Explaining the fight between Airbnb and Miami-Dade municipalities
Miami-Dade has the chance to strike a deal with Airbnb’s home-rental network on Tuesday when county commissioners vote on Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s plan to begin collecting hotel taxes through the popular online lodging company.
The vote marks the second big showdown over Miami-Dade’s piece of the so-called “sharing” economy. Last year, at Gimenez’s urging, Miami-Dade commissioners approved an ordinance legalizing Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies.
Airbnb’s app and website allow private homeowners to sell overnight stays to travelers. Sometimes the owners remain in the home during the stay and sometimes they turn over the entire residence.
Gimenez’s plan would let Miami-Dade collect the county’s three hotel taxes, which total 6 percent, for Airbnb stays, with the San Francisco-based company charging owners and paying Miami-Dade. The mayors of Miami and Miami Beach are leading the charge against Airbnb, saying the service disrupts residential neighborhoods.
When an ordinance to partially ban short-term rentals in the city of Miami went before the commission, about 70 people spoke on the subject, leading to a 10-hour discussion that culminated with the city voting to reaffirm its zoning laws and keep Airbnb out of residential neighborhoods.
Here’s what to watch for during Tuesday’s Airbnb vote at the County Commission:
1. Will Miami speak up?
Mayor Tomás Regalado sent a letter to Gimenez Monday morning asking the county to include a provision in its tax deal that would allow municipalities — or specifically Miami — to opt out of the tax collection.
“If we are not able to opt out, the problem will be for the county because they’ll be collecting an illegal tax,” he said. “The city will be enforcing. And these poor people paying the tax will be cited and fined by the city. So it’s a contradiction of sorts.”
At a Miami Herald Editorial Board meeting the same day, Gimenez alluded to Regalado as one of the people trying to spin the facts regarding the purpose of the tax deal.
“I do know that some people are trying to muddy the water on this to make it a lot more than it really is by bringing up other things like we are somehow condoning Airbnb and that we are usurping something from them on Airbnb. That could not be further from the truth,” said Gimenez, who asserted the agreement deals with taxation, not regulation of the platform. Cities like Miami would be free to regulate Airbnb as they see fit, he said.
Regalado and Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine have been the most vocal opponents of Airbnb locally, partially because Miami and Miami Beach are the top two Airbnb destinations in the county. Last month, they held a joint press conference denouncing Airbnb.
Late Monday, Gimenez released a letter responding to Regalado. “I have to ask why you would want to give Airbnb a competitive advantage over the hotel industry by not collecting taxes,” Gimenez wrote.
2. How much will Miami-Dade blame Airbnb for the current hotel-tax slump?
Miami-Dade County’s hotel taxes are on a roller coaster that has been going down since last summer.
New numbers for February show that for the sixth straight month, the county collected fewer hotel taxes than it did the year before — the largest losing streak since the Great Recession.
Zika and Brazil’s economic slowdown get much of the blame, but market watchers point to Airbnb cutting into hotels’ market share for costing the county money, too. And while the theory appeals to county officials — Gimenez says his Airbnb deal will generate $6 million in new revenue for Miami-Dade — Airbnb has resisted linking its service to a decline in hotel revenue.
The 6 percent decline in hotel taxes for February, which includes the usually blockbuster President’s Day weekend, highlighted the severity of Miami-Dade’s hotel-tax slump. If Airbnb is a large source of the problem, Gimenez’s deal could help right the county’s revenue forecasts.
3. Do Airbnb “hosts” have anything to fear by addressing commissioners?
After the Miami city commission voted on March 23 to continue enforcement actions against homeowners renting to Airbnb customers, the city warned it might target “hosts” who spoke up at the meeting and put their names and addresses on the record.
“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.”
The city has started contacting hosts who spoke up at the Miami hearing, said Airbnb spokesman Benjamin Breit.
4. Will Miami-Dade’s tourism chief and the hotel industry join the fight?
Bill Talbert, head of Miami-Dade’s tax-funded tourism bureau, was a leading champion of legalizing Uber. He’s been virtually silent during the Airbnb debate.
The last time Talbert spoke about Airbnb to the Miami Herald was nearly a year ago, when he compared the company to ride-hailing companies. “It’s not terribly dissimilar to Uber and Lyft,” he said. “These things come up and regulation is tough to catch up.”
The hotel industry has long said that it wants to be on an equal playing field with Airbnb, including on the tax issue. Gimenez said that is a point he heard “loud and clear” from the hotel industry, and it was one of the reasons he pursued the tax agreement.
Though the hotel industry doesn’t explicitly oppose Airbnb, it has presented demands that would make it virtually impossible for many homeowners to rent to travelers. Wendy Kallergis, president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, said she wanted Airbnb hosts to obtain business licenses, submit to the same health and safety regulations that govern hotels, and comply with federal disability regulations that require hotels to be handicap accessible.
The hotel industry, Kallergis said in a statement, “is more concerned with all our guests having a great visitor experience.”
5. Can Miami-Dade expect any hijinks from Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine?
At the Miami City Commission meeting, Levine paid to fly a banner plane and float a billboard off Dinner Key criticizing Airbnb for trying to preempt local laws at the state level.
“Airbnb hosting Tally Politicos #Residents1st,” the banner read. (A bill that prevents cities and counties from passing any new ordinances that restrict vacation rentals in effect after 2011 passed in a Florida House subcommittee last week).
Will Levine strike again?
Look up Tuesday outside County Hall to find out the answer.
Miami Herald writer David Smiley contributed to this report.