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Your Stories: La Jolla vacation rental company's refund policy under scrutiny

A La Jolla-based company is offering 50% refunds, or credit for future bookings.

SAN DIEGO — Families all over the country have been canceling vacations to San Diego County because of the coronavirus pandemic.  In this Your Stories investigation, News 8 spoke to people who are upset about the refund policy of one local, short-term-rental company.

Jonah Mechanic is the owner of SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals in La Jolla.  For years, he’s been a vocal supporter of short-term rentals in San Diego. Mechanic has appeared on television and written op-ed articles for online news organizations.

Now, he's back in the spotlight in a Facebook group calling itself SeaBreeze Vacation Rental Scam.  While Mechanic’s rental management business is legitimate and technically not a scam, the name seems to be sticking for people on social media, who are peeved.

“We were definitely really frustrated. I think it was just a lot of back and forth, a lot of stonewalling, [and] a lot of not responding to emails,” said Dr. Anjana Uppal, an ER doctor in New York City.  

Her husband, Dr. Amit Uppal, works in a New York City hospital ICU.

The couple booked an oceanfront rental in La Jolla recently and another short-term rental in Newport Beach as part of a spring-break family reunion.

“Between the two houses, it was over $10,000, the total amount,” said Anjana.

With COVID-19 devouring New York City, there was no way the two doctors were going to leave their hospital patients.  They tried to cancel their short-term rentals with Seabreeze, but said they received no response via email and were placed on terminal hold when they called the La Jolla office.

“Imagine a 16 or 14-hour work day. That is very stressful as it is.  You come home, you've got a couple hours with your kids, and instead you're listening to hold music,” said Amit.

After a lot of back and forth, SeaBreeze offered them a 50% cash refund or full credit if they rebooked another rental over the next year.

“We don't know how long this pandemic will go on and when it will be safe to travel again.  It didn't feel like much of a guarantee of anything to us,” said Amit.

“So, during a time when the rest of the country is trying to prop up and support essential workers – and particularly health care workers – I felt like they were trying to exploit those people, probably because they knew we didn't have the time to devote to arguing with them,” said Amit.

When News 8 called SeaBreeze Vacation Rental owner Jonah Mechanic, he said it was all a mistake and his company's policy during the pandemic is to give first responders and healthcare workers full refunds for cancellations.

“He has my personal apologies.  He will get – assuming he can prove that he's a medical professional – he will get a 100% refund, no questions asked,” said Mechanic.

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Atossa Jackson lives in Los Angeles.  She and a group of 12 friends booked an estate in Temecula through SeaBreeze Vacation Rentals as part of a planned wine-tasting trip.

“Me and a group of friends, who go all the way back to high school, decided to make a girl's weekend away,” Jackson said. “Total cost was $3,133 and I believe 16 cents.”

Governor Newsom’s stay-at-home order put a cork in that Temecula getaway. 

Jackson’s group tried to cancel with SeaBreeze and got the same offer: a 50% refund or full credit for rebooking later.  That’s when Jackson started reading the recent online reviews.

“We simply don't want to do business with the company in the future and the travel industry is in a bit of trouble right now.  Who's to say they're even going to be a viable business sometime by the end of this year, should we be able to travel for leisure again?" Jackson said.

The owner of SeaBreeze said a 50% refund is fair, given the fact that he is under contract to pay property owners when their homes are booked.

“Offering a 100% refund might be the right thing to do through the guest's eyes, but what about the homeowner who also has bills to pay, who also has a mortgage to pay?” said Mechanic.

Other short-term companies, like Airbnb, announced during the pandemic that they would be offering customers full refunds.

“Airbnb is a multi billion dollar company. We're a small San Diego company.  You can't compare the two,” said Mechanic.

Stephanie Ballard and her fiancé, Chris Driscoll, had their dream wedding planned for La Jolla in April.

“We had rented this place from SeaBreeze for us and 20 members of our wedding party for $11,352, which is a big chunk of change,” said Ballard.

When the pandemic hit, Stephanie asked SeaBreeze for a full refund.

"They were like, 'sorry it's not within our cancellation policy to do that' and I was just dumbfounded and livid," she said.

The couple couldn't afford to lose $5,500.  They had to reschedule their wedding for a future date in October.  The same house was not available on that date, so they booked a different house away from the ocean.

“So, that's where we are.  It's not the resolution that we wanted, but I think we were just so exhausted from fighting with them for three weeks. It was the best we could do at the time,” said Stephanie.

The SeaBreeze Vacation Rental office remains open for business on La Jolla Blvd. and the company continues to offer COVID-19 and shelter-in-place specials in its advertising.

Under the governor's stay-at-home order, short-term rentals can be used to house front-line COVID-19 workers in support of mitigation and containment of the virus and homeless populations as a measure to protect them from COVID-19, but not tourists.

“Our offices on La Lolla Blvd. are open, yes, but very few employees are in the office,” said Mechanic.

“We’re not advertising for tourists.  We're advertising homes – so that people understand – that if you live in California and you want to shelter in place, that there's a home available for you,” said Mechanic.

Meanwhile, the complaints just keep on coming in on the Facebook group, some of them making their way to the San Diego City Attorney's office.

“We are all dealing with a pandemic that's very frightening and we don't know when it's going to end,” said City Attorney Mara Elliott. “We expect our businesses to step up to the plate and treat consumers fairly.  The investigation is still young but whenever we get a complaint – and we have gotten several – we will investigate it thoroughly to see of the law has been crossed."

People in the Facebook group now are resorting to researching the addresses of the homes they had booked.  Some have contacted the property owners directly and requested full refunds.  As a result, in some cases, they have been successful in getting their money back.

Jonah Mechanic emailed News 8 the following statement:

“SeaBreeze Vacation rentals is strongly committed to its customers and the families that vacation in our community. The COVID-19 crisis has created an unprecedented situation in so many ways. We are doing our best to provide our customers with options that allow us to provide fair reimbursements for all parties. As a result, we are offering their choice of a 100% credit for a future vacation in San Diego during the next 12 months or a 50% cash refund for any costs incurred to date. We believe this is a reasonable solution to a crisis that nobody expected."

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