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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Gainesville residents both welcome and criticize Airbnb growth

Short-term rental units expected to contribute $630,000 to tourism tax this year

The Duck House Airbnb is filled with duck decor for guests in Pine Park, Gainesville.
The Duck House Airbnb is filled with duck decor for guests in Pine Park, Gainesville.

Alachua County holds 606 short-term rental units. Or, in The Magnolia Plantation owner Cindy Montalto’s words, “You can’t swing a dead cat in Gainesville without hitting an Airbnb.”

Short-term rental (STR) units are residential spaces usually rented for under 30 days at a time and managed through online platforms like Airbnb. The industry is growing in Gainesville. AirDNA, a STR data analysis platform, ranked Gainesville among the top 15 best U.S. cities to invest in vacation rentals in 2021, 2022 and 2023.

STR management companies

AirDNA’s rankings brought new attention to Gainesville from investors, said Maria McNiece, 25-year-old founder and CEO of McNiece Management.

“This huge, massive national website listed little old Gainesville as number 12 — we were among the ranks of places like Honolulu and Austin,” McNiece said. “I had people calling me who had no connection with Gainesville at all, but found that website and wanted to invest here.”

McNiece Management is the largest STR management company in Gainesville, with about 55 total properties located in the city, McNiece said. 

STR management companies employ professional photographers, cleaners and pricing experts who help homeowners put their space on the market and manage day-to-day operations.

McNiece began her company in 2019, when friends who owned an Airbnb hired her, a “night owl college student,” to check in on their guests during late-hour emergencies — like floods or broken Wi-Fi.

“When COVID hit, I saw a real opportunity after lots of people I was talking to were interested in putting their own residential homes up on Airbnb,” McNiece said. “I said, ‘There’s got to be more people that need this.’ … It took off pretty quickly.”

McNiece manages properties as far west as Texas and as far north as Boston, but Gainesville is the company’s largest hub, comprising one-third of McNiece’s about 150 listings.

McNiece’s primary clientele is families looking to rent out their homes once their children have graduated from college, McNiece said.

More than 30% of active short-term rental listings in the U.S. are run by “mega hosts” or management companies that run 21 or more properties, according to a report from AirDNA. 

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STR criticism

STRs have long been accused of pushing up rent and pushing locals out of their homes. Most recently, New York City passed Local Law 18 Sept. 5. The law mandates STR hosts be registered with the city and be present while guests stay with them.

Called a “de facto ban” by Airbnb, Local Law 18 came after a study found for every 1% increase in Airbnb rentals, a 1.6% increase occurred in long-term rental rates in New York City from 2009 to 2016. 

Affordable housing problems are familiar to Gainesville residents. From 2020 to 2021, median overall rent increased 7% in Alachua County; from 2021 to 2022, rent increased 20%. The surge occurred at the same time Airbnbs flooded Gainesville, but one didn’t cause the other, McNiece said. 

While living in New York after college, McNiece noticed longtime residents struggled to find rentals due to low inventory, she said. She’s glad Local Law 18 will prevent investors from buying up buildings, but she doesn’t see the need for similar legislation in Gainesville, she said.

“In Gainesville, all my clients are regular families who have had these properties for years and just want to keep it in the family,” McNiece said. “We have people who inherited a property that was their mom’s and they don’t want to sell it … we’re not seeing investors buying properties just for the sake of Airbnb.”

Local laws, ordinances and regulations can’t ban vacation rentals or regulate their location, duration or frequency, said Jessica Hurov, tourism development manager for Gainesville.

Guests who stay in STRs pay Florida Sales Tax and Tourist Development Tax. Alachua County is estimated to collect $8 million in Tourist Development Tax this fiscal year, $630,000 of which will come from STRs, according to Hurov. 

But for Montalto and her husband Joe, who have co-owned and operated Magnolia Plantation Bed & Breakfast Inn and Cottages for 33 years, a lack of regulation for Airbnb poses a greater danger than can be outweighed by its positive impact on tax receipts.

Magnolia Plantation is subject to four surprise inspections from health inspectors every year, Cindy said. Every inch is examined, from the piped seams around the bottom edge of each mattress to the little space in between the cabinet and refrigerator in the kitchen.

“They have to get me on something,” Cindy said. “You either have to have a three-compartment sink or a special high, hot sanitizing dishwasher, so they came in once and told me I needed to have a Hobart … because the kitchen only had two sinks.”

After spending $4,000 on the Hobart, assuming it was a brand of dishwasher, Cindy realized the Hobart wasn’t a dishwasher at all — it was a sanitizer that heated dishes once they had already been cleaned and washed, Cindy said.

