Vacation rental preemption fight revs up again

by | Feb 11, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A years-long effort to block local governments from regulating vacation rentals is on the move again, as House and Senate leaders revive a proposal to prevent cities and counties from inspecting and licensing properties offered on platforms such as Airbnb.

In a 10-7 vote on Wednesday, the House Regulatory Reform Subcommittee gave an initial nod to the latest iteration of the proposal (HB 219).

While the legislation has morphed over the past few years, the controversy over the issue has remained consistent.

“It’s always been a fun bill to present in committees,” Rep. Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican who has shepherded the proposal in recent years, joked as he introduced the bill to the panel on Wednesday.

The measure would, for the first time, require online platforms such as Airbnb to collect and remit taxes on vacation rental properties, ensure that only properly licensed rentals are advertised and provide the state with specific information about the rentals.

In exchange, regulation would be “preempted” to the state, largely preventing local governments from regulating the rentals.  Local governments could only regulate the rentals in the same way as other properties in neighborhoods, a restriction that cities and counties strenuously oppose.

Florida already bans local governments from passing ordinances to outlaw vacation rentals.

While acknowledging that his bill faces opposition, Fischer argued that the changes are necessary.

“The current way vacation rentals are handled isn’t working. Nobody’s, I think, really happy about the current state of things,” he said, adding that his proposal would “fix the dysfunction of the regulatory scheme across the state of Florida.”

Vacation-rental preemption has become a perennial fight for local officials and property owners in some high-end neighborhoods who complain about noise, parking and trash issues stemming from “party houses” owned by non-resident investors or unidentifiable businesses.

“It’s like déjà vu all over again. I’m sure you all are just as tired of us coming up here as we are,” Indian River County Commissioner Peter O’Bryan told the House panel.

The proposal would do away with ordinances regulating short-term rentals adopted after June 1, 2011, which opponents said would be problematic for areas that worked to develop local regulations since then.

“The problem with vacation rentals is, it’s not the activity. It’s the frequency and duration of it,” O’Bryan said. “If you preempt us back to 2011, you’re going to wipe out all of these communities where we have sat down with the industry, we have done the right thing, and we have an ordinance that’s working.”

Democratic lawmakers also said the proposal would worsen the state’s dearth of affordable housing.

But Fischer said “a fundamental principle in America is private-property rights” and that people who want to use properties as affordable housing can do so if they choose.

“They have by right the ability to go and purchase those properties and develop them in a way that they think will meet their policy objective,” he said.

Fischer’s bill was amended Wednesday to include a provision that would limit sex offenders from staying in vacation rentals for more than 24 hours. Florida law restricts sex offenders from staying at hotels for more than three days. The amended proposal also included a carve-out for the Florida Keys.

Arguing against the proposal, Rep. Mike Grieco called short-term rentals a “commercial operation” that should be regulated differently than residences.

“You’re essentially turning, a lot of times, a single-family home into a perpetual kind of mini-hotel,” Grieco, a Miami Beach Democrat who is an attorney, said.

The hotel industry, which for years sought to have vacation rentals governed in the same manner as other lodging establishments, is split on the proposal.

Lisa Lombardi, chief people and culture officer of HDG Hotels, told House members Wednesday that the bill “has a lot of potential to make sure that we can all recognize who is in our state providing lodging of any form.”

But Lombardi said her group, which operates 19 hotels in Florida, wants fines for non-compliance and auditing requirements added to the measure.

“As it currently stands, there’s room for improvement,” said Lombardi, who serves on the board of the Florida Restaurant & Lodging Association.

Carol Dover, president and CEO of the association, told The News Service of Florida that her organization supports the plan.

But Chip Rogers, president and CEO of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said his group isn’t behind the proposal.

“Florida is unique in how it regulates hotels, and we’re appreciative of that and in no way are we suggesting that that should be changed,” Rogers said in a recent phone interview. “The dividing issue that we have … is the preemption of what really amounts to zoning. No other business gets this type of preemption. It’s unheard of anywhere else in the country where a local city can’t enforce its own zoning on properties.”

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, made the vacation-rentals issue a priority before he took over as the Senate’s leader in November.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, however, put the kibosh on a similar plan during last year’s legislative session.

In a vehement display, busloads of homeowners from across Florida traveled to Tallahassee last year to decry the proposal, pointing to a Pandora’s box of woes arising from party houses.

But other property owners told lawmakers they rely on earnings from short-term rentals to supplement their retirement income, allow them to work from home or as an investment for their golden years.

DeSantis told reporters last February that he hadn’t made up his mind but that he was “leaning against” the legislative efforts.

“We have 22 million people almost. We are a very diverse state. For us to be micromanaging vacation rentals, I am not sure that is the right thing to do,” DeSantis said at the time.


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