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Private Property Rights Wins the Day in House Short-Term Rentals Debate

In the end, in a House of Representatives where Republicans dominate, private property rights were always going to win.  But the vote that passed HB 425 was close Friday, 63-56, and will stop local governments from cracking down on short-term vacation rentals because they don't like them.

The win was a victory for online companies like Airbnb and Homeaway, which contract with homeowners to rent out their vacant homes in mostly resort locales. Under HB 425, only cities with vacation-rental ordinances on the books before 2011 would be allowed to keep them.

Bill sponsor Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, pressed his conservative advantage: “Is it possible to have too much freedom?" he asked. "And is this a referendum on that freedom? If it is, I’m OK with that.”

He said local governments shouldn't be punishing the responsible majority of property owners for the potential wrongs of a few.

(See: Jacksonville Rental Property Owners May Face Fees For High Crime Properties)

Several lawmakers opined that HB 425 does not undermine local authority. Municipalities will still be able to rein in nuisances, noise, and crime, they said. And existing ordinances already do that by targeting specific wrongful behavior.

But cracking down on zoning violations takes time and money for any town or city, Rep. Wengay M. "Newt" Newton, D-St. Petersburg, pointed out. For homeowners -- real homeowners -- "quality of life is the most important thing." he said. "What I learned here today, I did not know. ... I have little girls ... I didn't know if I live where there are no deed restrictions, a sex offender can come into a short term rental, do what he's going to do and then be gone ..."

Rep. J.W. Grant, R-Tampa, said, "I've heard all the horror stories ... so I asked the Commerce Committee ... 'At what point does a house become a business? ... How many complaints have their been?' I couldn't get an answer. I asked, 'Can you come up with one single hypothetical horror story that doesn't violate existing ordinances?' ... Nobody could do it."

The bottom line, Grant said, is that municipalities don't want their law enforcement deployed on code violations, "it's too hard." Depriving homeowners the ability to use their assets to create revenue is inherently wrong, he said.

Home-sharing has been going on a long time in Florida. For more than 20 years, homeowners and travelers have taken to the Internet to connect. Polls have shown many vacationers, particularly those with families, prefer rental homes to hotels. And the concept has helped thousands of Floridians rent rooms or houses to help pay their bills.

Without HB 425, that option could vanish in the Sunshine State, said LaRosa.

According to the nonprofit private property rights law firm Pacific Legal Foundation, 21 percent of Florida homeowners use rental income to pay for their child's education, 70 percent of owners use income for renovations or upgrades, and 11 percent save for retirement. A recent Mason and Dixon poll shows 93 percent of Floridians support home-sharing.

Cities in Florida have been trying to ban short-term rentals, charging homeowners big fines. Chief among them is the City of Miami Beach, which voted to impose fines of a record $20,000 on home-sharers.

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