‘Loopholes’ in vacation rental law make enforcement difficult

Enforcing Islamorada’s short-term vacation rental ordinance is difficult because the law has significant “loopholes and shortcomings,” a code compliance officer told the village’s five-member elected council Thursday.

“And I’m not going to go into them, because it’s not my job to tell you how to cheat,” Code Compliance Officer Will Reyes said at the Oct. 5 Village Council meeting.

“But if you’re good at it, there are a lot of ways to get around our ordinance, which is unfortunate,” he said.

Reyes said there are likely hundreds of homeowners illegally renting their houses to vacationers, and finding them and proving they’re guilty is a daunting and frustrating task.

“Some of the difficulty we face, because, as you know, there are a lot of illegal rentals out there, is the difficulty of actually proving the operation of the illegal rental,” Reyes said. “What’s commonly perceived as proof of guilt has not constituted sufficient evidence of guilt at these hearings for the four years that I’ve been here.”

Illegal vacation rental cases — renting a home for less than 28 days without a license — go before a code enforcement hearing officer and homeowners are fined if found guilty. The fine schedule for the first office is $400 and $500 for repeat violations, Reyes said.

Homeowners who continue to violate the ordinance by not removing advertising for vacation rentals, for example, face fines up to $250 a day “until compliance is confirmed,” Reyes said.

But Reyes said the fines aren’t steep enough to discourage many homeowners who make thousands of dollars a week illegally renting out their houses.

“What’s it going to matter if you get slapped with a $500 fine even if you’re a repeat offender,” Reyes asked rhetorically. “It’s a rolling tax, a slap on the wrist.”

Reyes said his department has lost cases even though investigators showed testimonials in online reviews by satisfied customers specifying that they only stayed at the home for three days or a week.

“I’ve tried using that at these at these hearings,” Reyes said. “That doesn’t work. They say their friends put that in there as a way of drumming up business.”

The ordinance is so broad, Reyes said, that sometimes the homeowner actually admitting he or she illegally rented out a house isn’t enough to garner a fine.

“I’ve even had admissions of guilt from people,” Reyes said. “No go.”

He’s also brought neighbors to testify at the hearings about loud parties, heavy back-and-forth traffic and many cars parked outside of the homes in question, but the village still loses its case.

“All that really proves is there are a lot of cars there from out of state,” Reyes said. “It doesn’t prove the situation. It’s extremely frustrating, especially if I was living next door to one of these places.”

Reyes said his department, instead of trying so much to catch people violating the ordinance, has shifted its focus on trying to stop people from advertising illegal rentals. The ordinance is specific that to legally advertise a vacation rental, the homeowner must be licensed and must put the license number on the ad.

But he said scofflaws are good at keeping out of sight.

“If you’re good at it, you can hide your vacation rental very well,” he said.

Councilman Chris Sante recommended the village revisit its ordinance with stiffer fines. “I think we should discuss the fines to make them painful,” he said.

Councilwoman Deb Gillis said she expects the problem to worsen since Hurricane Irma damaged so many Keys hotels and resorts to the point where their rooms are uninhabitable and likely will be in many cases through the winter tourist season.

“There’s a belief that because of the hurricane and because many of our hotels are down, we’re going to see a whole lot of illegal rentals pop up,” said Gillis, who is a hotelier by trade.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204