Breathing room for TVRs

Dozens of transient vacation rentals that operate legally in the Wainiha-Haena area closed to the public since last April’s disastrous storms got a one-year reprieve on Monday that will permit them to go back into business when Kuhio Highway reopens — projected for later this year.

Without the provisions of a proclamation signed Monday by Mayor Derek S.K. Kawakami, the 81 legal TVRs in the corridor west of Hanalei would have had to shut down on about April 15 because, in normal circumstances, they lose their legal right to operate if they remain closed for one year or more.

Enforcing existing county ordinances under circumstances as extraordinary as last year’s storms, said Kawakami’s proclamation, “would cause hardship and inequity for such owners by requiring them to suspend operations despite being required to operate” under circumstances where operating is impossible because of provisions of the emergency orders that have kept the Wainiha-Haena area closed for nearly a year.

The vacation rentals in question were forced to shut down after the county imposed an indefinite ban on public access to the area because of severe damage from the storms, which severed the highway in several places and resulted in numerous collapsed and heavily damaged houses. While there were no serious injuries in the catastrophe, the Wainiha-Haena area remains largely inaccessible to the public as crews work to complete highway repairs.

Kawakami’s proclamation will continue the closure imposed on the area for at least another 60 days in addition to the new TVR exemption. The Monday order was silent on the situations of an estimated three or four dozen additional TVRs that are believed to operate illegally in the closed area.

It is not clear how many — if any — of those illegal operators have actually continued to accommodate guests with the highway shut down, but many in the community believe at least some of the illegal TVRs have managed to continue in business by spiriting guests past security and convoy checkpoints. Actual evidence of such illegal operations has been elusive.

At the same time, however, County Planning Director Kaaina Hull said on Monday that the county is about to harness new technology in an effort to identify and shut down illegal TVRs all over the island.

Islandwide, Hull said there are 3,500 to 4,000 legal TVRs that operate in various parts of the county’s Visitor Destination Area. He said another 420 operate legally outside of the VDA in places like Hanalei.

Hull said an estimated 800 to 1,200 illegal TVRs are in operation islandwide. If they are caught, they face $10,000 fines for each violation, but online platforms like Airbnb and VRBO often obscure the exact locations of rental properties, making it difficult for vacation rental enforcement investigators to identify and shut them down.

In an interview on Monday, Hull said the county is in negotiations with several Silicone Valley software providers that have developed special programs to identify illegal TVRs by specific addresses even if the online ads that promote them don’t give a precise location. As technology has started to close in on illegal operators in such places as San Francisco and New York City, unscrupulous operators have gotten more creative and upped the sophistication of technology they use to mask their true locations.

“As the illegal operators dig in,” and use more sophisticated methods, Hull said, “the more creative we have to get.” But, he said, “as good as our people are, the vast majority of illegal TVRs are still advertising in a manner where it isn’t easy for our guys to identify them.”

One way illegal TVR operators attempt to avoid detection, Hull said, is to limit their advertisements on platforms like Airbnb to evening and weekend hours, apparently on the theory that county employees will be off duty at those times. To counter the strategy, he said, county inspectors now typically monitor vacation rental online platforms in the middle of the night and at all hours over weekends.

The number of illegal TVRs against which the county took action last year dropped significantly from 2017 — from 93 to just 28 — because inspectors typically assigned to those duties had to be diverted to disaster response activities, Hull said. One of their tasks, for example, has been to implement the convoy program that limits hours anyone can use the highway and restricts access to residents and people with legitimate business in the closed area.

“We are now fully staffed up again,” he said, “and we expect to get those numbers (of illegal TVRs closed down per year) to go back up to 100 to 110.”

Recently, Hull said, “our team logged into the Worldwide Web at 1 a.m. on a Sunday and we caught one of them.”

Illegal TVR operators frequently contest orders that they shut their operations down. There are currently about 40 appeals or shutdown orders for allegedly illegal TVRs pending before the Planning Commission, Hull said.

Hull said Kauai County may also seek to emulate cities like San Francisco, which have fought litigation from illegal TVR owners and forced them to accept settlements under which they agree to limit their advertising so their operations fully comply with anti-vacation rental restrictions that may exist locally.

