“I always did it as a regular rental,”Dr. Pollack said.“Every time I rented it, the house was always destroyed. The last time it happened was in August. The house was completely destroyed. I had to gut the entire house to re-do it.”
Instead, he decided to try renting his house as a vacation home through VRBO.com (vacation rentals by owner). Starting this past February, he offered the two bedroom, one bath home to out-of-town guests for between $625 and $950 a week, with a six-day minimum rental.
His problems with tenants not paying or trashing the house or yard disappeared, he said.
“I’ve rented it continually,”said Dr. Pollack, who has owned a chiropractic practice in Gulfport for the past 15 years.
Since listing it with VRBO in February, Dr. Pollack said he’s rented to the gamut of tourists, from retirees to young families, and he couldn’t be happier with the results.
“No problems whatsoever,”he said of the guests. “The people were amazing, the house left immaculate.”
While the guests haven’t proved a nuisance, that doesn’t mean the issue has been without its problems: On April 9, Gulfport’s Community Development Department mailed Dr. Pollack and 16 other property owners a letter explaining the short-term rental violated city code.
Gulfport only allows private home rentals for less than a month at a time, three times in a 12-month period, per the city code section 22-4.02. In early April, an anonymous complainant walked into Gulfport’s Community Development Department and asked to speak to the code enforcement officer. When Officer Bruce Earling came out to see him, the complainant told him about the VRBO web site.
“In their neighborhood, they saw the cars coming and going. They were comparing the license tags of all the vehicles coming and going,”Earling said. Earling went on the web site and searched for Gulfport, finding 17 homes in violation of city code. He sent those property owners notices of violation on April 9. The letter didn’t assess a fine but told property owners to “cease and desist the temporary lodging use of the property and advertising the property as such.”
Four Gulfport residents received a letter. Five of the recipients live in St. Petersburg; one, Redington Shores; one, Orlando; one, Georgia; two, Texas; one, Vermont; one, Pennsylvania; and one, Canada. Dr. Pollack, a St. Petersburg resident, received one such letter.
“This is a big issue, and I’m really unhappy about what Gulfport’s doing,” Dr. Pollack said. Furthermore, he said that not offering shorter-term rentals could hurt the city.
“I think it’s really important for Gulfport going into the future that we offer these type of services,” he said. Of his guests over the past months, “95 percent of them have never heard of Gulfport before. People are telling their friends about it; [they] call it a ‘hidden gem.’”
Ideally, Dr. Pollack said, he wants “to be able to rent it as I was renting it. Have the people come in, spend the money in our town. This is huge for the city. I didn’t realize just how much until I started doing this.”He said he can’t see how such rentals could degrade a neighborhood.
“If you’re doing this correctly, you’re going to get a high quality [tenant],” he said, but “somebody who’s going to have a trashy house and rent it out for two days, that house was trashy to begin with. If it’s trashy to begin with, it’s better off having somebody in there for two days who’s trashy then being stuck with them for a year.”
Code enforcement records show that many of the properties have received code violations in past years, including nuisance, trash-related, and high grass violations. However, at press time, none of the properties had any active code violations other than operating as a short-term rental. Gulfport Police report 19 calls in 2013 to 5407 29th Ave. S., owned by RBH Investment Group, LLC (Paula Fenzau, St. Petersburg); 3014 57th St. S. (Richard and Mary Joyner, addresses listed in St. Petersburg and Gulfport) had four visits from the police. Dr. Pollack’s home at 3038 56th St. S. had three calls for service, one prior to its use as a short-term rental and two this month for traffic and parking related issues. Five other homes had single calls to police; the whole of these calls ranged from “deceased person” to “building check.”
Pollack, whose property when rented as a long-term rental, had two code infractions (one nuisance violation and one for high grass, both in 2011) reiterated that short-term renters take better care of his property. He said he follows the rules and pays his 12% tourist development tax, and if Gulfport decided to institute a license for short-term rental operators, he “would be fine with that.”
Except, as Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly explained, the city can’t institute a licensing process or alter the current code in any way. If it does, thanks to Governor Rick Scott and the state legislature, it automatically cedes control over short-term rentals to the state.
The legislature passed a law in 2011 saying cities could not regulate the length of time people could rent single-family homes.
“But,” O’Reilly said, “if you had something on the books prior to 2011, you could maintain the status quo. If we were to tinker with ours at this time, we may lose the ability to regulate vacation rentals” of less than one month.
That means any changes to the city’s short-term rental laws could stop cities from limiting the number of short-term rentals, the length of stay, or any aspect of the short-term rental at all. Currently, the state legislature – prompted, Vice Mayor Christine Brown told council last Tuesday night, by cities claiming short-term rentals had robbed the town of its sense of community – is considering a law that would give cities more control over short-term rentals.
House Bill 307 (Senate Bill 356), if it passes, would allow cities to set parking and lighting guidelines, address nuisance and sound issues. It would not allow them to adopt laws to limit frequency of rentals or establish a minimum stay of less than seven days. Again, if Gulfport makes no changes to its current short-term rental laws, the city’s current codes would supersede this pending legislation.
“If we change ours, we can only regulate what that bill [will allow], not length of residency,” Community Development Director Fred Metcalf said. “Right now, [the current law] doesn’t let cities do anything”if they didn’t have short-term lodging ordinances on their books before 2011.
Metcalf’s priority isn’t what may or may not happen; right now, he’s focusing on helping property owners comply with city code.
“I’m just trying to work with respondents for some type of plan of action,” he said. “Essentially what we’ve been asking them to do, and what most have done, is [to] change their advertisement to one month.”
Dr. Pollack has complied, but since making the change, said he hadn’t received any inquiries.
“Most people who take a vacation, they come for a week, they’re not taking month off,” he said.
Metcalf said he has heard from 12 of the 17 property owners.
“They’ve all claimed that they will comply,” Metcalf said. “We’ll check the web site in a week or so, give everybody time. For the moment we’re taking their word that they’re changing it, and then we’ll check and verify that they have.”
Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com