Mayors Levine, Regalado hold anti-Airbnb meeting while protesters decry crackdown

Miami and Miami Beach take steps to fight Airbnb rentals

In a joint press conference, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine discuss steps their respective cities are taking to fight against vacation rental company Airbnb on March 20, 2017.
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In a joint press conference, Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Miami Beach mayor Philip Levine discuss steps their respective cities are taking to fight against vacation rental company Airbnb on March 20, 2017.

The fight over the role of home-sharing platform Airbnb in local neighborhoods continued to escalate at Miami City Hall Monday morning, pitting a group of hosts on the platform against the anti-Airbnb mayors of Miami Beach and Miami.

Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine and Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado called a news conference in front of city hall Monday to highlight complaints both mayors have received from homeowners associations about the negative impacts short-term renting can have on residents.

Both Levine and Regalado have been vocal opponents of Airbnb, which has grown in popularity in Miami-Dade in the past several years. Prior to the mayors’ event, about two dozen local Airbnb hosts protested at Miami City Hall carrying signs that read, “These mayors are ‘Innsane’” and “Lame duck Levine.”

In Miami Beach, Levine sponsored an increase of the city’s fines against illegal short-term renters to $20,000 last March, which has amounted to $5 million in fines over the past year. In Miami, Regalado has sponsored an ordinance that reaffirms the city’s zoning laws to largely ban short-term rentals. It will come before commissioners Thursday.

On Monday, Regalado said the ban, which if passed would prompt Miami code compliance officers to “go after the people that are doing commercial activity in the residential areas,” is only the first step. The city will then look to extend the regulations to condo buildings.

Both Regalado and Levine emphasized that the issue is largely quality of life in their neighborhoods.

“Let me say right off the bat that I love Airbnb. Love, love, love, love. Airbnb is an extraordinary company — I think it’s fantastic, but I just don’t love Airbnb on Miami Beach,” said Levine, who added in an interview later Monday that he has never used the platform but likes the concept of it. “I do love Airbnb in designated areas of Miami Beach where it is legal and allowed for commercial purposes.”

Gayle Durham, president of the West Avenue Neighborhood Association in Miami Beach, said doing away with illegal short-term rentals is the No. 1 issue members of her association bring up at meetings.

“I personally live in a very small building, we know each other by our first names, we are all friends with each other. Now it feels like I live in a hotel. People are coming in and out of the elevator with their suitcases all day long,” Durham said. “We even have a big sign in our lobby, Airbnb not allowed,’ and it’s not helping. People still come in.”

The mayors shared emails from locals who have had negative experiences with the platform, including one about a homeowner breaking up a party at a short-term rental.

As they spoke, a plane flew overhead: “Regalado and Levine have suite dreams! #Hotelbuddies.”

Although Airbnb said it did not sponsor the plane, it did support their message that the mayors’ stance is not a quality of life issue but rather born of their relationship with the hotel industry. The platform issued a public records request to Miami and Miami Beach Monday requesting all meetings, emails and letters between the industry and the mayors since January of 2016.

“Mayor Tomás Regalado and Mayor Philip Levine have taken it on themselves to defend the powerful over the people,” said Tom Martinelli, head of public policy for Airbnb in Florida. “To suggest middle-class people pose a threat to the hotel industry is laughable. Our hosts deserve respect and will not be silenced or intimidated.”

“This is not about hotels,” Regalado shot back later. “We do defend the hotels, but the issue the mayor has and I have is about residential.”

Monday’s press conference comes as Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez has reached an agreement with Airbnb to allow the platform to collect the 6 percent county resort tax from its hosts and return that money to Miami-Dade.

The deal, which is contingent on county approval, will likely be on the commission agenda for April 4 and, if passed, would bring at least $8 million in tax revenue to the county annually, according to Airbnb estimates.

The issue has also reached Miami-Dade County Property Appraiser Pedro Garcia, who is warning homeowners with a homestead exemption that they risk committing tax fraud if they rent out their properties on Airbnb.

“My main concern is not what Airbnb is doing, but the protection of the people who have homestead in Miami-Dade County and have no knowledge whatsoever that they can commit homestead fraud,” Garcia said at the press conference Monday.

In some ways, the conference was a confluence of the rising tension around Airbnb. Among other highlights at the event:

▪ Several Miami Airbnb hosts said during the protest that Airbnb is the only thing that helps them stay afloat.

“I would move from Miami without Airbnb,” said Theresa Bajandas, who is retired. “Through Airbnb we are bridging the gap.”

▪ Regalado, arguing that the short-term rental issue isn’t new, said if he allowed Airbnb to operate, he would have to allow everyone in the city to have a rental unit.

Responding to hosts who say they need Airbnb to be able to live in Miami, Regaldo said, “That’s the same argument that, for 40 years, elderly residents from Little Havana, and Allapattah and Flagami have been saying about what they call ‘illegal units.’ You close your garage and you rent to your aunt or to your cousin and the city will go after you.”

▪ Activist Graciela Solares, a former candidate for Miami City Council and former president of the Miami-Roads Neighborhood Civic Association, said she has been “victimized” by Airbnb, which has depressed the quality of life in her neighborhood. Solares said there are short-term rentals on her block that attract people she does not know.

“There was some individual that looked Middle Eastern, tattooed from head to toe. And why do I know he was tattooed from head to toe? Because he used to wear shorts this big,” she said, placing her thumb and index finger an inch apart, “and used to go to the Wainwright Park every day to play basketball — I guess.”

“These are the kind of people that come into your area. People you’ve never seen before, people that we don’t know where they came from, what kind of criminal background they have.”

▪  In a candid moment, Levine made a sarcastic jab at Airbnb for shooting back at Levine’s colorful comments on social media.

“I would love to open an urgent care hospital in my house. As a matter of fact, I’d love to open a big nightclub at my house. But guess what? I’m not allowed to do it because there is no zoning that allowed me to do it and I’m so sorry Airbnb feels so persecuted and criticized,” Levine said. “I’m shedding crocodile tears up here.”

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH