by Mike Brownfield
March 12, 2019

It’s after midnight, and a city of Miami Beach “code compliance officer” intrudes on private property as part of her mission to issue tens of thousands of dollars in fines to city homeowners. The high crime is home-sharing—the practice of renting property on a short-term basis via websites like Airbnb and Homeaway, which is banned in certain areas of the city.

The viewer watches the grainy, near-noir drama unfold through the lens of a shaky police-style body camera, shared via a video embedded in a Miami Herald report, Huge fines, midnight busts: Inside Miami Beach’s war on short-term rentals.

“I’m Vijma with the City of Miami Beach Code Compliance,” the city employee announces with a journalist apparently in tow. She doesn’t carry a warrant, but she wears an official-looking uniform, a bodycam, and brandishes her government authority when she confronts citizen tourists in the dark of night. “We had a complaint about the building. Did you rent an apartment?”

The city employee, who could easily be mistaken for a police officer, gains entry to the residential building, marches down a hallway, and is shown confronting other occupants and a man who reportedly works for the property owner. It’s not the first time unwitting tourists have found themselves as featured stars in video recordings of the city’s home-sharing raids; a similar report appeared on CNBC last year. In one scene, two individuals appear to find themselves summarily evicted from their abode. “Everybody has to leave,” a voice commands.

A recent New York Times report followed a Miami Beach code enforcer who confronted vacationers in six separate units in the span of 45 minutes. Because they were renting homes in violation of the city’s ordinance, they would be forced to leave, regardless of whether or not they could find somewhere else to stay—unless, that is, the city deigned to grant an exception or perhaps helps them find somewhere to stay.

Tourists, though, aren’t the city’s primary targets. They’re more or less collateral damage of regulations that are aimed squarely at homeowners.

“The first offense is a $20,000 fine,” the city employee explains in the Miami Herald video. “The second offense is a $40,000 fine. The third offense $60,000. The fourth offense, $80,000, and it keeps going up to $100,000. The fines are quite steep because this is something we’ve been working very hard to prevent.”

The fines aren’t just steep. They’re wildly extreme. And they’re designed to shut down short-term rentals altogether, supposedly to prevent nuisances like loud parties or litter in a neighborhood. Those are problems that can be dealt with by city ordinances without having to infringe on people’s property rights.

One Miami Beach homeowner has had enough. Natalie Nichols, who was featured in the New York Times article, is suing the city and challenging the egregious fines, with the help of the Goldwater Institute. From the New York Times report:

Ms. Nichols said she began renting out space in her own home as well as in another building that she has owned since 2006. But it wasn’t until the financial crisis in 2008 that she depended on rentals for income.

That year, she said, “I was laid off of a pharmaceutical sales job I had for 14 years. Long-term tenants of mine quit paying rent and broke leases.” Renting out her properties short term allowed her to make money and avoid foreclosure, she said, as well as to pay taxes, mortgage and insurance…

A $20,000 fine was enough for Ms. Nichols, who said she sold one home and is living in the other without the income to sustain it.

“I am depleting my retirement savings, and the city has taken a business from me that should have produced income and carried me through retirement,” she said.

Nichols has a strong claim against the city. The Florida Constitution prohibits cities from imposing “excessive fines” that are “grossly disproportional” to the person’s action. At $100,000 per violation, these fines make up a large percentage of a home’s actual worth for many of these homeowners. Such a fine can only be defined as excessive.

Miami Beach isn’t the only city that is placing restrictions on home-sharing and short-term rentals. It’s happening in cities all across the country. And pricey fines aren’t the only punishment. A Nashville man found himself sentenced to jail for violating that city’s home-sharing ban.

In addition to challenging the Miami Beach ordinance, the Goldwater Institute is representing homeowners in Chicago, Seattle, and Pacific Grove, Calif., and is fighting to restore their ability to share their property with overnight guests.

Bans on home-sharing deprive people of their fundamental right to safely use their property as they see fit and punish people for exercising their free-speech rights to share information. States can protect quiet, clean, and safe neighborhoods while respecting property rights and encouraging economic growth. The Goldwater Institute’s Property Ownership Fairness Act lets government restrict pollution, nuisances, or other harmful uses of property, but bars officials from taking away an owner’s right to build, renovate, or rent unless the government pays for the rights it takes away.

You can read more about the Goldwater Institute’s work in defending the right to home-share at https://goldwaterinstitute.org/home-sharing/.

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