Thursday, April 18, 2024

Boca takes on vacation rentals & other news of note

Boca vs. vacation rentals

Boca Raton holds the first of two budget hearings on Thursday. The proposed 2015-16 budget calls for more staff additions than at any time since before the recession.

Which is good. With property values rising, cities need to improve services that may not have received sufficient attention for almost a decade. Budgets have lagged, but growth hasn’t.

Among other things, City Manager Leif Ahnell wants to add seven police officers and four firefighters. He also wants to hire 12 code compliance officers to deal with issues arising from downtown growth, Florida Atlantic University students living in neighborhoods and—probably most important—vacation rental properties operating illegally in Boca’s residential neighborhoods.

You knew it was coming. If Uber has gone after traditional taxi companies, online rental sites such as Airbnb and VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) and others have gone after hotels. And since we’re talking Boca Raton, not Dubuque, there’s plenty of demand, and there are plenty of available properties.

Renting out a home, however, means using the home as a vacation rental business. The city requires that homes in residential areas be rented for at least six months. You can understand it from the neighbors’ point of view. Stable neighborhoods require year-round residents—or, this being South Florida, at least snowbirds. Transient residents don’t make for stable neighborhoods.

At first, vacation rental sites supposedly offered accommodations within someone’s home. Your kids are grown, their rooms remain, so rent them out and make some extra money. The sharing economy. Like sharing your car to drive for Uber. Learn conversational French if your visitors are from Paris.

A check of those sites, however, shows that the new trend is to rent the whole property, with the owners not in residence. Listings on VRBO advertise homes in Boca Raton that sleep as many as 12 people. Investors may own many of these properties. And many more cities than Boca are facing the problem.

According to a recent news report, a Brooklyn man found that Airbnb offered 1,500 listings in his neighborhood. Two-thirds of them advertised the whole residence, not just a room or two. The man discovered that half of the owners also advertised another property.

A reporter for the New Orleans Times Picayune said the Big Easy is having an “Airbnb gold rush.” The site has 2,600 listings for New Orleans. VRBO offers another 1,000. Those short-term rental rates that can be from $250 to $600 per night are driving long-term rates so high that working people in New Orleans can’t find affordable traditional rental units.

Governments at different levels are responding. Last year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman claimed that at 72 percent of Airbnb’s listings the owners were not on the properties. State law requires an owner to be present if the home is rented for less than 30 days.

Last month, Fort Lauderdale approved new regulations for vacation rentals. The city had received complaints about large, loud parties at rented-out homes. “People have been complaining that they feel they are living next to a hotel,” City Manager Lee Feldman told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Monroe County is trying to get tourist tax revenue from owners who rent to tourists and try to get around paying the tax. Hotels and motels must levy the tourist tax, revenue from which promotes the area and goes toward beach renourishment and other projects.

Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie said city code officers are searching vacation rental websites “to find violators.” One of the challenges for code compliance officers, she said, is “discerning friends and family visits from paying tenants.”

As in other places, complaints from neighbors generate many of the complaints on which the code compliance officers act. Pushing back on regulation, of course, are the vacation rental sites. The issue is complex. According to a city spokeswoman, staff hopes to hold a workshop on Sept. 21, though that date is “tentative.”

Whatever the date, the discussion will take place soon.  When I asked if this looms as a big issue, Haynie responded, “Oh, yes.”

And we go online

One part of Boca Raton government is about to enter the 21st century. At last.

If you want a permit for Spanish River, Red Reef and South Beach parks, you have had to obtain it in person at the community center near city hall. An ordinance on Wednesday night’s city council meeting would allow residents to apply for a parking permit online and receive it in the mail, as you can do when registering your car. According to the backup material, Boca Raton issues 15,000 such permits each year.

University Village

Also on Wednesday’s city council agenda is a request from the developers of University Village for expedited review of their project.

A division of Penn Florida wants to build about 1,500 homes, a hotel, plus medical and retail space on roughly 80 acres between Spanish River Boulevard and Interstate 95 south of Yamato Road. The company bought the scrubland in 2013 for $15 million from Boca Raton Regional Hospital. In 2005, during the real estate go-go days, Boca Regional paid $25 million for the site in hopes of making it a teaching hospital.

The project would be what Boca Raton calls a Planned Mobility Development, designed to reduce traffic through the use of public transportation and by having people who live at University Village also work there. It’s a neat concept, but at this point that’s all it is. No one is sure if the reality will match the hope.

Attorney Charles Siemon, who represents the developers, wants the council to decide tonight that at its next meeting on Sept. 22 it will schedule the ordinance that would create the regulations for the project. That would create a calendar for the approval process. As City Manager Leif Ahnell notes in a memo to the council, the project would require rezoning and a master plan resolution approval. Siemon is asking that the city complete all of its reviews by the end of October.

The project, Siemon said, “has been pending forever.” His clients are “moving forward, and they have deadlines to meet.” He said the master plan proposal went to the city roughly a year ago. If the council rejects Siemon’s request, the issue will cycle through for at least another two weeks. It requires three meetings of the council: one at which the ordinance is introduced, and two public hearings. The planning and zoning board also must weigh in.

I would be surprised if the council agrees to that stepped-up schedule. This is a complicated approval for a big project that will

About the Author

Randy Schultz was born in Hartford, Conn., and graduated from the University of Tennessee in 1974. He has lived in South Florida since then, and in Boca Raton since 1985. Schultz spent nearly 40 years in daily journalism at the Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post, most recently as editorial page editor at the Post. His wife, Shelley, is director of The Learning Network at Pine Crest School. His son, an attorney, and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren also live in Boca Raton. His daughter is a veterinarian who lives in Baltimore.



generate lots of public comment. Haynie told me that she doesn’t support the requested schedule “for a project of this magnitude.” Councilman Robert Weinroth told me that while he “personally” has “no problem with expedited review,” based on “past experience” he expects that the council “will not be willing to bend on this.”

Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz
Randy Schultz, a native of Hartford, Connecticut, has been a South Florida journalist since 1974. He worked for The Miami Herald until 1976 and for The Palm Beach Post from 1976 until 2014, where he served as managing editor and editorial page editor. Since 2014, he has written a politics blog, commentaries and other articles for Boca magazine. His writing has earned first-place awards from the Florida Magazine Association and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors. Randy has lived in Boca Raton with his wife, Shelley Huff-Schultz, since 1985. His son, daughter-in-law and their three children also live in Boca Raton.

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