Florida Keys

Will Airbnb divulge mysterious owners to Keys tax collector?

The Art Institute of Chicago shows a Chicago apartment decorated to look like Vincent van Gogh's painting of his bedroom in the south of France. The room in Chicago's River North neighborhood is listed on Airbnb as if the artist himself were renting it for $10 a night.
The Art Institute of Chicago shows a Chicago apartment decorated to look like Vincent van Gogh's painting of his bedroom in the south of France. The room in Chicago's River North neighborhood is listed on Airbnb as if the artist himself were renting it for $10 a night. AP

Airbnb, a major online vacation-rental site, offers more than 300 Florida Keys listings that include bedrooms, cabins and docked boats.

What Airbnb will not offer Monroe County is information on its client "hosts" — property owners who advertise and book vacation rentals in the Keys, county officials say.

"They have to provide me with more information," county Tax Collector Danise Henriguez. "There are too many things we just don't know."

Wednesday in Key Largo, Monroe County commissioners will review a proposal to initiate a class-action lawsuit against Airbnb in a bid to force the company to be more forthcoming about the unit owners who use the firm's online booking platform.

Airbnb last month sent the Monroe County Tax Collector's office a "voluntary collection agreement" with the company offering to collect tourist-tax money from unit owners and forward it to the county.

But Airbnb insists on keeping the unit owners "anonymous" with no "personally identifiable information" on their names or addresses where the rental units operate.

"They want to send a lump sum every month and have us accept that," Henriquez said. "I would lose total control."

"How do we know if they're remitting the correct amount of tax?" she said. "Are these units in areas where they are legally allowed to rent? Do they have a homestead exemption? I don't know."

"County staff shares Mrs. Henriquez's concerns," County Attorney Bob Shillinger says in an agenda report. "Staff is concerned that entering into the proposed agreement as drafted would facilitate violations of the county's vacation-rental ordinance."

"Airbnb's willingness to enter into an agreement to pay tourist-development taxes would seem to suggest an acknowledgment of its liability for paying bed taxes," Shillinger noted. Some other Florida counties reportedly have accepted Airbnb's terms.

Henriquez said without knowing the rental addresses, her office cannot properly distribute the tourist taxes to Keys cities or the unincorporated county.

Vacation rentals in the Keys have been a controversial topic for years. Advocates say they provide unique accommodations that attract visitors and support property values. Critics say the short-term rentals of living units deprive local workers of affordable housing and can turn a quiet neighborhood into a party spot.

In August 2015, Airbnb settled five Key West code cases where owners advertised vacation rentals without a required city permit.

Henriquez's office took over audit and enforcement of tourist taxes countywide in January 2015 from the County Clerk's Office. The nightly bed tax is 12.5 percent; 7.5 percent goes to the state, 5 percent to the county, Henriquez said.

"We've collected more than $250,000 of uncollected revenue and opened up more than 1,000 new accounts to make sure they're in compliance," she said.

The tax collector's office accepts tips on possible illegal vacation rentals through e-mail or over the phone. "We act on every one," Henriquez said.

In 2010, Monroe County was the lead plaintiff in a class-action suit against several online travel companies over unpaid tourist taxes. Of the $6.5 million settlement with several local governments, Monroe netted about $1.2 million after legal fees.

At Wednesday's County Commission meeting at the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center on Key Largo, Shillinger will ask the board members if they want to negotiate a contract with the attorney who won the 2010 case.

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