After hearing from an anonymous Atherton resident who called herself "the face of Airbnb" and told about her long experience renting part of her home to everyone from cancer patients to Internal Revenue Service employees, Atherton City Council members asked the city manager to look further into the ramifications of allowing legal short-term rentals in the town.
Currently, Atherton treats any rental of less than 30 days as a commercial enterprise not allowed in the town.
If complaints are made, the town's code enforcement officer investigates. Acting Police Chief Joe Wade said the hosts are warned to stop renting for short terms, and if they don't, they are fined.
Only one fine was imposed last year, he said, but in a report to the council he said Airbnb currently listed 13 Atherton rentals as available.
The speaker, who said she had lived in Atherton for more than 60 years, said she has both stayed in Airbnb's, including in Paris and Beverly Hills, and hosted Airbnb guests for many years.
She said her guests have ranged from government workers to a Stanford heart transplant patient. She charges $129 to $149 a night (including a full breakfast), less than half what is charged for a local motel room, she said.
Most rewarding as a host is giving a place to stay to "the families of patients that are dying at Stanford Hospital," she said.
"Atherton is not a tourist destination. They come here because they must be here," she said.
"The people who come" to this area "are good people and they can't afford (the rates) on El Camino, the motels that are $300 to $500 a night," she said.
Sometimes, she said, her guests are in town visiting friends or family in Atherton.
She suggested the town try out allowing legal rentals with a one-year permit, charging a "hotel" tax on the rentals.
The council also saw an anonymous letter from a resident that said its author was "house-rich and cash poor" and living off Social Security and income from an Airbnb rental in another city. "I ... have never had a single complaint from any of my neighbors," the letter said.
The letter also said Airbnb has a feature on its website to allow people to register complaints about neighbors' rentals that will bar a host from renting through the website.
Two council members said, despite the testimony, they didn't believe Atherton should allow short-term rentals.
"Our general plan document says we are a rural community, residential only," said Councilwoman Elizabeth Lewis. "We have 2,500 parcels and if every one of our parcels started to do this ... that would change the character of our town significantly."
"I think your story is really a lovely story," she said to the speaker, "but I just don't see that we as a town .. should relax those regulations at this time."
Councilman Bill Widmer agreed. He and his neighbors have had "experiences with short-term rentals that have not been positive," he said. However, he said, if someone is renting a home short-term, "and no one's made a complaint, more power to you."
"If they've been reported we need to do something about it," he said.
But other council members urged at least further investigation. "My perspective is we do have these very large parcels" where it is unlikely anyone would even notice extra renters in a home, Councilman Cary Wiest said. "Maybe it's something we should look at a little bit closer," he said. "Obviously there's a need."