Controversial vacation rental proposal on the move

St. Augustine vacation rental (WJXT)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A long-running dispute over vacation rentals is heating up, as a Senate panel Tuesday approved a proposal that would give the state -- not local officials -- control over regulation of short-term rentals.

Ignoring the pleas of dozens of local officials from throughout the state, the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee approved the measure (SB 1128) in a 3-2 party-line vote.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, would “preempt” regulation of vacation rentals, including licensing and inspection, to the state.

Under current law, cities and counties cannot prohibit short-term rentals of residential properties.

The measure would negate local vacation-rental ordinances passed since June 1, 2011. But it would let cities and counties impose new regulations so long as the rules applied equally to all residential properties, including private homes as well as vacation rentals.

In an interview after the committee signed off on his bill, Diaz said local governments could still pass ordinances dealing with complaints such as noise, parking or the number of occupants in a house -- but the measures would have to apply to all residences.

“In fact, they can pass ordinances by neighborhood. The only thing is, does it apply to every property in that neighborhood. At the end of the day, we do live in America. Private property still matters,” Diaz said. “We’re not taking away that power. All we’re saying is, you have to treat them equally. You can’t say, ‘Hey, Neighbor X, you can have a party ‘til whenever you want and you can have 27 cars,’ but you’re an Airbnb, guess what, you can’t have cars. Same neighborhood, same problem, right?”

But a parade of homeowners and local officials told the Senate panel that county and city officials are best-suited to ensure that regulations governing short-term rentals reflect what communities need and want.

“This is a major quality-of-life issue,” Sarasota Mayor Jen Ahearn-Koch said, adding that the impact of vacation rentals “has been devastating on our communities.”

Ahearn-Koch and other critics contend that such rentals, in many cases, have turned into commercial operations in residential areas.

She pointed to the effect an Arizona law, similar to Diaz’s proposal, had on Sedona, Ariz., where 30 percent of housing stock “has become short-term rentals.”

The “great majority” of investors in short-term rental properties in the Miami Beach area “are conglomerates,” according to Michele Puldy Burger, chief of staff for Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber.

The city is concerned with protecting residents who’ve been “subjected to all-night parties, drug-dealing and even human smuggling,” she said.

Sheila Duffy-Lehrman, a Miami Beach homeowner, said the issue is “very personal” for her and her neighbors.

“For over four years our neighborhood has been rocked by vacation rentals,” Duffy-Lehrman said, rattling off a list of woes, including a “lost guy trying to break into our home” and her daughter being “propositioned by leering strangers.”

“The final straw? A bonfire party on a balcony next door, with flying embers hitting our home,” she said.

But homeowners who offer properties on platforms such as Airbnb, including several from the St. Augustine area who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said they care about their communities and use the rent to supplement their incomes.

Eight-year-old Sarah Boselli Neves extolled the virtues of short-term rentals, telling the committee she was speaking “on behalf of the millions of children who visit Florida every year and love to stay in vacation rentals.”

The rental properties allow families “to spend quality time with their loved ones,” Neves said.

“Vacation rentals are awesome,” she said, adding that they offer “a nice kitchen where our moms can cook.”

The proposal, which is backed by Florida Realtors, also would preempt regulation of advertising platforms, such as Airbnb, to the state.

Under changes to the legislation approved by the Senate panel Tuesday, advertising platforms would be required to display the properties’ rental license numbers, as well as sales-tax registration and tourist-development tax account numbers. The platforms would also have to verify that the information provided by owners or operators is valid.

Platforms would have to provide a list of all vacation rentals -- residential units which are rented to the public more than three times per year, for periods of less than a month -- to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which also oversees hotels and motels.

Committee Chairman Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, supported the measure Tuesday but said he has “serious reservations about how this impacts my community,” saying he hoped Diaz’s plan would be “improved in a way that could bring more of the stakeholders on board.”

Diaz said his proposal isn’t really taking away local control, despite what the local officials said, “because of all the regulations we’re putting in.”

“I’ve spoken to several cities who can’t tell me where their vacation rentals are, who’s a vacation rental, are they paying their taxes, are they licensed. The bill assures us that all of this goes on. If not, they get kicked off the platform,” he said.

With an economy based on tourism, “this problem’s not going away,” Diaz told The News Service of Florida.

“We need to address it. We need to regulate it. It’s not so much that we want to take away the power from locals, like they’re trying to say. It’s that we are now recognizing this is a statewide issue and, at the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to address it because it is a statewide issue,” he said.

Diaz said he is well-suited to sponsor the proposal because, unlike other regions of the state, the majority of his district “does not suffer” from problems associated with vacation rentals.

“I’m shepherding the bill because I can be as objective as possible because I don’t have the heartstrings being pulled,” he said.

About the Author:

Senior reporter, News Service of Florida