Is county doing enough to make Lake Tahoe rentals safe?
Lake Tahoe is a popular place to rent a house on a short-term basis to hit the ski slopes in the winter and play on the beach in the summer.
But the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District is worried about the safety in some houses. The danger has already cost a teen his life.
People can choose from thousands of rental homes around the lake. Online websites advertise that the homes can sleep 16, 18 and 20 people. But fire officials say it’s not always safe.
“We have a one-bedroom house that says it can house 19 people, so where those 19 people are going to be staying and parking is an issue,” said Mark Regan, the North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District Fire Marshal.
Photos online show the homeowners stack multiple bunk beds in one room. There are often no windows or outside door for people to escape if there’s a fire.
“We know there are some residents who are sleeping in lofts right now, and they just might not be aware that their window doesn't open big enough to get out, or they should have a smoke detector in every bedroom on every floor also,” said Regan.
There are about 1,080 rental homes in Washoe County. About 940 of those are in Incline Village and Crystal Bay,
Washoe County does not require the owners of short-term rentals to get a permit or a fire safety inspection. Regan said homeowners should have a carbon monoxide detector, proper exits and lighting, proper occupancy for the number of bedrooms and square footage and smoke detectors in every room on every floor.
Regan said a smoke detector and a proper exit may have prevented a teen’s death on August 7, 2016. Investigators said a fire started on the balcony and spread to the rest of the townhouse, with the teen trapped upstairs in a loft.
"He was by the window -- you can see it was open, but it was too small for him to be able to escape," Regan said.
The NLTFPD fire marshal argues that homeowners may not know what safety features can make a home safe. Regan said Washoe County should make safety requirements mandatory through a permit and inspection process.
Bob Webb, the planning manager in the Washoe County Community Services Department, said they do respond and enforce the fire safety code when they get a complaint.
"Most of the time, what we're hearing complaints about, it is not that you have too many people in a unit," Webb said. "It's going to be the people in that unit are going to be doing something else; they're parking on the street, they're making loud noise."
Webb also said when they respond to a complaint like loud noises, trash or parking and they see a fire code violation, they will cite for those too. But Webb said they do not actively go looking for fire code violations.
“For right now, we're good the way it is,” Webb said. “The concern you always raise is proactive and selective -- what has me selecting your property as opposed to this neighbor's property. The only way you could really do that is with a very large staff that starts at one end of the lake and works your way south.”
And that’s exactly how South Lake Tahoe does it. They require homeowners who rent out their houses to get a permit, which can cost up to $800. The county does a safety inspection and puts a limit on the number of people who can not only sleep in the house but even just visit.
The city has one full-time inspector and eight Community Service Officers who cite homeowners year-round. According to the South Lake Tahoe website, they’ve handed out 600 citations and warnings so far this year. Trash, noise and occupancy are common violations.
“We go through a pretty lengthy inspection process before we authorize a vacation home rental,” said Brian Uhler, the South Lake Tahoe Police Chief.
The community is just about to enact tougher requirements. Both the renters and the homeowners face a $1,000 fine for any violation. The idea is to have a more peaceful community.
“Ultimately it affects our neighborhood. We have to be responsive to the people who live here," said Uhler.
The South Lake Tahoe program pays for the staff. But Washoe County said it doesn’t have the money for a similar program.
Here’s something else: The Washoe County Planning Manager said short-term rentals are not allowed.
“As you read the code, the only activity that's allowed in residentially-zoned areas in the unincorporated county are longer-term residency,” said Webb. “Because the code only talks about long-term rentals, again, technically [short-term rentals] not allowed.”
Washoe County allows them anyway.
Property management companies don’t want the increased rules and regulations that the fire department has been pushing. They’ve packed board meetings citing financial reasons as one reason they don’t want more strict regulations.
“I think we can do it better, rather than bring in a new regulation,” said Blane Johnson, a broker with Sun Bear Realty and Management in Incline Village, who is also on the Incline Village Board of Realtors. “I guess I'm more or less against new codes, new regulations. I think living with the existing codes and regulations is a perfect way to start.”
The North Lake Tahoe Fire Protection District and the property management companies are now working together on an education campaign in Washoe County to inform homeowners who rent their homes of the safety regulations.
The NLTFPD said education might not be enough because there’s no accountability behind it.
“It's frustrating, especially since we just had a death, something that could have easily been prevented. A smoke detector and a way out for that 19-year-old, he probably still would be here with his family,” Regan said.