After a fight with breast cancer, artist Vivana Molinares’ priorities were shuffled around like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle: She wanted to stop working full-time, focus on her art and travel. But she needed cash.
That’s when she finally decided to try hosting visitors on home-sharing platform Airbnb, despite some lingering questions: How would I deal with strangers in my house? Who would come out to Kendall?
The answer to the first: rather well. Molinares cooks for her guests once or twice during their stay and said she’s never had a problem with any. She’s been a host for three years.
And the second: enough people to earn her and her husband, Alex, about $3,000 a year. All of it has all been invested back into Airbnb, she said, on her own trips to France, Ireland, England and Scotland and her upcoming travel to Colombia and Iceland.
“I use it all the time — I love it. It was amazing to stay in people’s houses. I never felt lonely, even when I traveled by myself,” Molinares said. “I don’t stay at hotels anymore.”
I use it all the time — I love it. It was amazing to stay in people’s houses. I don’t stay at hotels anymore.
Viviana Molinares, Kendall Airbnb host
Statements like those alarm the local hotel industry, which has added the popularity of the home-sharing economy to a developing list of headwinds.
In Miami Beach, that conversation has reached a boiling point, with the city levying $20,000 fines against violators who host short-term rentals. Zoning laws prohibit short-term rentals in nearly all of that city. In the seven months since the Beach increased its fines from $500, the city has levied nearly $3 million against residents and short-term rental companies, including Airbnb.
Detractors across Miami-Dade have argued that Airbnb is responsible for a steady stream of strangers, safety issues, increased noise and lease violations. Miami Beach deals with the bulk of those complaints because it remains the most popular local stop for Airbnb travelers.
According to ZIP code data provided to the Miami Herald by Airbnb, about half of all tourists who stayed at local Airbnb rentals between September 2015 and September 2016 stayed in Miami Beach. That amounts to nearly 185,000 people, about 1 percent of all tourists who come to Miami-Dade County.
The other half of guests stayed at rentals spread out across Miami-Dade, in 72 ZIP codes from Homestead to Hialeah.
Beyond the Beach, the service is largely used in the way it was intended: as an income supplement for people like the Molinares who rent out space in areas like Kendall that don’t have a lot of hotel options.
Because she lives near Miami Dade College’s Kendall Campus, the Everglades and Miami Executive Airport, Molinares said most of her guests are visiting the area for work, to see the Everglades or to visit family members who don’t have extra space in their homes.
“I direct them to local businesses,” she said. “I also worked many years with the Miccosukees, so I could tell them where to go down there for air boat rides.”
Supporters of Airbnb argue the service is an economic stimulant in areas where there aren’t traditional tourist options, and that it puts extra money into the pockets of locals. The site recently launched a local TV and radio ad campaign that focuses on those two topics, citing that 66 percent of hosts use Airbnb to pay their rent or mortgage.
According to Airbnb’s ZIP code data, outside Miami Beach, some of the most popular neighborhoods are Brickell, Wynwood, downtown Miami, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Miami Shores, Aventura, Little Havana and Doral.
A total of 5,112 locals were hosts on the platform in the time period surveyed, earning an average of about $5,200 a year.
And the hosts who made the most money? Those weren’t in Miami Beach.
They were in Hialeah.
The ZIP code where hosts make the most money is in Hialeah. On average, hosts at 33013 make more than $20,200.
Two hosts in ZIP code 33013 raked in an average of $20,289 in the last year, thanks in part to a steady flow of 306 guests that kept their listings occupied for nearly five months on and off, the most of any ZIP code. On average, guests in those lodgings only stayed for three-day trips.
In fact, the top four ZIP codes in terms of earnings were in areas away from major tourist centers. Hosts at ZIP code 33165 in Olympia Heights earned about $14,200 on average, while hosts at Kendall ZIP codes 33175 and 33185 earned about $12,000. (No. 5 was the Middle Beach ZIP code of 33140, where the average earning was about $11,900.)
“There are great neighborhoods that offer amazing culture, fantastic restaurants, and we are are able to help show some tourists a little bit more of what these great cities have to offer. And that seems to be the case for our folks that are coming to Miami, while also helping small businesses in those neighborhoods,” said Michael O’Neil, Airbnb’s director of regional policy.
355,246 Number of people who visited Miami-Dade County to stay at an Airbnb between September 2015 and September 2016
O’Neil said guests in Miami-Dade spend about $250 a day, with about half of that money spent in the neighborhoods in which they stay.
Generally, more locals approve of Airbnb than not. According to a poll conducted by David Binder Research of 500 Miami-Dade County residents in August and sent by Airbnb to county commissioners last week, 52 percent of respondents said they had a favorable opinion and 10 percent they had an unfavorable opinion of the platform.
Impacting quality of life
For all its benefits, Airbnb comes with drawbacks, with some neighbors calling it a constant “nightmare.”
That’s how Miami Beach resident Michael Andrews characterized it. His downstairs neighbor at a Meridian Avenue apartment building, a women he never met, rented out her apartment on Airbnb, bringing in an ever-changing set of visitors who often woke Andrews up in the middle of the night with loud noise.
“If they had been quiet at 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning, I wouldn’t have noticed them,” Andrews said. “[But] if they are going to party, go out and party. Don’t do it in a residential area.”
Andrews filed three complaints with the city of Miami Beach Code Compliance before his landlord took the case to court and got the Airbnb host evicted in May.
