Home-sharing giant Airbnb faces Collier County lawsuit, lingering criticism from hoteliers
Airbnb is dispatching inspectors to rate some of the properties listed on its home-rental service in an effort to reassure travelers they're booking nice places to stay. (Feb. 22)
Home-sharing company Airbnb has worked out most of its kinks in Florida, but it still faces controversy — and the occasional lawsuit.
Much of the discord centers on the bed tax most counties charge on short-term lodgings.
Collier County's tax collector sued Airbnb in January, seeking a court order to the company to pay current and past bed taxes.
But Lee has accepted bed tax payments from Airbnb on behalf of its hosts for about two years. The company reports it remitted $903,000 in bed taxes to the county in 2017.
Hoteliers say they'll support anything that's operating legally, paying the bed tax and providing a safe environment for guests. But many don't believe Airbnb is playing by the same rules as they are.
On Tuesday, the American Hotel and Lodging Association fired its latest salvo on what it calls “Airbnb’s secret and voluntary tax deals with local and state governments.”
The hotel association called on state and local government leaders to reject Airbnb’s pursuit of voluntary collection agreements for sales taxes and bed taxes.
That call hasn’t gotten much traction in Florida, however. Earlier this month, Charlotte County became the 40th of 63 counties that levy a bed tax, to reach an agreement with Airbnb.
The hotel association says Airbnb is negotiating these deals behind closed doors, without public input and without adequate oversight or auditing to ensure the company is paying the proper amount of taxes.
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Airbnb spokesman Benjamin Breit in Chicago counters the hotels just don’t want the competition.
“First, they said Airbnb needs to pay the taxes,” Breit said.
“We started paying the taxes. (Hoteliers) flip-flopped, and said the deals are secretive and unfair."
Ask a participating county government for a copy of its agreement with Airbnb, Breit suggested.
We did. Airbnb has paid bed taxes on behalf of its Lee County rental hosts since 2016.
But Lee County officials won't share a total that Airbnb has remitted. They say they can't, by law.
The agreement with Airbnb and its bed tax payments are exempt from the state public records law, they say, citing Florida Statute 213.053 to support the exemption.
To disclose anything about Airbnb's business with Lee County Clerk of Court, even the initial remittance agreement would break the law, said Tim Parks, inspector general for the clerk's office.
Asked whether he thought the agreement with Airbnb was fair, Parks said:
"I believe we are collecting the amount that is supposed to be collected.
"Before this agreement, we had to go and sign-up hundreds of their property owners individually.
"We get one payment every month instead of hundreds of remittances. ... It's a win-win."
The confidentiality surrounding the payments isn't unprecedented. Lee County and other Florida counties collecting the bed tax extend that to all lodgings operators, large and small.
The reasoning is that, if a specific business’ bed tax payments were made public, competitors would have access to sensitive financial information.
In a written statement, Airbnb said it hoped to resolve the Collier County suit as soon as possible and reach an agreement.
The company said it approached Collier County in early 2016 with an offer to collect and remit the bed tax on behalf of its local hosts.
On Wednesday, Collier Deputy Tax Collector Rob Stoneburner wouldn't discuss the suit. However, he confirmed there'd been some "back-and-forth" with Airbnb over its collection agreement.
"We tried to get some changes in it – some things moved, some things added," Stoneburner said, declining to be more specific.
But apparently, the company wouldn't budge.
Airbnb says its main hang-up is Collier County’s request that it turn over the names and addresses of its local hosts – as part of a tax remittal agreement.
“We’re not doing that anywhere in the country,” Breit said, adding that for privacy reasons, that’s a line the company will not cross.
Breit added that, in some areas, it has worked with county and municipal governments to devise a separate registration system that includes the names and addresses of Airbnb hosts as well as those of others offering short-term rentals.
Governments often don't have the resources to monitor compliance, however.
The criticism that Airbnb doesn’t follow the same rules as other renters of short-term lodgings goes way back.
By 2015, though, an answer looked likely. That’s when the Florida Department of Revenue inked an agreement allowing the company to collect and remit the state sales on behalf of its rental hosts.
That same year, Airbnb launched a similar campaign for agreements with Florida counties that collect a bed tax.
With other popular home-sharing sites such as VRBO, HomeAway and Flipkey, it’s currently up to the homeowners to collect and pay the tax.
Bed taxes are based on a percentage of a person’s lodgings bill, and vary by county.
Lee and Collier levy 5 percent bed taxes, with the bulk of proceeds going to beach and shoreline maintenance and improvements – and promoting visits to the county to overnight guests.
Despite the controversy, Airbnb’s presence in Southwest Florida is growing.
In Lee County alone, the company reports that its Fort Myers-area hosts took in $306,000 during Major League Baseball spring training this year.
Collectively, that revenue from Feb. 21 to March 27 was a 112 percent spike in guests when compared with the previous five weeks.
Of course, not all of this can be pegged to baseball alone. Late February through March also is when university students come here on spring break, and cold-weary Northerners migrate here for sun and beach time.
“I’ve been busy all winter with Airbnb,” said Joan Tribulas, a longtime host who also works in real estate sales.
Tribulas rents out two bedrooms in her southeast Cape Coral home, which she's decorated tropical touches, including a tiki bar in the living room.
“I just don’t get it,” Tribulas said of the Collier tax collector’s concerns.
Renters pay applicable state and bed taxes up front when they rent through Airbnb, preventing hosts from forgetting or skimping on remittals.
Tribulas was happy to be relieved of collecting and remitting the taxes herself. “It was a pain in the neck.”
Rather than suing Airbnb, Collier County should go after other online vacation rental platforms that aren’t trying to work with local governments on collecting taxes, Tribulas said.
Collier County, Tribulas said, “is making a mountain out of a molehill.”