Although Hawaii has not yet given counties the authority to do the same thing, Hull said a pending State Senate bill would allow far more aggressive tactics in fighting back against unethical TVR operators.

  1. Da Shadow March 5, 2019 4:21 am Reply

    Not sure why this is being billed as a ‘reprieve’ -the year-long outage was government mandated.
    The county would have faced 81 lawsuits had they decided to strip permits from TVR owners.
    The county now needs to refund the TVR permit fee paid for the year which they have been prohibited from operating.

  2. loldude March 5, 2019 6:44 am Reply

    transplants are taking away housing space from locals. if you relocate back to mainland one housing unit will become available for local family to use 🙂

    1. dingdong March 5, 2019 8:00 pm Reply

      or maybe you should move to north korea, sounds like you’d fit right in

    2. Noway Jose March 5, 2019 8:04 pm Reply

      Dude, you could not afford a TVR owned as a second home by someone on the mainland, especially one in Haena. Stop dreaming or stop smoking weed.

    3. Jose March 5, 2019 8:07 pm Reply

      Dude, you and the other complainers could never afford a home in Haena. Get real.

  3. Joe Maka March 5, 2019 7:37 am Reply

    Great job again County of Kauai. I don’t own a vacation rental but live next to a legal one. I like living next to a TVR. Visitors come, spend and leave. Most of the time it’s empty. If it was not a rental, this home would NOT be for residents. It would just sit empty. Long term housing can be developed elsewhere. The concept that eliminating TVR’s will magically solve the affordable housing problem is ludicrous.

    Instead, the County is spending a LOT more of YOUR money to investigate and prosecute the “bad” rental owners. Add to this that they are not collecting revenues from by making more rentals legal.

    Basically the County is listening to a small group of non-taxpaying, entitled, subsidize-my-life vocal people.

    I have zero financial interest in this game.

    1. Gardener March 6, 2019 1:43 am Reply

      Yup…everything joe says. The county should be pointing fingers at itself. There has been no low and moderate housing in Kapaa for example for probably 50 years. The makeup of the new county council is worse then the last one. Good luck people regarding any kind of sanity to come out of this council.

  4. Baduck March 5, 2019 5:09 pm Reply

    Way to go Joe. You nailed it square on the head. TVRs are definitely quieter with less intrusion in the community than a lot of long term tenants do. The complainers are just that. Entitled subsidize my life people trying to foist a nonsense scapegoat on TVRs. The county is getting Akamai in its approach.

  5. Baduck March 5, 2019 5:15 pm Reply

    Now let’s see if the county can update their zoning and permit process to promote the creation of affordable housing through making the process easier for developers. TVRs are good for the community overall and the legal ones aren’t going anywhere without a fight if they are looking at having their permits taken away for no apparent reason other than some entitled people’s complaints.

  6. Julie Foss March 9, 2019 11:44 pm Reply

    Let us learn from
    Ronald Reagan’s famous words.
    Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be FOUGT for, PROTECTED, and HANDED on for them to do the same.

  7. Lori Adams April 3, 2019 12:00 pm Reply

    My friend has been fighting the planning commission for over three years after they lost their tvr because they were a week late filing their permit (no warning or late notice issued). The corruption in the process is unbelievable: The county hires an “outside” hearing officer that is paid by them and has the incentive to decide in the county’s favor! The class action plaintiffs then take this situation to the circuit court. Six figures in legal fees and the entire case is still floundering. It would appear that the county is so preoccupied with keeping out TVR’s that they will do anything. Garden Island should do some real investigative reporting on this corrupt and unjust process. Everyone is entitled to one late misstep in filing and paying for something that is as important as a TVR! What country is Kauai domiciled in?

  8. Guy Brrown September 2, 2019 11:42 am Reply

    Kauai sounds like O’ahu with little room for TVUs or owner-occupied B&B homes. Allan Parachini you don’t mention that in San Francisco and New York all accommodations are legal when the owner is occupying the property. That is, all owner-operated B&B homes are legal. This is because home-owners are given more rights in the U.S. Constitution than tenants. This is not the case in Hawaii, especially on O’ahu where all short-stay rentals are illegal outside of hotel or resort areas. Besides which we are not really part of America, are we?

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