Jennifer Riley has lived for the past four years in a residential area a few blocks away from the water in Indian Rocks Beach in Pinellas County.
For the first two years she loved living in the community – but no more.
She’s been dealing with short-term renters in the neighborhood who play loud music, party deep into the wee hours of the morning, and even threaten her.
“I had one guy. It was after 10 p.m. and we called the police and so he came over, and he looked at my boyfriend and he said, ‘You know what the bad thing is? I know where you live. You don’t know where I live,’” Riley recalls.
The owner of the rental in question is an absentee landlord living mostly in Pennsylvania. He told her he intended to use the house as his own vacation home and visit whenever he could.
“A total lie,” Riley says.
Over the past couple weeks, Florida lawmakers have heard similar horror stories from homeowners living in coastal communities, all over short-term vacations rentals and how they should be regulated.
The homeowners with horror stories oppose a proposal sponsored by state Rep. Jamie Grant, a Republican from the Tampa Bay area.
Grant wants to preempt local ordinances dealing with short-term vacation rentals and move that control to the state.
But the homeowners with horror stories don’t want the state to be involved – they think their local government, and not Tallahassee, would respond better to their concerns.
On the other hand, supporters of Grant’s legislation prefer state involvement because they think it will create less regulation for short-term rentals.
Supporters want the free-market to rein and be able to supplement their income by renting out their homes. They say reports of “bad actor” landlords are overstated.
The vacation-rental market has become a booming business in Florida in recent years, with the popularity of short-term rental platforms such as Airbnb, Expedia, Booking, HomeAway and VRBO. Individuals who used Airbnb to rent out their homes in 2018 earned a combined $810 million in supplemental income in hosting approximately 4.5 million guests.
For close to a decade, legislators have been trying to find the sweet spot in coming up with a solution that satisfies all sides of the vacation-rental regulation issue.
They’re still looking.
In 2011, the state took over regulation of vacation-rentals, except for about 75 local ordinances previously on the books that were “grandfathered.”
After pushback from cities, the Legislature reversed itself in 2014, allowing local governments to handle issues like noise, parking and trash, but still preventing them from prohibiting or regulating the duration or frequency of vacation rentals.
Grant’s bill in the House would go back to the 2011 legislation, removing all “grandfathered” local government ordinances on short-term rentals.
But the odds of getting legislation to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk are low, after Grant’s bill barely passed in a House committee on Wednesday with a split vote, and lawmakers muddled over numerous last-hour amendments. And a Senate version has been pulled from consideration in a committee.
Still, the big business of vacation rentals will not be going away soon.
Grant’s bill would require each person applying for a vacation rental license to provide information to the hotel and restaurant division of the Department of Business & Professional Regulation (DBPR).
The information would be the name, address, telephone number and email address of the person the division may contact when a complaint related to a vacation rental is reported. The state would make that information available to the public online.
Of concern is that an Inspector General’s report published a year ago said the DBPR’s hotel and restaurant division has “struggled” to meet approved standards.
Also, statewide inspections of short-term rental vacations aren’t mandatory, but are done on “as needed” basis. Local governments generally do inspections after short-term renters register with them.
(In New York City, where there is a ban on allowing renting an apartment or home to a visitor for less than 30 days, a proposal requiring Airbnb to turn over hosts’ information was overturned by a Manhattan judge in February, according to news accounts).
The industry supports the proposal to allow Tallahassee – and not the local governments – to regulate short-term rentals.
“A diverse mix of travel accommodations – including short-term vacation rentals – is vital to Florida’s tourism industry,” says Philip Minardi, a spokesman with Expedia.
“As a globe leading travel platform that helps families coming to the state with all their travel needs, Expedia group has a unique perspective on policies that can drive Florida’s tourism economy forward,” Minardi says in a statement.
One policy would be requiring the display of license numbers, Minardi says.
In 2010, the city of Miami Beach banned property owners from renting a short-term rental (defined as less than six months and a day) unless it was in a legally permissible zone, such as in South Beach.
Violators are subjected to a $20,000 fine, with the fine going up in $20,000 increments for every subsequent time they are caught.
That rankles Natalie Nichols, who is legally challenging the city’s laws on rentals and has placed a petition on change.org calling for support to reinstate the right to rent short-term property in Miami Beach.
“They don’t want second-home owners and investors in a town that is 80 percent second-home owners and investors,” she says. “I just don’t get it.”
Mayors from coastal communities are the number one foes of the legislation in Tallahassee.
“We are a neighborhood-based community, and to have that sort of short-term rental activity with the congestion of people, the noise, the partying, the parking. It’s going to wreck our neighborhoods, and we want to have a say on this,” says Ellen Glasser, the mayor of Atlantic Beach, part of the Jacksonville Beaches communities.
Her city currently does have an ordinance on the books prohibiting short-term rentals which could be removed if the pending legislation is enacted.
Indian Rocks Beach Mayor Joanne “Cookie” Kennedy says there’s currently one street in her beach-side community which has five homes up for sale because the homeowners are weary of dealing with short-term renters.
Her biggest criticism with current Florida law is that it has removed local governments from regulating occupancy requirements.
“When you have a two-to-three-bedroom home, and 16 to 25 people are in that home, how can you consider that a residential use?” she asks.
At the heart of the argument is: What is the true definition of property rights?
House bill sponsor Grant calls those rights “sacrosanct,” and Naples- based realtor Laura Puckett agrees that the vacation rental issue is a property rights issue.
Puckett says she has been bombarded from “little old ladies” who fear that they’ll lose their only source of income if a proposed crackdown on short-term rentals in Collier County were to come to fruition.
“We all want property rights,” responds Mayor Kennedy, who says she was besieged by upset constituents when recently talking about the vacation rental issue. “That’s what I hear: ‘Cookie, what about my property rights?’”
So, what’s next?
If this session’s measures fail, it seems inevitable that lawmakers will be grappling again with how, and who, should regulate short-term vacation rentals.