“That was Hobart doing some really fancy footwork with the lobbyists,” she said.

Cindy and Joe went to the Gainesville City Commission three years ago to ask that short term rental units be held to the same standards. The commission agreed to identify new Airbnbs that went on the market so they could collect the required tourist development tax, but didn’t do anything to increase regulation, Cindy said.

The couple has no problem with Airbnb — they use the app themselves, both as renters when traveling on vacation and as listers to advertise Magnolia Plantation to more travelers. The problem comes from a lack of consistency, Cindy said.

“They’re offering the same services that I am, but there’s no regulation,” Cindy said. “I was looking at the Airbnbs in Gainesville, and there was one with a kitchen and a gas stove. Right above the stove was a wooden shelf — a fire waiting to happen.”

If a health inspector came in and saw that at Magnolia Plantation, he’d hand her a screwdriver, she added.

Joe and Cindy know most of the Airbnb owners in their own neighborhood personally and have only experienced problems with one house, they said. When a family with small children moved to their street, the couple was excited — until the family moved out-of-state a couple years later and converted the house into an Airbnb.

As many as 25 people began to book the house at a time because of the pool in its backyard. The Airbnb quickly became a “party house,” beginning a stream of noise complaints and police activity.

“For July 4, the whole neighborhood got together and decided that we, as a neighborhood, were going to book their Airbnb so they wouldn’t have people in there,” Cindy said. “Because one time they had people … probably 15 or 20, shooting off mortars and firecrackers.”

The house has quieted somewhat since several neighbors filed complaints with Airbnb, Cindy said. Airbnb’s party ban, introduced in August 2020 and codified in June 2022, prohibits renters from throwing disruptive parties and events. 

In 2021, over 6,600 guests were suspended from Airbnb for violating the ban, according to an Airbnb news release.

“Empty houses are ships without captains,” Joe said. “If you have some unruly guests that are rude or making noise, there’s nobody there to regulate.”

STR individual ownership

When living costs at Ladan Jiracek’s Northwest 25th Avenue home grew expensive, he listed his driveway RV on Airbnb to bring in extra money. The 34-year-old UF PhD student enjoyed being an Airbnb owner, but the revenue wasn’t enough, he said. In April, he transformed his entire house into an Airbnb and moved 10 miles west to Tioga.

Now, the Airbnb is decorated with duck-themed paraphernalia from pillows to posters. The “Duck House,” as it appears on Airbnb, draws visitors year-round from people seeking Shands Hospital medical care or exploring nearby national parks, but demand skyrockets during Gator football season, Jiracek said.

“I don’t really follow football, but I can tell you exactly the weekends because it’s booked out two, three months in advance,” Jiracek said.

Jiracek uses the software PriceLabs to adjust his rental rates to fluctuating demand. He hires a professional service to clean the house between guests and only makes the 25-minute commute himself for small repairs.

“I would call it maybe three hours a week, and that includes answering messages and that kind of stuff,” Jiracek said. “So it’s quite minimal.”

Jiracek makes $1,800 to $2,800 per month from Airbnb after cleaning costs, he said.

For Tammy Taylor, commuting is a nonissue. When the South Florida native moved to Gainesville in 2020, she fell in love with her little yellow house at first sight, she said.

The house was listed as a three bedroom with two kitchens. Taylor and her realtor were confused as to why there were two kitchens, Taylor said. When they toured the property, they were surprised to find a full mother-in-law suite, complete with a kitchen and bathroom, adjacent to the house.

Taylor turned the suite into an Airbnb two years ago, and good reviews from guests have now earned her a Superhost status on the app.

Living Jack-and-Jill style next to renters fosters connections between Taylor and her guests. Taylor invites her more talkative renters out to her deck to share wine and conversation, and she’s had several returning guests she’s gotten to know well, she said.

“We have one returning guest — this will be their sixth time coming, and they’re coming because they have grandchildren that are triplets that live in the neighborhood,” Taylor said.

Taylor keeps in touch with some guests even after their stay in Gainesville ends. Meeting and providing hospitality to new people is her favorite part about owning an Airbnb, Taylor said.

Gainesville has no new proposed legislation targeting STR units, Hurov said. With three sold-out football games in the books this season and three remaining, STR and hotel owners alike anticipate many booked-up weekends of family and alumni.

Contact Zoey at zthomas@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @zoeythomas39

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Zoey Thomas

Zoey Thomas is a second-year media production major and the university administration reporter for The Alligator. She previously wrote for the metro desk. Other than reporter, Zoey's titles include espresso connoisseur, long-distance runner and Wes Anderson appreciator. 


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