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Tampa Bay's explosive vacation-rental growth sparks battles in neighborhoods

CRYSTAL BEACH — For Betsy Banks Saul, there is something addictive about giving strangers the keys to her family home. In the past few months she has rented to Massachusetts travelers, Midwestern honeymooners and a family in town for a funeral.

Banks Saul, 46, loves her vacation rental so much that last week she offered up a second one, her sun-lit beach home across the street. In doubling up, her home became the millionth live listing on HomeAway, where people like her hand over their homes to paying travelers for days or weeks at a time.

"No neighborhood is benefited from having an empty house sitting there," said Banks Saul, who founded animal-adoption mega-site Petfinder. "It just doesn't seem right not to share this."

Fueled by some of the busiest tourism months in local history, Tampa Bay vacation rentals have exploded as snowbirds and hosts push to capitalize on visitors to our eclectic patchwork of tourist draws.

Licensed vacation-rental homes here tripled in the past decade to more than 3,500, state data show. On vacation-rental site Airbnb, Tampa Bay listings doubled in the last year.

That sudden stardom has helped homeowners pay their mortgages, but it has also led to growing pains, as neighbors turn against neighbors over what some locals call an invading horde.

"They're multiplying," said Jerry Murphy, a homeowner on Clearwater Beach. "We've got a lot of people here who don't belong … and they provide a smokescreen for people who would do us harm."

The state's sunny reputation, and a ton of cash, could hinge on how well it adapts to this huge new industry. How did something as summery and innocuous as vacation time turn into a war of us versus them?

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Florida's sandy beaches and underwater homes have proven a natural laboratory for online vacation rentals. An executive at HomeAway, which owns rental giant VRBO, called the Sunshine State a "monster market," with the most listings in the country, twice as many as California.

More than 17 million out-of-towners dropped their bags in the state's 120,000 vacation rentals last year, spending $13 billion along the way, according to the Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, a trade group. About 322,000 rental managers, housekeepers, handymen and other workers made money off visitors' stays.

Vacation rentals can be cheaper, bigger, more private and less clinical than the average hotel room, and carry touches of homey solace, like big closets, kitchens and lawns. But it's often their neighborhood feel that wins business: An Airbnb poll found 89 percent of renters said they wanted to "live like a local," away from the lobby bars and tchotchke shops of the typical tourist hotels.

Rental homes are not, perhaps, the perfect arrangement for the nomadic business set, or for buttoned-down travelers craving the comforts of monogrammed bathrobes, fresh-made beds and mini bars. But they have carved out a niche among group trippers — for family vacations, old-friend reunions, birthday getaways — who tend to spend a lot of cash and are often eager to come back.

Tampa Bay's new generation of easy, online rentals came into vogue during the housing bust as an income stream for homeowners drowning in mortgage debt. But the range of homes has ballooned as more hosts fight to get in on the action: a private Gulfport studio furnished with French antiques; a catalog-worthy bungalow on the Hillsborough River; a pool house in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast owned by a yoga instructor named Vlad.

Sites like Airbnb, FlipKey and HomeAway, which has more rooms for rent worldwide than Marriott, Hilton and Holiday Inn combined, make money by charging fees of guests, hosts or both. But to compete, hosts have ended up marketing themselves as much as their homes. One of Airbnb's highly reviewed St. Petersburg hosts, who rents a spare bedroom in her cottage for $50 a night, offers up not just photos of the nearby Coffee Pot Bayou but of herself, square dancing.

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For all the revolutionary growth, the laissez-faire oversight of the rentals continues to raise concerns.

Where hotel managers are trained (and paid) to deal with wild parties, the neighbors of a vacation rental are not. And while a hotel that mistreats guests can face regulator punishment or lawsuits, vacation hosts are only kept in line by the threat of low-starred reviews.

Beach homeowners here have pointed the finger at vacation renters for everything from bad parking to rampant drug use, theft and prostitution. Some have called for scorched-earth laws that would squash vacation rentals.

Barbara Beatty, executive director for the Florida Vacation Rental Managers Association, said many owners employ professional managers and screen guests to keep their homes from getting trashed. And visitors here often like what they see: Last year, Airbnb named Tampa the most hospitable city in the country because so many guests left five-star reviews.

"We are not the dragon that needs to be tamed," Beatty said. "There's a perception put across that we're no better than slumlords, and that couldn't be further from the truth."

A Florida law taking effect July 1 prevents cities and counties from banning or mandating how long or how often vacation renters can stay. A smattering of local laws set before the state's previous vacation-rental rule in 2011 still apply, though many have proven easy to dodge and increasingly hard to enforce.

Tampa demands vacation rentals last no less than a week, a rule easily subverted on online listings. In St. Pete Beach, homes can be rented for less than 30 days only three times a year. Hosts face trouble if a fourth time can be proved, and only if neighbors or renters agree to testify.

Though listing sites have made it easier than ever for hosts to make money, they've done little to cast light on the thorny patches of business licenses, taxes and local laws. Madeira Beach this month sent stern reminders of its rules to its 4,000 residents with threats to punish offending hosts with $500-a-day fines.

Shane Crawford, the beach town's city manager, acknowledges the wobbly dynamics of vacation rentals' growth in terms of yin and yang: the benefits of homeowner mortgage help and happy-to-spend tourists, the ills of problem outsiders and boiling neighborhood rage.

"Is most of our crime being generated from our short-term rentals? No," he said. "But there's an 80-year-old gentleman who came into my office and told me, 'I have four new neighbors every week of every month of every year, and it's unsettling.' And I see his point."

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Vacation rentals seem to have done little harm to Tampa Bay's established tourism industry. Hotels here have amassed a string of record-breaking months. Pinellas County's recent tourism-tax receipts have been the highest in history, and the CEO of Hillsborough's Visit Tampa Bay, Santiago Corrado, called tourism the "strongest that it's ever been in our community."

That has kept hoteliers from railing against the upstarts increasingly clawing at their target market. The TradeWinds Island Grand Resort, for instance, is expected to have one of its fullest summers in recent memory.

Russ Kimball, the longtime general manager of Clearwater Beach's Sheraton Sand Key, said online vacation rentals "will always be a small piece of the pie."

Whether that's true remains a debate for tourist seasons to come, but sharing-economy boosters say the future is on their side. HomeAway data show Clearwater Beach had one of the country's 10 biggest increases in new listings over the last year. And unlike hotels, which must build to grow, all the vacation-rental industry needs to expand is for more hosts and guests to jump on board.

Banks Saul, the Crystal Beach host, said she understands how there might be problems if her home was in a perpetual rental flux, but said she's selective over who gets to come smell the salty air of her back yard.

As for her neighbors? They've asked her to tell them when the next renters come. They want to invite them out on their boat.

Tampa Bay's explosive vacation-rental growth sparks battles in neighborhoods 06/28/14 [Last modified: Saturday, June 28, 2014 9:36pm]

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