[Airbnb] was really a nightmare.
Michael Andrews, Miami Beach resident who lived under an Airbnb unit
But while parties at short-term rentals are well-documented — public records show various short-term rental violators in Miami Beach were identified because of loud parties at their residences — they aren’t new in the beach’s transient town history. Nor are they the biggest threat, said Stuart Blumberg, former president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Association and a major player in the 2009 campaign to ban short-term rentals.
“Our concern as hoteliers was the fact that short-term rentals were winding up in people’s homes and they weren’t conforming to Florida hotel statutes,” Blumberg said. Airbnb doesn’t yet pay county or city resort taxes, although it has been in ongoing talks with the county to start doing so. The service also doesn’t follow other regulations imposed on hotels, such as fire codes, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and safety rules.
Blumberg and most in the hotel industry say Airbnb should be on equal footing with hotels when they serve a similar purpose.
“If you walk like a duck and you look like a duck, you’re a duck,” Blumberg said.
Airbnb doesn’t yet pay county or city resort taxes.The service also doesn’t follow other regulations imposed on hotels.
Take fire codes: A countywide ordinance requires residences rented for fewer than 30 days to have individual fire sprinklers, said Albert Zamora, a broker at Trident Real Estate on Miami Beach.
That got the Octagon Towers Residential Condominium on Washington Avenue in trouble in May of 2015, when the Miami Beach Fire Department ordered residents to cease short-term rentals because the units were not up to code.
Short-term rentals can also cause issues for landlords, who are liable if they rent to someone who commits a crime on the property, Zamora said.
“Like anything else, people have abused the original premise [of Airbnb],” Zamora said. “They are circumventing the screening process, and in some cases the tenant is doing the Airbnb rental without the knowledge of the landlord.”
Like anything else, people have abused the original premise [of Airbnb]. They are circumventing the screening process, and in some cases the tenant is doing the Airbnb rental without the knowledge of the landlord.
Albert Zamora, a broker at Trident Real Estate on Miami Beach
Illegal Airbnb rentals aren’t limited to Miami Beach. They happen across the county in buildings that ban the practice.
Often, hosts will ask guests to lie about why they are staying over.
“The host asked us to tell the neighbors we were his friends and not that we used Airbnb to book the apartment,” said West Palm Beach resident Nelson Garcia, who in February stayed at an Airbnb rental in a condo building in North Miami. “I later found out it was because per the building he wasn’t allowed to Airbnb his apartment.”
While his experience was positive, Garcia said it was a “little sketchy.”
For its part, Airbnb has installed its neighbor tool, which allows people to submit complaints about Airbnb rentals directly on the site. O’Neil said the site is still raising awareness about the tool, which has received very few complaints.
Here to stay
In the year of data that Airbnb provided to the Herald, more than 355,000 travelers visited Miami-Dade via an Airbnb rental. The service’s popularity has grown exponentially since 2009, when it first surfaced in the county with 11 guests. Since 2014, local stays arranged via the site have more than tripled.
Part of the appeal: price. The Miami hotel market commanded the No. 4 highest average room rate in the country in 2015 at $195.75 a night, according to data from the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. The average Airbnb room rate in Miami is $95.
(The CVB declined to comment on this story, citing “current discussions and negotiations.”)
Airbnb gives so much more flexibility. [People] might not be inclined to visit at all if they can’t have an affordable way of staying.
Nicolas Ramos, Airbnb guest in Coral Gables
The cheaper rates allowed University of Miami research associate Nicolas Ramos to book a staycation in Coral Gables with friends at a one-bedroom townhouse in August 2014.
“Airbnb gives so much more flexibility,” Ramos said. “[People] might not be inclined to visit at all if they can’t have an affordable way of staying.”
The differences between a hotel and Airbnb aren’t just about price. While hotels offer privacy with a slew of amenities, Airbnb rentals promise more intimate experiences that can be more personalized for guests.
For instance, Coconut Grove sculptor Aida Serousse often takes guests around Miami and offers them free sculpture classes.
Supporters and opponents agree that Airbnb is not going anywhere. Fans and naysayers will likely need to find middle ground.
I love the sharing economy and I love the consumer’s economy. There is nothing wrong with that and there is a lot of good that can come out of it. But I do think it’s got to be level playing field for everybody.
Christopher Zoller, a broker at EWM Realty International
As long as Airbnb can follow city ordinances, pay taxes and find a way to curb abuses by hosts, it has a place in Miami-Dade’s economy, said Christopher Zoller, a broker at EWM Realty International.
“I love the sharing economy, and I love the consumer’s economy. There is nothing wrong with that, and there is a lot of good that can come out of it. But I do think it’s got to be a level playing field for everybody,” Zoller said.
Real-estate broker Ross Milroy says short-term rental rules should be left to property owners. “People that own their own property should have the right to rent out the property,” Milroy said, with reasonable regulations, such as tax collection.
$95 Average cost of an Airbnb rental in Miami-Dade. The average cost of a hotel room in 2015 was about $195.
He compared the rise of Airbnb to ride-sharing app Uber, which reached an agreement with the county over regulations. Both have widespread support from locals.
“Uber came out, and in the end Uber had their way in Miami-Dade and in Broward County,” Milroy said. “Because the people want it.”
This article includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their insights with the Miami Herald and WLRN. Become a source at wlrn.org/topic/public-insight-network