ST. PETE BEACH — Renting single-family homes or condominiums to tourists for a day, week or month is against the rules in many beach communities, but hundreds of homeowners are violating those rules.
Residents and business owners in St. Pete Beach and Madeira Beach are increasingly complaining to their city officials about disruptions to residential neighborhoods and lost revenues among hotels and inns.
"This is seriously cutting into businesses that pay taxes on transient rentals," John Brooks-Murray, co-owner of the Bay Waters Inn, told the St. Pete Beach City Commission last week.
He said he found "hundreds of rentals in nontransient areas" online that are being rented by the day or week.
Some homes are rented for more than $500 a night — a rental income that can reach into the tens of thousands over the course of a year.
An Internet search for vacation rentals in just St. Pete Beach on Tuesday yielded hundreds of homes and bungalows available for rent by the day or week at rates ranging from nearly $10,000 a week to as little as $50-$100 a night.
"This is a problem up and down the beaches for years. The Internet has compounded the problem of short-term rentals exponentially," City Manager Mike Bonfield told the commission.
He said homeowners can make a lot of money on such vacation rentals, which are particularly attractive to those who are upside-down on their mortgages.
The city currently allows single-family homes to be rented for less than 30 days only three times a year.
Violations of the city's codes are difficult to enforce because the city must prove when the fourth rental occurred and have neighbors or the renters willing to testify.
Madeira Beach is having similar problems and plans to hold a special meeting in January to discuss how to deal with illegal transient renters.
That city's codes prohibit single-family homes from being rented for less than six months at a time and low density multifamily homes for less than three months at a time.
Neighboring Treasure Island's codes are a bit more lenient regarding short-term rentals and requires landlords to have business tax receipts, but even that city has continuing problems with illegal rentals.
Currently, the city is investigating five complaints of short-term rentals. The city also regularly checks online ads for short-term rentals.
In Treasure Island single-family homes can be rented for any period of time only twice a year. In denser residential districts, such as in Sunset Beach, homeowners are allowed to rent their homes up to six times a year.
Drake Philbrook was one of dozens of homeowners in Madeira Beach's Baypoint neighborhood to bring their complaints to the commission recently.
He said he found dozens of websites advertising "more than 50 houses, apartments, cottages and rooms" and "over 100 condos" in Madeira Beach that are available by the day, week or month.
"We think that short-term renters are not screened and this results in an increase in illegal activity — drugs, theft, prostitution, partying and noise violations," Philbrook said. "We do not want transient renters in our residential areas.
He said one home on his street rents for $400 a night, while "some properties are bringing in more than $100,000 a year in short-term rental income."
Philbrook said renters are "coached" to tell anyone knocking at their door that they are a family member staying in the house.
Madeira Beach City Manager Shane Crawford said he had not been aware of the extent of the issue, but pledged to address it.
He has already met with sheriff's deputies who enforce the city's codes about future investigative strategies.
"We need to go in and rent some of these places and do interviews," Crawford said.
Commissioners in St. Pete Beach and Madeira Beach urged residents to report violations, hoping that an enforcement crackdown on violators will help reduce the problem.
But they also acknowledged what will help even more is a change in state law.
Since June 2011, local governments are limited to enforcing their existing rules. The law specifically prohibits governments from making any tougher rules regulating how homeowners can rent their properties.
"Even if we wanted to tighten up our ordinance, we are prohibited from doing that by state law," Bonfield cautioned. "Right now it is just a handful of people that are creating the problem, but there is little we can do."
The Florida League of Cities favors repealing the law, according to Bonfield.
So far, at least one legislator, state Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, is hoping to do just that. He is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Thrasher said recently that he plans to file a bill repealing the 2011 law to give local governments back the power to regulate short-term rentals of residential properties.