The Real Deal Miami

Florida Keys positions itself to lead class action suit against Airbnb

Vacation rentals are tightly regulated throughout the Keys

June 17, 2016 11:15AM
By Robert Silk

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Aerial of the Florida Keys

Aerial of the Florida Keys (Credit: Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Monroe County is positioning itself to lead a class action suit against the vacation rental and sharing economy giant Airbnb over the company’s failure to collect sales taxes.

On Wednesday, the county commission unanimously authorized County Attorney Bob Shillinger to negotiate an agreement with attorney Jay Shapiro of the Miami law firm Stearns Weaver Miller Weissler Alhadeff & Sitterson to head such a suit. Shapiro would be reaching out to the 47 counties in Florida to which Airbnb isn’t already collecting and remitting bed taxes on the homes rented by its homeowner clients.

“Perhaps we can work through this with negotiation, but if it doesn’t work I would like the authority to pursue a lawsuit,” County Commissioner George Neugent said at the meeting.

The Airbnb website currently lists 306 homes in the Florida Keys. In February, the company put forward a proposed agreement to Monroe County under which it would collect the appropriate taxes and remit them on the behalf of clients.

“I believe this proves our sincerity and our ability to be good negotiating partners,” Airbnb’s Brian Batista told the commission on Wednesday.

But both the commission and Monroe County Tax Collector Danise Henriquez have chafed at the proposal because it includes a clause stating that Airbnb would not have to submit any information that would allow county authorities to identify who the homeowners are. Vacation rentals, which are generally defined as rentals of less than 28 days, are tightly regulated throughout the Keys. In addition to state licensing requirement, Monroe County requires property owners to acquire a vacation rental license or permit. Many homes listed on Airbnb are being rented without such a license.

“They are going to have to address that particular issue or we’re at loggerheads before we start,” Neugent said.

Batista countered that Airbnb has asked to meet with the county several times to discuss their proposal, but has been turned down.

In April of last year the Monroe County Tourist Development Council produced a 22-page report taking aim at Airbnb for not collecting sales tax and the county’s 4 percent bed tax on behalf of property owners. The agency recommended that local Keys governments join forces to require such payments.

In 2010, online travel agencies, including Priceline, paid an approximately $6.5 million settlement as part of a class action suit on unpaid sales taxes that was led by Monroe County. Shapiro was the lead attorney in that case.