Can Florida cities regulate Airbnb? This bill says no.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to send SB 1128 to the Senate floor
Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.
Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Feb. 12, 2020

TALLAHASSEE — A stream of anxious homeowners and government officials from Miami Beach to Tallahassee paraded before a Senate committee Tuesday, urging lawmakers to reject a plan to preempt the ability of their cities to regulate short-term vacation rentals.

They complained of vacation homes and apartments pricing long-term rental properties out of the market. They blasted “opportunistic investors” who leverage residential property “into major commercial profit” at the expense of unwitting neighbors. And they warned of human traffickers exploiting short-term rentals to hide from the law.

But homeowners who rely on short-term rentals for additional income also spoke up.

They said small cities were ill-equipped to handle the regulation needed to license and watch their growing industry. They argued that the task is better managed by the state. They told stories of how they work with neighbors and screen their guests. And they decried the existing law, which has led to “unreasonable fines” and litigation.

In the end, the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to send SB 1128 to the Senate floor. A similar measure, HB 1011, has one more committee to clear in the House.

But the successful vote came with a warning from committee chair, Sen. Joe Gruters, a Sarasota Republican. He had “serious reservations about how it impacts my community,’’ he said, noting that he has seen “mini-hotels going up in residential neighborhoods.”

“If you want my vote on the floor, we could continue to work on this,’’ Gruters said.

Regulation confusion

The bill, sponsored by Hialeah Gardens Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, is a reaction to Florida’s fast-growing vacation rental market and the see-saw approach regulators have taken over the last decade.

When Airbnb first emerged, the industry persuaded lawmakers in 2011 to pass a state law preempting any local regulation. After homeowners complained that state regulation was insufficient and their property values were declining because of the bad actors in the industry, the state reversed course in 2014 and opened the door to local regulation.

Now legislation by Diaz, and Rep. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, would return regulation to state control, prohibiting cities like Miami Beach from imposing fines on violators and giving the job of licensing, tax collection and inspection to 19 enforcement officers at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

That prospect frightens local officials like Michelle Berger, chief of staff to the mayor of Miami Beach Dan Gelber.

Her city has hired 39 inspectors who work “around the clock” to keep tabs on “conglomerates who invade and invest in residential properties to create permanent vacation rental hostels,” she said. She warned that the bill’s “cookie-cutter approach does not work.”

“No level of oversight from Tallahassee would be effective against the predatory business tactics used by these investors,’’ Berger said. In this fiscal year, Miami Beach has investigated 368 vacation rentals alone.

“Our fines are high because these investors are charging often tens of thousands per week to rent,’’ she said. “In January, someone rented a house for 31 days for $1 million. Every night there was a party, loud music, hordes of people coming and going. The next-door neighbors were helpless. A high fine is the only way to deter anything else would be a cost of doing business.”

Casey Cook of the League of Cities said “DBPR has not proven it has not been able to handle” the fast-growing vacation rental industry and has “failed to meet its performance benchmarks” already in place.

According to statistics cited by Diaz, the short-term rental market in Florida served 6.6 million guests last year and earned property owners $1.2 billion in supplemental income.

“As we continue to seek ways to cut regulations and red tape that are prohibitive to growing Florida’s economy, we must address this drawn out clash between local governments, the vacation rental industry and competing business interests.,’’ he and Fischer wrote in a recent op-ed.

Cook, however, urged the committee to adopt an amendment proposed by Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, that would have given the state the licensing authority over short-term rentals but would allow local governments to regulate them the way they regulate bed and breakfasts.

The proposal was modeled after a medical marijuana law that allows local communities to regulate dispensaries, Stewart said. The committee rejected the amendment on a voice vote.

Dennis Hanks, representing the Florida Vacation Rental Management Association, said that after the state reversed its decision to preempt local governments and allow local regulation of short-term rentals, a hodgepodge of regulation has emerged.

“For every one ordinance that’s approved that’s fair, we see one that is overreaching,’’ he said.

As dozens of city officials and unhappy homeowners from across the state appeared to speak, lobbyists for supporters such as Airbnb, Americans for Prosperity and the James Madison Institute waived the chance to address the committee. Gruters joked the ratio was: “100 to 1.”

Miami Beach resident protests

Sheila Duffy-Lehrman of Miami Beach traveled to the state capital to describe how her community has been “rocked by vacation rentals.”

“For over four years, our neighborhood has been rocked by vacation rentals,’’ she said. “Our sons offered drugs to keep quiet. Our daughter propositioned by leering strangers. My family waking up to drugged out strangers in our yard.”

She told the Republican-controlled Senate that as vice president of the National Small Business Association, she is “a card-carrying capitalist and a Republican” but “as a homeowner and taxpayer, I am frankly furious.”

The committee approved an amendment to the bill that represents an agreement between homeowners in condominium associations and homeowners associations. Under the compromise, any of those communities can continue to restrict short-term rentals without being preempted by state law.

The bill also prohibits local governments from regulating advertising platforms, like Airbnb, VRBO, HomeAway, and others, which market the short-term rentals. It does require the platforms, however, to verify if the rental property is licensed and to remove unlicensed listings within 15 days.