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Bills would restrict local regulation of vacation rentals

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Proposals from state Rep. Mike La Rosa and state Sen. Greg Steube would restrict how local governments may regulate vacation rentals, a move that could help preserve that market for the rapidly-expanding Airbnb phenomenon and similar home-sharing services.

On Tuesday La Rosa introduced House Bill 425. Like Steube’s Senate Bill 188, introduced earlier, it would prevent cities, towns and counties from adopting local laws, ordinances and regulations of vacation rentals, leaving their oversight largely to the state.

Both La Rosa’s House District 42, which covers Osceola and Polk counties, and Steube’s Senate District 23, which covers much of Sarasota and Charlotte counties, are home to huge numbers of vacation rentals — houses, condominium units and apartments that are rented out short-term, usually to tourists.

La Rosa said he is not aiming his proposal at Airbnb or any other operator, but at local officials whom he said appear to have, in too many cases, gone too far in trying to regulate vacation rentals, imperiling a segment of Florida’s tourist industry. He said the local governments often identify a specific concern but rather than try to deal with the matter, they just restrict vacation rentals in broad ways.

“It’s not just in my district, I’ve watched closely of local governments around the state. I get concerned when they discuss, or pass, frankly overreaching ordinances. I don’t know where it’s going to go next. I’m surprised every day with something new,” La Rosa said.

The vacation rental market has existed a long time in Florida, primary through investors who purchased houses or other residences, renovated them into vacation rentals and applied for state lodging licenses and other authorities to operate them. Especially in parts of Osceola and Polk counties, there are thousands of such properties, typically offering multiweek vacation housing options to Walt Disney World visitors who can afford extended stays and prefer more homelike environs. It’s quite common for European and other international tourists.

However, the market took a whole new twist in recent years with the emergence of Airbnb and other services that allow ordinary homeowners to list their properties or even their spare bedrooms on the internet. In some cases, the new phenomenon has frustrated and stymied local jurisdictions because it is so easy for the homeowners to do so without pursuing licenses or zoning or other local requirements.

Airbnb, in particular, has been working with its clients and county tax collectors to close that window, but primarily for tax collection purposes.

Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for AirbnbWATCH Florida, a group seeking tighter oversight of the service and other operators like it, said her organization would be closely monitoring HB 425 and SB 188 this session.

“While these bills might serve well the interests of out-of-state websites wanting to inject commercial lodging activity into every corner of this state, their impact on Florida communities could be very serious,” she said in a statement sent to “AirbnbWATCH Florida’s focus will be on encouraging lawmakers to protect the safety and well-being of local neighborhoods, which includes having Airbnb pay its fair share of taxes in a verifiable manner. Florida residents have serious concerns over the unchecked growth of unlawful short-term rentals, which can upset long-standing investments in real estate and the profitability of existing legal businesses, including small bed-and-breakfasts.”

Airbnb’s business in Florida has doubled in each of the past two years, and last year saw 1.5 million visitors at 32,000 guest homes.

Airbnb Florida spokesman Benjamin Breit said the bills were not theirs, but that “Airbnb is proud to support Florida’s tourism agenda as well as to engage with policymakers at the state and local levels about the economic and community benefits of home sharing.”

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]

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