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'An Unfair Playing Field': Gainesville Looks To Regulate Airbnb

Nan Charland sits on the porch of the Laurel Oak Inn, the bed-and-breakfast with her husband Dave Charland. (Vincent McDonald/WUFT News)
Nan Charland sits on the porch of the Laurel Oak Inn, the bed-and-breakfast with her husband Dave Charland. (Vincent McDonald/WUFT News)

Alachua County and Gainesville are considering options for regulating short-term stays at homes or rooms listed online through Airbnb and similar lodging services.

Alachua County Tourism Director Jessica Hurov said the county tax collector’s office estimates that 95 percent of these rental spaces don’t remit the required monthly 5 percent bed tax.

“The estimate we received is that there is over $300,000 of unremitted bed tax from last year alone, and it’s just continuing to grow,” Hurov said at a Gainesville City Commission General Policy Committee meeting last month.

Mayor Lauren Poe said that the bed tax is also an equity issue.

“Hotel owners and B&Bs are all paying this,” Poe said. “It’s an unfair playing field. We’ve absolutely got to address that part.”

Local bed-and-breakfast owners who attended the meeting agreed.

“We get inspected just like the restaurants, just like the hotels,” said Cindy Montalto, 64, co-owner of the Magnolia Plantation Bed & Breakfast Inn and Cottages. Referring to the Airbnbs, Montalto said, “They just open their doors and throw mattresses on the floor and bam.”

Airbnb allows its hosts to place their homes or single rooms on the market for short-term stays and set their own rates. Market research firm Euromonitor International projects that the company will grow into one of the world’s largest hospitality providers by 2020, second only to Marriott-Starwood. In May, Airbnb released a report stating that its Gainesville-based hosts earned a total of $108,000 during commencement weekend at the University of Florida.

Airbnb automatically collects sales tax from hosts across the state and remits tourist development taxes, known as bed taxes, in select counties, according to the company’s website.

The company spent almost a year negotiating a similar program for Alachua County, but the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement after Airbnb requested that the county refrain from collecting bed taxes that were previously unpaid, the Gainesville Sun reported.

Though a state statute precludes local governments from prohibiting vacation rentals or regulating how long or often guests can stay in them, some cities and counties in Florida have ordinances addressing short-term lodging. In Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, short-term lodging owners must register their properties with the city and pay annual fees.

In Gainesville, the commission’s rental housing committee will discuss the issue on Jan. 2.

For its part, Airbnb is projecting a cooperative approach in advance of the meeting.

“Gainesville has a robust and commonsense landlord permit that we have praised over the years,” Tom Martinelli, the company’s Florida policy director, wrote in an email. “We look forward to working with Mayor Poe and the Commission to better understand their concerns and work towards clear rules for compliance.”

Cory Presnick and his wife rent the Gray House, their former home, via the company on Southeast Seventh Street, a historic B&B district in the city.

Presnick, 36, a commercial real estate developer who moved with his family to Chattanooga, Tennessee a year ago, said they decided to use Airbnb instead of selling their Gainesville home.

“It’s a unique property and we really fell in love with it and could potentially could be back in the area,” he said.

The house is occupied by short-term renters about 60 percent of the year, Presnick said. Because the family rents the entire house, and not just rooms, guests in groups of up to eight are allowed a more private experience, he said. The house is maintained by an offsite property manager.

“If we were to be regulated like a hotel for having six, seven, eight people – it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me,” Presnick said.

Nevertheless, Presnick said he would be happy to abide by any new rules the city may impose.

“Allowing the market to dictate how people behave is what I believe in, but I certainly understand,” he said. “We have a lot of great neighbors and friends in the bed-and-breakfast district that we respect a great deal. We’re happy to be a part of that community.”

B&B owners said that Airbnb rental properties without an onsite owner or manager can cause headaches for neighbors. No one is around to quickly address a problem with parking, noise or safety, said Joe Montalto, who owns Magnolia Plantation with his wife, Cindy Montalto.

“It’s almost like the owner is leaving it up to the neighborhood to police it, and at times we do have to have to get GPD involved,” Montalto, 64, said. “We have to deal with it, not the owner. That to me is grossly unfair.”

Nan Charland, 46, who co-owns the Laurel Oak Inn with her husband Dave Charland next door to the Montaltos, also wants Airbnb owners to follow the same guidelines as she must.

“Healthy competition is great, but when they are not paying the same fees and licensures that we’re required … we’re out all of this money,” she said. “We’re fighting for the same people.”

Laurel Oak also lists its rooms on Airbnb.com, but at significantly higher rates than other local rentals on the site, Nan Charland said. Unlike other properties, however, B&Bs can’t accommodate renters’ requests to split a room between a group of people to lessen the rate, without breaching fire code.

“The fire department would get upset; I mean, they’d shut us down if they wanted to,” she said. “Airbnb, they can have that access, and that’s where it’s not OK.”

Pat McCants, 61, Joe Montalto’s cousin, and her husband Tom McCants, 64, manage the Camellia Rose Inn next door to the Charlands. The couple spent tens of thousands of dollars to ensure their home follows state and local laws: about $35,000 on a sprinkler system, $15,000 on a fire alarm system and $1,500 a year in licensing and inspection fees, Pat McCants said.

“There’s nothing saying that I can’t go out there, pull my sign off, turn in my licenses, take down my website and start using Airbnb,” she said. “But the problem is, I’ve already invested.”

McCants doesn’t think that Airbnbs are negatively affecting her business, but she argues that their presence negatively impacts a neighborhood of single-family homes.

“All of a sudden a home becomes a transient place, and you never know who your neighbor is,” she said.

Commissioner David Arreola, chairman of the rental housing committee, said the city’s governing body wants to hear both perspectives at the upcoming meeting.

“If you’re an online short-term rental service provider, I think you need to tune into these conversations,” Arreola said.

Vincent is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6396 or emailing news@wuft.org.