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.
Protecting local, county regulation of vacation rentals has been central to Flagler government’s goals since 2014, when the county’s push led to the existing law.
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. Sen. Travis Hutson, who represents Flagler County and sits on the committee, voted for the bill.
“I’m in the unique position of passing the 2014 law which gave the local control back with some caveats,” Hutson said. Addressing the bill sponsor, he went on: “I’m going to support your bill today, thank you [for] working with me on the HOA carve-outs and making sure they were taken care of, because they have covenants and restrictions and contracts that the state can’t touch. I hope we can go further.” He proposed signage enabling people to call the Department of Business and Professional Regulations–which would be the only regulatory agency–to prompt inspections.
“What scares me to death,” Hutson said, “if we do full local control back, that they do want to take people’s property. They say when they come up here we’re all for property rights, but–and that is concerning. We see new ordinances that go above and beyond trying to regulate these things out of business and it scares the death out of me.”
“It needs a lot of work,” Sen. Victor Torres, the Osceola County Democrat, said before voting against the bill. “I’m impressed the elected officials besides the residents who came up here today to express their concerns on this bill.”
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 unless their regulations pre-date 2011. And local governments have had the authority to regulate short-term rentals since 2014.
The proposed 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. Since local governments have no capacity to enforce regulations that apply so universally, such new regulations would be essentially impractical if the aim is to regulate short-term 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.
“This is a gut-wrenching bill. This is a difficult subject,” Sen. Tom Wright, the Volusia County Republican, said, before voting for the bill. “It’s been going on for years. I am a local control type of fellow. I like to see our local people do what they need to do. But that said, we need to help them. This has been going on long enough. I don’t think we want to continue to have this debate for another 10 years.”
–Dara Kam, News Service of Florida, and FlaglerLive