October 18, 2017

CHUCK WICKENHOFER/Free Press
Some local fishing guides say enforcement of vacation rental laws should be eased up temporarily due to a lack of hotel rooms in Islamorada after Hurricane Irma.

CHUCK WICKENHOFER/Free Press Some local fishing guides say enforcement of vacation rental laws should be eased up temporarily due to a lack of hotel rooms in Islamorada after Hurricane Irma.

ISLAMORADA — Illegal vacation rentals, generally considered those done without a permit for fewer than 28 days, have been a backdoor business in Islamorada and the rest of the Florida Keys for many years, and with the advent of services like Airbnb, ordinances addressing such violations have often been difficult to enforce.

Will Reyes, code enforcement officer for Islamorada, says that while Airbnb and others make posting and finding non-permitted rentals easier than ever, the number of illegal rentals hasn’t risen during his four years on the job.

“It hasn’t gotten worse, but it hasn’t gotten substantially better, either,” Reyes said. “It’s a chronic problem. It’s never going to go away, (and) we’re having a hard time making a big dent in it.”

One of the problems with enforcement, according to Reyes, is that not only is the $500 fine imposed by the village not enough to deter those offering short-term rentals, it has proven difficult to gather substantial evidence that an illegal rental transaction has been made.

He says another issue is the ordinance itself, which has enough holes that those in the know can find space to operate.

“In these kinds of cases, it’s kind of hard to get physical evidence,” Reyes said. “Not that circumstantial evidence is not allowed in either hearings or even in a court setting, it’s just that it doesn’t serve as well as having physical evidence.”

“There are loopholes in our ordinance that are readily (exploited) if you know what you’re doing,” he added.

That ordinance could theoretically be strengthened, of course, but there’s a hitch: Reyes says that if the Village Council did make changes to existing code, it could lose the ordinance altogether.

According to Florida statute, municipalities stand to lose their ordinances concerning illegal rentals if amendments to current law are made.

Some state lawmakers have been proactively trying to deregulate short-term rentals. A bill introduced in January of this year in the Florida House of Representatives by state Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, would have stripped localities statewide of their ordinances against illegal rentals. That bill was withdrawn from consideration on May 5, effectively killing it.

Because local ordinances are under threat, Reyes says there isn’t much the village can do.

“We’re not idiots. It’s not that we can’t change our ordinance because we don’t want to,” Reyes said. “That would make a bad situation far worse, because then the place would become like the Wild West.”

During discussion at this month’s council meeting, it came up that Monroe County as a whole may have a more effective illegal rental enforcement structure in place.

Reyes disputes that notion, and a message left with the Monroe County Code Enforcement Department was not returned.

Not everyone agrees that illegal rentals should be a major concern following the state of Islamorada hotels and resorts after last month’s hurricane. Judy Hull of the Islamorada Chamber of Commerce told the Free Press that of the 1,275 beds normally available in the village, only 275 are ready to rent currently.

That has put fishing guides and others in the tourism industry in a bind, as potential customers may believe that they’ll have nowhere to stay. Fishing guide Steve Friedman is among those who believe that rentals that violate the village’s ordinance should be overlooked for the time being, though he stressed that he does not agree with a change of the code as it is currently written.

“I don’t think they need to change the ordinance, I think that maybe they just relax enforcement,” Friedman said. “My advice would be that if people have houses, rooms, apartments that they want to rent, I say they rent them. I think the village just happens to look the other way for a while.”

Fellow fishing guide Xavier Figueredo said his business has taken a big hit since the storm. He estimates that he would normally have guided 20 trips in the month since the hurricane hit. His total in that same time frame this year is three.

He identified some of the factors that make rentals and rental policy difficult during the recovery process.

“We’re trying to keep people employed, make sure our fishermen survive, so we’re encouraging people to come down here,” Figueredo said. “At the same time, those beds are needed for people who are down here for rescue efforts and restoration efforts, so it’s hard to find beds for your customers.”

He seems to agree that a temporary relaxation of enforcement could help alleviate the issues that come with the current scarcity of lodging.

“You have to cut business some breaks right now,” Figueredo said.

However, Reyes sees the issue from an ethical perspective. He points out that those who play by the rules have little incentive to do so if illegal renters can get away with profiting while avoiding paying permitting fees.

His concern is that those doing the right thing are treated unfairly in many ways when illegal renters go unpunished.

“You’re doing the right thing, playing by the rules, not having a bunch of potentially crazy people show up at your house and destroy the neighborhood, and you’re neighbor’s not,” Reyes said. “Your neighbor is not spending $1,000 a month, and your neighbor is making more money because he rents it out three or four times a week.”

During the Oct. 5 village meeting, Councilman Mike Forster floated the idea of coordinating sting operations in order to try to curb the problem. Reyes indicates that might be a viable option, though he says that while an update of the village’s ordinance wouldn’t necessarily be required to embark upon such an operation, his department currently doesn’t have the personnel to pull it off.

“I’m not talking about entrapment, obviously, but basically setting up an illegal rental and see if you can get it,” Reyes said, while cautioning that “the legal department might see it differently.”

“Other jurisdictions do that, and I think that would be a viable next step if it could be done in a practical manner,” he added.

The village Code Enforcement Department has had some success going after advertising for possible illegal rentals, according to Reyes, which may be the department’s best bet to catch those in violation.

“We’ve been able to take out hundreds of ads, which, if you can cut down the advertising on the big sites, makes it harder for people to run their business on the lesser sites,” he said.

Despite that success, Reyes has limited hope that his department will be able to crack down on illegal rentals without an ordinance change or a more aggressive approach, neither of which seem to be forthcoming in the near future.

That’s fine with those who say the local economy could use a boost after the storm. If a temporary lack of enforcement of vacation rental rules while Islamorada gets back on its feet could help, Friedman indicates that he’s all for it.

“I would highly doubt that if someone wanted to try to rent out their room, be it for a little bit of extra income or (to) house somebody that is going to stay and fish, pump money into the economy, I don’t see how that could do any harm,” Friedman said.

cwickenhofer@keysnews.com