My June 10 column featured an Op-Ed by Sarasota County property appraiser Bill Furst. Bill stated that homeowners who use services like Airbnb risk losing their homestead exemption. Tom Martinelli, policy director for Airbnb in Florida, has responded with his own interpretation of the Florida Statutes governing homestead exemptions. The rest of this column is Martinelli’s Op-Ed.

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Home sharing is not a new concept in Sarasota. In fact, Sarasotans have been sharing their home to guests since the County incorporated in the 1920s. The notion of renting out a room for supplemental income then formalized into a vacation rental industry that evolved into one of the backbones of Florida’s economy. And in recent years, innovative platforms like Airbnb have provided new ways for this traditional industry to reach consumers and energize the economy, while allowing seniors and empty nesters with a spare, private room to take part in the economic activity as well.

The most recent polling from Mason-Dixon reveals that Floridians both throughout the state and within the Sarasota region strongly support vacation rentals, with 73 percent expressing support for the rights of homeowners to rent out both their primary residence and second homes (or investment properties). Despite the overwhelming sentiment in favor of property rights, some still argue for more restrictive regulatory environments. For example, the national DC-based hotel lobby was caught propping up an entirely fake organization in Florida posing as “a neighborhood watch group” to pressure lawmakers into pursuing anti-homeowner public policies. And more recently, Sarasota County Property Appraiser Bill Furst published commentary asserting that home sharers may be violating the terms of their homestead exemptions.

Homestead fraud is a critical issue and a challenge for local policymakers to address. However, Mr. Furst’s interpretation, while well-meaning, may have the unintended consequence of needlessly frightening many “Sarasotans” who share their homes to guests.

Mr. Furst asserts that homestead exemptions may be abandoned if owners rent “all or a portion of the property.” Yet the actual statute governing homestead violations reads differently: “The rental of all or substantially all of a dwelling previously claimed to be a homestead for tax purposes shall constitute the abandonment of such dwelling as a homestead.” Furthermore, this only applies if the property is rented for “more than 30 days per calendar year for 2 consecutive years.”

This minor change in wording makes all the difference in the world from a legal and practical sense. Seniors sharing an extra room or an adjacent guest house are clearly renting nowhere near “substantially all” of their home. These Floridians are taking full economic advantage of their own homes, and they’re doing so in a fully legal and forthright manner. In fact, that the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation does not even include these spaces as the type of vacation rentals that would require licensing.

While professional full-home vacation rentals may not be eligible for a homestead exemption, Sarasota homeowners sharing parts of their homes through platforms like Airbnb are operating lawfully and doing nothing to put their homestead exemptions at risk.

This issue is a microcosm within the larger Florida vacation rental debate. From city to city, rules governing what Floridians are allowed to do with their own properties vary wildly, with some cities even imposing fines starting at $20,000 for sharing one’s dwelling. Other cities institute “registration fees” for homeowners to be able to share their homes that number in the thousands of dollars — unaffordable for any middle-class Floridian.

For this reason, a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers have sought to institute general state standards on vacation rental regulations — another idea that received strong support in the recent Mason-Dixon poll. We should empower cities to tailor their regulations as it relates to noise, trash, parking and more, while instituting baseline state regulations that are clear and understandable for all Floridians.

In our state, property rights are paramount. Whether it relates to property taxes or regulations, Floridians should maintain the right to responsibly share their own homes without fear of government overreach.

Tom Martinelli is the policy director of Airbnb in Florida.

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Brett Slattery is broker/owner of Brett Slattery Realty llc in Charlotte County. Reach him via 941-468-1430, Brett@BrettSlattery.com, or www.BrettSlattery.com. Brett thanks Herald Tribune opinion editor Tom Tryon for assistance in researching this column.

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