As the voice of Florida’s hospitality industry, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association has long championed a uniform, statewide system of compliance for all commercial lodging establishments. As they compete for tourism business, all FRLA lodging members must register with the State, collect taxes, and protect Florida consumers through adequate insurance — rules that prevent substandard operators from exposing travelers and residents to senseless risk and gaining unfair advantages in the marketplace. Unfortunately, the same does not necessarily ring true for short-term rentals here in the Sunshine State.
Recently, the Senate Community Affairs Committee convened a public hearing in Tallahassee to solicit feedback on the current state of short-term rentals and their impact on our communities. During these discussions, it was illuminated that — while Florida has long welcomed vacation rentals into the mix of accommodations options for tourists — there exists a divergent, growing problem involving bad actors exploiting online platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway to operate what amount to illegal hotels across the state.
Far from the concept of “home sharing,” where homeowners welcome a guest into their residence on an occasional basis, this new phenomenon involves commercial operators acquiring and listing multiple units in the same residential neighborhood and/or listing these units in a “revolving door” fashion. In other words, these real estate speculators are operating de facto hotels without adhering to the commonsense regulations and tax obligations every other hotel or inn in the state must follow. As a practical matter, this means that when a short-term rental goes awry — by becoming a year-round party house in a sleepy residential neighborhood, or the site of a bed bug outbreak — impacted consumers and neighbors have little recourse, and unscrupulous landlords can continue to operate their short-term rentals unchecked.
Our lawmakers must take this new and growing trend seriously, as they will ultimately make the tough decisions on how to respect the property rights of homeowners while reining in those commercial operators operating outside of current law. We thank legislators for starting this meaningful discussion so that well-informed solutions can be debated in the forthcoming legislative session.
Visitors are coming to Florida in record numbers, with or without short-term rentals, and it is our duty to ensure tourists have a safe and enjoyable experience while protecting the Florida brand. Florida’s hospitality industry brings in $108.8 billion and represents 1.4 million jobs — making tourism the Sunshine State’s top industry. No single commercial lodging establishment type or operator can claim 100 percent credit for being the driving force for this level of economic impact — it is a collective effort among all businesses within the hospitality industry.
But we can and must take a peek under the hood to make sure all parts of the lodging sector are functioning in a manner that will serve to forwardly propel Florida’s brand as a destination, while ridding the system of bad actors impacting tourists and residents alike. This can be done in such a way that permits true, reasonable home sharing while irrefutably subjecting commercial operators and their short-term rentals to the same commonsense rules other public lodging establishments must abide by. The time has come to address the rise of illegal hotels in our neighborhoods, operating without regard for Florida’s “public accommodations” laws. Our vacationers and our families deserve nothing less.
Carol Dover is president and chief executive officer of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.