Florida Lawmakers Weigh Vacation Rental Plans

TALLAHASSEE — Taking another run at one of the Legislature’s thorniest issues, the House and Senate on Thursday advanced disparate plans about regulating vacation-rental properties.

Lawmakers have repeatedly wrangled in recent years about the issue amid the skyrocketing use of platforms such as Airbnb.

Some lawmakers have tried to strengthen protections for homeowners, especially those from beachside communities, who complain about trash, noise and parking associated with “party” houses. Other legislators have supported arguments about property rights allowing owners to use residences to generate income.

In plans that advanced Thursday, the House and Senate took different approaches to the issue.

The full Senate approved a proposal (SB 180) that would allow local governments to create vacation-rental registration programs, which many municipalities already do.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nick DiCeglie, R-Indian Rocks Beach, also would cap maximum overnight occupancy at the greater of either two people per bedroom, plus an additional two people in one common area, or more than two people per bedroom if there is at least 50 square feet per person.

The Senate proposal seeks to establish “a uniform set of regulations” throughout the state about vacation rentals, DiCeglie said during a floor debate Thursday. He noted that the occupancy restrictions included in his bill are the first time state lawmakers have attempted to set a cap on the number of people who can stay at properties.

“When we talk about these party homes, it’s impossible not to correlate that with occupancy. So, to have the ability to address that, that is such a large part of this bill,” DiCeglie argued.

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But Democrats argued that DiCeglie’s plan would hamstring the ability of local governments to regulate short-term rentals.

“It all comes back to balancing the rights of everyone who lives in that area,” Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, said before the Senate passed the measure in a 26-14 vote. “You talk about the property rights of people wanting to make some money and rent something out. I get it. But equally, so are the rights of people who buy the house next door, who expect it to be quiet and peaceful, and raise their family there. So how do you ever come up with the right balance in a state this size? You can’t.”

The Senate plan also would set up a process for suspending registrations of operators who violate local codes or ordinances.

But Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Sunny Isles Beach, said the suspension process would be too lax.

Vacation rentals are the top legislative issue for constituents in his community, Pizzo said. He pointed to issues such as “pornographic films being shot in the backyard where every other neighbor can see it.” He said DiCeglie’s bill would require people who want to make complaints about properties in their neighborhood to identify themselves by name, which could put them at risk for retaliation.

“We have put more regulation and give a heck of a lot more control to hotel rooms than we do to our own neighborhoods. Hotels would never, and don’t have to, put up with what we do with our children in the streets,” Pizzo said.

But DiCeglie said his plan would ensure that local governments aren’t over-regulating properties.

“Everything in this bill, I believe, is fair and balanced. What I don’t want to see is … where these local governments are using these ordinances as a weapon to stop vacation rentals from operating at all,” he said.

A plan approved Thursday by the House Regulatory Reform & Economic Development Subcommittee, meanwhile, would not spell out occupancy limits.

The proposal (HB 1537), sponsored by Rep. Griff Griffitts, R-Panama City Beach, would allow local governments to have registration programs for vacation rentals. The House and Senate plans would set up parameters for the registration programs. Both proposals would allow programs to require operators to “designate and maintain at all times a responsible party who is capable of responding to complaints or emergencies” related to the rentals.

But under Griffitts’ bill, county tax collectors would have to administer the registration programs.

The House and Senate proposals would require advertising platforms such as Airbnb to collect and remit state and local taxes for properties listed on their sites. Platforms also would have to verify that properties have been licensed by the state and, if applicable, registered by local officials before they can be listed on the sites.

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The Senate bill also would steer $3.5 million to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation for nine employees to oversee the vacation-rental oversight program. Both the House and Senate plans would require the platforms to submit quarterly reports with lists of all vacation rentals and other information related to the properties.

The quarterly reports would allow the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to perform quarterly audits, Griffitts said.

“This bill will grant unprecedented tools at the local and state level to effectively prohibit the operation of bad actors while also ensuring adequate due process, the ability to redress wrongs, cure violations where appropriate, so that the property rights of good actors are never infringed upon,” Griffits said.

The House plan would cap registration fees for the local programs at $150 and charge up to $150 for initial inspections of the properties. The Senate, meanwhile, would allow local governments to charge a “reasonable fee” for registration and inspection.

Rep. Joe Cassello, D-Boynton Beach, said short-term rentals “would no longer have any effective supervision” under Griffitts’ bill.

But Griffitts defended the proposal, which the House panel approved in an 11-4 vote.

“I will tell you, 45 years in the hotel business with my family, (as a) former county commissioner, I know these problems very, very well. They’re not going away. The pre-emption part is a conversation we’ve had, home rule is a conversation we had. We cannot put that genie back in the bottle. I believe personally this bill will help streamline the process, it will give a uniformity across the state, and it will help us weed out the bad actors,” he said.

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