Tourism & Cruises

Airbnb sues Miami Beach over new rules requiring rental sites to police listings

Airbnb has sued the City of Miami Beach over its most recent short-term rental restrictions. It’s the latest blow in an ongoing fight between the website and the city.

In a lawsuit filed in Miami federal court on Friday, Airbnb argued that a city ordinance restricting how short-term rentals are advertised online violates a federal law that says websites are not responsible for policing the content on their platforms.

The ordinance, passed last September, went into effect Dec. 21. The new rules require rental platforms to only post listings that include business license and resort tax registration numbers — information proving that the property owner has registered with the city. Otherwise, platforms face fines of $1,000 for a first offense and up to $5,000 for repeated violations.

But the ordinance created an exemption for platforms that agree to use a technology known as “geo-fencing” or “geo-coding” to block property owners from listing properties located within a prohibited area. Platforms can qualify for the exemption by submitting a monthly certificate to Miami Beach verifying that the geofencing or geocoding is active and effective, according to the ordinance. Miami Beach prohibits rentals of six months or less in most residential areas, but allows them in a few sections of the city.

Mayor Dan Gelber, who sponsored the legislation, referred to the exemption as “almost a hold-harmless, safe-harbor provision” for platforms that would make the new restrictions “much more defensible”.

“If any of these platforms want to be good corporate citizens and simply say ‘hey, we’re not going to rent in areas where it’s not legal,’... this gives them an avenue by which they can show good faith,” he said at the September commission meeting.

In an email on Friday afternoon, Gelber said that Airbnb was suing “so they can continue to illegally rent in our neighborhoods.” He added that it was “Not exactly the type of behavior you would expect from a good corporate citizen.”

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Airbnb opted for the geo-fencing exemption, installing the system on its website late last year. But at a meeting with the city on Dec. 14, lawyers for Miami Beach told Airbnb that the geo-fencing option was not an exemption, and that Airbnb also needed to require Miami Beach listings on its site to submit business license and resort tax registration numbers, according to the lawsuit.

That requirement, Airbnb says, violates the federal Communications Decency Act, which prevents websites from being held responsible for content on their platforms.

“The Ordinance would compel Airbnb to do precisely what the CDA prohibits — to monitor, review, alter, prohibit, or remove third-party content,” the suit says.

A spokesman for the short-term rental sites HomeAway and VRBO said that the platforms now require Miami Beach hosts to include business tax receipt and resort tax registration numbers in their listings in order to comply with the new restrictions. “We look forward to continued open dialogue with our customers and city officials,” spokesman Philip Minardi said in an email.

On Thursday, a federal judge in New York City blocked a local law that would have required short-term rental platforms to hand over information about thousands of hosts to the city every month.

The most recent Miami Beach restrictions follow a long history of tough enforcement measures, including imposing the country’s highest short-term rental fines and carrying out late-night enforcement visits to illegal rentals.

The restrictions passed in September also apply to property owners, who must now include their business license and resort tax numbers on all listings advertising short-term rentals. Otherwise, according to the ordinance, the city will assume that the rental hasn’t been registered. Violators will receive a written warning after a first offense but could face fines of at least $5,000 for repeated violations.

City officials argue that illegal rentals diminish the quality of life in residential neighborhoods, but their aggressive approach has stirred controversy. Some Miami Beach residents believe that the rentals are a legitimate means of earning extra income and provide affordable options for tourists. A few hosts have even challenged Miami Beach’s short-term rental rules in court.

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The latest controversy played out on social media on Friday after Airbnb took down its listings in restricted areas of Miami Beach as part of its geo-coding practice. Miami Beach gave the platform an extension until Jan. 4 to comply with the new regulations, according to the lawsuit.

In an email message to hosts, Airbnb said it would “continue to fight for fair, thoughtful rules for home sharing” and encouraged hosts to contact local officials and state lawmakers.

One woman complained about the new rules Friday on a Facebook page for Miami Beach residents, writing that taking down the listings in restricted areas “devastated my friend who depends on that income.” Previously Airbnb allowed listings in areas where short-term rentals were prohibited.

Some residents responded to the Facebook post by criticizing the new rules, while others applauded the city’s latest effort to crack down on illegal rentals.

“Short term rentals have been disruptive to my neighborhood and building in the past,” wrote one Beach resident. “Few renters who come to the beach have respect for the locals. I understand they want to party, they are on vacation. But they should do it in a hotel, not in my home.”

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include statements from Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber and HomeAway and VRBO.

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Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.
Kyra Gurney lives in Miami Beach and covers the island for the Miami Herald. She attended Columbia University and Colorado College and grew up in New Mexico.
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