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Airbnb sues the city of Miami for going after hosts, enacting short-term rental rules

Supporters of Airbnb wave their arms in the air in agreement of something a speaker said about Airbnb during a Miami City commission meeting on Thursday, March 23, 2017.
Supporters of Airbnb wave their arms in the air in agreement of something a speaker said about Airbnb during a Miami City commission meeting on Thursday, March 23, 2017. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

After threatening to crack down on Miami Airbnb hosts who spoke up at a city commission meeting, the home-sharing platform is fighting back — with a lawsuit.

In a suit filed Friday afternoon in Miami-Dade County circuit court, Airbnb claims the city of Miami is both violating the First Amendment rights of the hosts it is pursuing and flouting a state law that prohibits municipalities from enacting regulations post-2011 to further limit short-term rentals in private homes.

On March 23, dozens of Airbnb hosts packed into a Miami City Commission meeting as the city debated reaffirming a zoning ordinance that would make short-term rentals largely illegal. The city voted 3-2 in favor of the measure, and then threatened to go after hosts who shared their names and addresses with the commission.

“We are now on notice for people who did come here and notify us in public and challenge us in public,” said City Manager Daniel Alfonso at the time. “I will be duly bound to request our personnel to enforce the city code.”

In the suit, filed by five hosts and Airbnb, the company states the city “is now acting to make good on those threats.”

“Airbnb stands together with its Miami hosts in opposing the City’s unlawful efforts, and in particular stands with the brave individuals who have come forward and seek to protect their rights as individual plaintiffs in this action,” Airbnb states in the suit.

“When those wielding the power of government seek to deprive members of our community of their fundamental rights — property rights, free speech, the right to petition without fear of retribution — we are compelled to act.”

The hosts sounding off against the city are Yamile Bell, a former cosmetologist and Univision radio personality who rents on Airbnb to earn money as she home schools her three children; Coconut Grove residents and pharmacists Tonya Bowles and Gary Levin, who is also the founding dean of the Larkin College of Pharmacy; Grove resident Kenneth Tobin, founder of Tobin Construction & The Painter, who rents his home while he is away; and Ana Rubio, a physical education teacher at Title 1 school Earlington Heights Elementary, who rents her home to “make ends meet,” the suit says.

Bell, Bowles and Tobin attended the commission meeting.

The suit contends that “citizens have a right to speak to their government without fear of retribution in our county,” per the First Amendment, the Florida Constitution and Florida Statutes.

But Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who has ardently opposed Airbnb, said in an interview Friday that the hosts knowingly put themselves in harm’s way.

“With that lawsuit, [Airbnb is] precipitating things because I think it’s their fault that they brought these people to City Hall knowing ... that they have to give their name and addresses,” said Regalado. The city previously has pursued people who have outed themselves in a public forum. “There is no First Amendment issue here and there is no retribution.”

Regalado said hosts have only been issued a notice of violation so far, to which they can reply by saying they are stopping all activity on the site. The city attorney is planning on sending out cease-and-desist orders in the coming weeks specifically to the hosts who spoke up at the meeting, he said.

They would then go through the legal process of a code enforcement violation, which could take months, Regalado said, before being levied a fine of $250 per day were they deemed in violation of the city’s zoning laws. (Miami’s zoning rules prohibit short-term rentals in T3 transect zones).

The suit also argues that the city, home to 2,300 active Airbnb hosts over the past year, is skirting state statutes by reaffirming its zoning rules.

In 2011, the Florida Legislature preempted cities and counties from creating new regulations that further restrict vacation rentals after June of that year. Only ordinances that specifically addressed vacation rentals would be grandfathered in. But the state rolled back those regulations in 2014 to allow local governments to regulate vacation rentals, as long as those regulations didn’t prohibit or regulate the duration or frequency of rentals. (A bill in the Florida House would strip the 2014 change from the books and deregulate short-term rentals.)

Then in 2015, the city of Miami amended its zoning ordinance, which didn’t directly address vacation rentals, to say that using a single-family home or duplex to “provide rental accommodations per night, week or anything less than one month” in a T3 transect zone would be illegal.

The suit calls the city’s 2015 zoning interpretation a “contrived and ad hoc means to try to achieve the city’s goal of banning vacation rentals in the T3 transect zone” and claims the city is in violation of state law.

The plaintiffs are seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. They’re asking the court to declare vacation rentals legal in suburban areas of Miami, to stop the city from adopting new ordinances against short-term rentals, prevent any legal action against the hosts and to deem unlawful the city commission’s policy of requiring members of the public who speak up to share their personal information.

The local Airbnb battle has reached a boiling point in recent months with the mayors of Miami and Miami Beach speaking out against the platform. Miami Beach has imposed $20,000 fines against violators since March 2016. Last week, Miami-Dade County and Broward County passed tax deals that would allow each county to collect resort taxes — 6 percent in Miami-Dade and 5 percent in Broward — from Airbnb.

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