If one Florida senator gets his way, local governments may soon lose control over one ever-expanding industry: short-term rentals.
Florida Senate Bill 522 was filed by Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah Gardens, in January and has been referred to the Regulated Industries, Commerce and Tourism and Rules committees.
The bill essentially turns over the regulation, licensing and inspection of the short-term rental industry to the state, removing layers of control that currently exist at the city and county level.
An identical bill was filed in the House in January. The regular session starts March 2.
Diaz did not return multiple requests for comment.
“An act relating to vacation rentals … prohibiting a local law, ordinance or regulation from allowing or requiring inspections or licensing of public lodging establishments, including vacation rentals, or public food service establishments,” the bill reads.
The bill routes all licensing for short-term rentals through the Division of Hotels and Restaurants, overseen by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
Supporters of the bill, such as the Florida Vacation Rental Management Association, argue it will standardize the short-term rental industry while allowing space for local governments to continue to regulate as they see fit, so long as they include all residential properties in their ordinances and regulations.
“Essentially for us, it’s really professionalizing the entire industry and right now, it’s fragmented. Because we’ve got regulations with the city, regulations with the county, regulations with the state,” said Denis Hanks, executive director of the association. “You just can’t single out vacation rentals as like the evil stepchild.”
But those opposed to the bill argue it presumes the state knows communities better than their own local representatives, forcing cities and counties to work with molds they don’t fit.
“The state’s approach is a one-size-fits-all. And the glory of Florida and what makes Florida so great is it’s unique everywhere,” said Cragin Mosteller, director of external affairs for the Florida Association of Counties. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all state.”
This isn’t the first time this legislation has come up at the state level before. And while supporters argue it’s the best next step for the industry, opponents fear the continued encroachment on home rule.
Vacation rentals in St. Augustine and beyond: a growing industry
Hanks said in Florida, the vacation rental industry is worth $30 billion annually. The Florida Vacation Rental Management Association represents about 100,000 vacation home operators. He added there are probably about 250,000 vacation homes across the state.
St. Johns County has seen a major influx of vacation rentals in recent years, prompting the city of St. Augustine to craft regulations and the county government to consider doing the same.
The city has more than 600 vacation rentals, St. Augustine Planning and Building Department Director David Birchim said in January.
The city of St. Augustine Commission approved new vacation rental rules in 2020, including requirements for annual registration, safety, parking and maximum occupancy.
State law already prohibits local governments from banning vacation rentals or regulating the length or frequency of stays.
An estimated 2,302 vacation rentals were east of the Intracoastal Waterway, according to a January presentation by St. Johns County government.
That slice of the coastline is being targeted for new vacation rental regulations by the county government, and the County Commission plans to discuss proposed regulations on Feb. 16. The ordinance would require annual registration and inspection of vacation rentals in that area and would impose other regulations for occupancy and parking, among other things.
Hanks said the industry has done particularly well since the onset of COVID-19 because people feel safer in a home they can rent entirely for themselves rather than staying in hotels and motels.
“Our numbers are through the roof,” he said.
Local control brings balance
Mosteller, with the Florida Association of Counties, said taking away local governments’ power to regulate short-term rentals snatches their ability to curate communities their residents want to live in.
“I think it’s really important as the state of Florida welcomes tourists that our local communities have the ability to maintain, create and regulate the quality of life and personality of their community,” Mosteller said.
When bills like this have come up in the past, residents and homeowners have complained about the revolving door of neighbors that short-term rentals create. Mosteller said that everybody has to be “neighborly” when it comes to issues like parking or trash.
“By having local control, we can make sure that we can have some good balance,” Mosteller said. “I think our counties are much better at finding that balance than a far away capitol.”
Mosteller said the association opposes the legislation and is hoping to find a solution that protects and benefits local communities.
Andrew Frisch co-owns Dream Aboard Boatels, a vacation rental business featuring eight vessels at the English Landing Marina off U.S. 1.
Frisch said local regulations haven’t been a problem for him. They include requirements for annual registration and inspection.
The vacation rental business provides an easier path for people looking to make money in real estate, Frisch said. That was his experience as well, and he said he’d like to see the state make it easier for people to get into vacation rentals ― some areas, such as St. Augustine Beach, restrict the number of licenses.
But he said he understands why some are concerned about the number of vacation rentals around the city and county.
“On the flip side it can turn into, everyone is buying up the properties … and it turns into an Airbnb town, and then you have no local residents,” he said.
State control provides standardization
Hanks said the main argument for approval of the bill is simple: standardization.
He said that all licensing and regulation will be done on the state level so that homeowners looking to rent don’t have to go through multiple licensing and inspection layers to get on the market. He said the bill will create a “streamlined set of rules.”
Furthermore, he said if cities or counties have issues with behavior at some short-term rentals, that’s fine. But they need to put rules in place that keep all residential properties in check, such as noise ordinances or parking restrictions.
Hanks said cities and counties might also bring in more revenue, as roughly 400 platforms like Airbnb will need to ensure owners have a license and tax ID number before approving their property advertisements on their sites.
“Just by not passing this bill for several years, I think it’s cost local governments a lot of money,” Hanks said. “There’s just layer after layer of these things that shouldn’t have to be this way when one system can handle it all like that.”
Airbnb as an organization is supportive of the proposed state legislation.
“We look forward to working with the Florida legislature to create a more uniform and workable regulatory framework statewide, so that homeowners who choose to rent their properties will be treated the same way as all property owners,” said a spokesperson in an email.
But for the opposition, the very essence of some Florida communities is at stake.
“The state can’t make sure that those neighborhoods’ personalities can be preserved in a way that’s neighborly and friendly,” Mosteller said. “And that’s what the counties want to do.”