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Florida legislators seek to regulate vacation home rentals

Lori Killinger wielded about 600 pages of rules and regulations when she stood before a panel of state senators recently.

The Florida Vacation Rental Management Association lobbyist brought the stack of documents — 38 separate ordinances passed by cities and counties since 2014 — to a Senate committee meeting called to address short term home rentals.

Killinger got her turn to speak after listening to two hours of testimony from local government and lodging lobbyists, as well as academics and local government officials.

“You can blame the Internet for where we are,” Killinger said as she sought to rebut the locals’ testimony.

Florida lawmakers plan to step into the middle of the feud between local governments and property owners over short-term rentals when they gather in Tallahassee in January for the 2018 legislative session.

Florida along with several other states, including Massachusetts, New York, Georgia, Indiana, and Hawaii, are wrestling with how to regulate homeowners who rent a room or the entire house for a couple of days or months, say for a football weekend, an escape to the beach or spring training.

When online companies merged the Florida tradition of inviting friends down for a vacation with digital technology, they opened a door for mom-and-pop operations to engage in the short-term vacation rental industry, industry officials say.

The number of vacation rental units in Florida has increased from 117,000 in 2012 to 131,000 in 2016. Lawmakers will try to figure out if the increase is from homeowners using apps and services like Airbnb to rent extra space or if some elements are exploiting loopholes in state law.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte, dissected witnesses’ testimony with those numbers in mind. The dispute simmering among hotel operators, short-term booking companies, homeowners associations and local governments is one of the issues that spills over into the January session from 2017.

Simmons noted that just 18,000 licenses are attached to the 131,000 units. Short-term rentals face different regulations than hotels and motels. Simmons wondered if some property managers, some of whom have assembled up to 75 units under one license, had found a loophole to exploit at the expense of Florida’s number one industry – tourism.

“There’s nothing to ensure the integrity of what’s being done. We’re talking about fire safety or just the safety of the location,” said Simmons. “What assurances do we have for the safety and quality for the … customer of a vacation rental?”

In Tallahassee, there can be as many as 800 rental units available at any given time through online apps like Airbnb, Home Away and Gameday Housing.

When Florida State University played Louisville at home on Oct. 21, there were 347 rental units available through online platforms. Two non-football November weekends saw fewer units advertised (299 units), according to a Leon County study.

In a separate report, Airbnb said it booked 3,285 visitors to Tallahassee for five home-game weekends in 2017. There were 820 bookings for a home game with Syracuse. A rivalry game with Miami enticed 780 visitors to use Airbnb to book Tallahassee accommodations.

The company reports its users spent $372,000 for weekend rooms, apartments and houses when FSU played a home game so far this year. It’s expecting another $8,000 for next month’s University of Louisiana Monroe game.

Leon’s numbers are small when compared to the state as a whole. Airbnb told the Senate some 2.6 million people used its services to book a Florida stay. The company paid $20 million in tourism development taxes in 39 counties.

Leon County expects to collect about $46,000 in tourism taxes next year from Airbnb.  It signed an agreement with the company in May and is working out contracts with other online platforms.

Other counties though, according to Killinger, are not as hospitable to the growing industry. She addressed their testimony, along with Simmons’ comments,  when she got to the lectern.

“This is not an unregulated Wild West for the property owner,” said Killinger, as she waved the documents in front of the committee. “It is the Wild West for the local governments who have prolifically passed ordinances since 2014.”

Killinger pulled a 20-some-page Flager County ordinance from the stack to talk about regulations that she said were ultimately designed to discourage entry into the marketplace. She used Flagler because it was the first in the state and served as a model for 37 other local ordinances. Some have drawn numerous lawsuits seeking millions of dollars for interfering with property rights.

“They are extremely complicated,” she said of the local rules in place across the state. “And in some cases, they require things that don’t exist.”

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, had assembled a panel of experts to talk about the dispute between vacation rental companies, the hotel industry, and local governments and homeowners associations. He said he wanted a full briefing on the issues with the intent to produce legislation.

Bills filed in the House and Senate would preempt all regulations of the industry to the state. Lee asked witnesses what would happen if the Legislature did nothing. Some said jobs would be lost. Others declined to answer. Troy Flanagan of the American Hotel Lodging Association said doing nothing wasn’t an option.

He used bed and breakfasts as an example of the choice facing a typical mom-and-pop operation. One can comply with B&B licensing requirements or allow the license to expire, contract with an online platform and be free of a bunch of rules, fees, and paperwork.

“Without some level of action, the government is picking winners and losers by not leveling the playing field for commercial operators who have entered the market,” said Flanagan. “This needs to be addressed. (A) Bed and breakfast (operator) can do an end-around if you choose to do so.”

Matt Curtis of the GPS Policy Group, a Texas organization that studies policy issues, explained how New York City cracked down on vacation rentals with fines and drove the industry underground.

“I think to have a statewide standard protects the vacation rental industry and allows it to act above the radar,” said Curtis. “That puts the state in a better place to monitor it above the radar rather than drive it below the radar.”

The hotel industry wants vacation rentals regulated. Cities and counties say they are up to the task.

Vacation rental lobbyists say they are not concerned who regulates as long as the industry is able to function. And Sen. Simmons, after a day of questioning, thinks he knows where the answer lies.

Home Away lobbyist Jennifer Green was at the lectern when Simmons appeared to find the key to deciphering the array of numbers before him. To solve the riddle before the Legislature, Simmons said he needs vacation rental industry numbers — how many units the industry has in the state; the number of days they book; how frequently is a unit rented.

If Simmons could compare those numbers with the number of licenses and units they say exist, he believes he would have a better idea when and how hard to push for statewide regulations.

“So we don’t have a house sitting in the middle of a neighborhood that is being rented out to multiple people over a year with weekly rentals. Literally turning it into a hotel and destroying the quality of the neighborhood,” said Simmons. “Can you get us that information?

“Senator, that’s a lot of questions,” Green responded.  “Can I come see you? I’ll bring a notebook. We’ll break the questions into pieces. It will be helpful to get you the answers.”

Lawmakers will convene the 2018 legislative session Jan. 9.

By Courtesy Tallahassee Democrat

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