Miami-Dade County

Miami may target Airbnb hosts who spoke at City Hall, sue home-sharing platform

Dozens of Miami property owners who rent their homes and duplexes to visitors through home-sharing platform Airbnb spent all day at City Hall on Thursday pleading with city officials to buck a legal opinion declaring their business an illegal nuisance.

Instead, Miami commissioners reaffirmed that position in a 3-2 vote, threatened to sue Airbnb for promoting clandestine activity, and then told the hosts who placed their names and addresses on the record that they had outed themselves to code compliance.

“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. “I will be duly bound to request our personnel to enforce the city code.”

Thursday’s events were the latest blow in South Florida to the nation’s leading home-sharing service, which has been locked in a public battle with Mayor Tomás Regalado for the last month. Regalado, who says the spreading business of home-sharing is damaging Miami’s communities, asked commissioners to reaffirm a zoning opinion declaring any rental shorter than one month in residential neighborhoods illegal.

Short-term rentals are already illegal in parts of Miami Beach, which issues $20,000 fines to violators. And while the company is on the verge of a tax agreement with the county, property appraiser Pedro Garcia warned this week that anyone caught frequently renting rooms in their primary residence could lose their homestead exemption.

Some 3,500 Miami homeowners use the platform to connect with visitors, according to Tom Martinelli, Airbnb’s head of public policy in Florida, including nearly 1,000 in residential areas where the city says the activity is illegal. He and dozens of hosts argued Thursday that the company tightly vets its hosts and that short-term rentals are a boon to the city — only to learn that those speakers who gave their home addresses to the clerk could now be targeted.

“This government is now going to go after people who took the courage to come here today?” Martinelli asked. “I think that’s reprehensible.”

At the core of Thursday’s debate was whether short-term rentals are invading sleepy neighborhoods and forcing homeowners to live next to party houses. Airbnb — which began running a commercial Wednesday critical of Regalado — says its hosts are largely middle-class homeowners who rent out their homes about three days out of the month in order to help pay the bills.

But Regalado says Airbnb hosts are running party houses that destroy their quality of life. Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a vocal Airbnb critic, also joined the fray, flying a banner plane and floating a billboard off Dinner Key on Thursday criticizing the company for trying to preempt local laws at the state level.

Commissioners Ken Russell and Francis Suarez voted against the measure. Suarez said it was “embarrassing” that Regalado would ask commissioners to direct city staffers to enforce laws already on the books. Russell disagreed that short-term rentals pose a nuisance.

But a majority of the commission sided with the mayor, adding that a number of hosts who spoke about renting investment homes on Airbnb helped them make up their mind by reinforcing the fact that home-sharing is now a major industry. Chairman Keon Hardemon became incensed when one host talked about how home-sharing was improving Little Haiti and other “ghettos” in his district.

“I personally believe that Airbnb, short-term rentals, however you want to call it, is the death of the single-family neighborhood,” Hardemon said.

Thursday’s vote doesn’t actually change the city’s laws. Code officers, who according to city records have documented up to 17 violations per month since October, will continue to pursue short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods. But the divide on the commission doesn’t bode well for Airbnb as Regalado pushes to bring new legislation creating tighter regulation in areas where short-term rentals are deemed legal in the city.

“This is more than taking the temperature,” Regalado said. “This is about sending a message to the residents.”

Miami Herald staff writer Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.