called emergency decree, what the devil happened to that?
In the end, McCowen and Gjerde got their way. The vote was an unanimous five to zilch. Mendocino will be saved from the menace of airbnb.
But what’s really going on? Is airbnb out to destroy us…or is something else a-foot?
The California Hotel and Lodging Association (CH&LA) is a large organization representing the hotel and lodging industry in California. They are part of the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA). Marriott and other hotel chains are an essential part of this group as well as motels and boutique B&Bs. The AHLA motto is this: All together powerful. How’s that for a brazen boast? Associated with the CH&LA is the California Association of boutique and Breakfast Inns (CABBI). There are at least 16 CABBI members along the Mendocino coast. The CH&LA engages in extensive, well-funded lobbying in Sacramento. What are their current concerns? Two issues: human sex trafficking and short-term rentals. Astonishingly, the CH&LA equates renting out a room in your home or that cottage out in back with modern day, sexual slavery. If this seems incredible, but please, check out their website out.
On the sexual trafficking issue, the CH&LA wants to increase the knowledge of human sex trafficking. They’re sponsoring one bill in Sacramento to help rise the awareness of sexual slavery with hotel workers, even though most hotel workers make as little as $9 an hour with no additional benefits for making beds and cleaning toilets. Economic slavery is what this is.
As to the menace of short-term rentals, the CH&LA is currently sponsoring three assembly bills by lobbyists and their slave politicians in the California Assembly addicted to CH&LA campaign contributions. These bills include transferring the taxing of short-term rentals to the state, so that Jerry Brown can get his cut.
Another bill stipulates that only a certain number of short-term rentals can exist in any given zip code. This essentially is a quota system, and who gets to decide the number? A homeowner might be prevented from renting a short-term rental in their house, while across the street, a Motel 6 could appear without impunity. The purpose of this legislation as stated by CH&LA is to, in their words: hoteliers simply want a level playing field with short-term rental platforms. Level? One short-time rental in a house, verses 200 rooms in a hotel or twenty rooms in a boutique B&B? That’s not an equal equation. This is how CH&LA thinks: we’ve got the money; we own the politicians; lets level these small time bastards out.
Do my supervisors know what’s going on behind the scenes? They may not. If they do, they belong in jail with me. I think they blindly play this stuff by smell. The whiffs come down from Sacramento, or regurgitate up from Sonoma County dominated by the Press Democrat and Bosco’s money boys. A small time politician begins to think: Hey, this may be my chance to impress the big guys. Maybe Jerry will know my name. Wow, I can move up in the Democrat Party food chain. Ambition tracks to stink if you want a bite of the political pie.
Is there really an emergency crisis in Mendocino in relation to single-family homes that are unavailable to rent? Think of this: along the Mendocino coast, with few exceptions, every B&B was one time a family home. Where once a family dwelled, strangers currently sleep. In Mendocino County, the real crisis in rental housing falls mostly on Hispanics. They clean the B&Bs and motels where on average they are paid about $10 to $13 an hour, but not always on an eight-hour shift. Most toil without benefits. When a cleaning lady or her child gets sick, she depends on the state. Food stamps supplement food. Taxpayers pay for this. They’re subsidizing the B&Bs to keep their workers cheaply in place. In Fort Bragg it can cost an Hispanic family as much as $1500 a month to park a trailer in a trailer park. Greed is in the mix.
20.4% of the people in Mendocino County live below the poverty line. Aside from the drugged-out meth-heads and lay-about losers, most of the poor Hispanics have a job and often more than one. Essentially, they service the royalty of the tourist trade, who notoriously underpay. Will the county’s wiping out airbnbs make it easier for Hispanic families to find a place to live? No. Short-term renters will miss the cash renting out a room in their house, but it’s doubtful these spaces can accommodate a working family of five.
The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors are wrong to think that eliminating short-term rentals will place more long-rental stock on the market. They haven’t done their homework and their heads are in the clouds as they assist their friends in the B&Bs and wineries. Citizens gaze about. We’ve nothing but space around here. Can the supervisors declare an emergency to change the county ordnances and onerous regulations to make it easier to build a house? Hispanics would love a little house, and they’d save their money to pay.
Thanks to Mini-me Gjerde and happy face McCowen with the awkward mustache under his nose, and even handsome Dan, who, darn it Dan—almost-almost — didn’t disappoint me one more time, it looks like I’ll be out of business with airbnb. C’est la vie as they say in France. I had a lovely time in Brittany, and, as yet, I’m not yet behind the bars. I appreciate the French. They enjoy being exactly who they are. Overall, they’re honest and direct, and they never speak loudly on the streets. They distrust everyone in politics; they’re skilled at avoiding taxes, and they invented a significant, pejorative word—bureaucrat. Bureau, French for desk, plus Kratos, Greek for oppressive political rule—a tyrant who rules from a desk against the will of everyone else. When politicians function as rubber stamp bureaucrats concocting emergences on behalf moneyed interests, it’s time to tune in You Tube to view fresh faces on the screen.