Airbnb and its hosts are taking their fight with the City of Miami off the streets and into the courtroom after months of ongoing controversy and contention with the second-largest city in the state of Florida.
On Friday, a group of five Airbnb hosts filed a lawsuit in the Miami-Dade County circuit court, alleging the City of Miami is infringing on their First Amendment rights and breaking state law by imposing harsh regulations on vacation rentals in South Florida's largest city.
Named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Yamille Bell, Ana Rubio, Gary Levin, Toya Bowles and Kenneth Tobin.
The hosts are mothers, fathers, teachers, doctors, immigrants -- but all share the common goal of hoping to share their city and earn extra cash by renting out their homes to tourists coming to South Florida.
Airbnb threw its weight behind the hosts and joined in the suit as well.
“Airbnb stands together with its Miami hosts in opposing the City’s unlawful efforts, and in particular stands with the brave individuals who have come forward and seek to protect their rights as Individual Plaintiffs in this action,” the lawsuit read.
“When those wielding the power of government seek to deprive members of our community of their fundamental rights – property rights, free speech, the right to petition without fear of retribution – we are compelled to act,” the suit continued.
The legal action comes after a lengthy battle between the popular home-sharing site and the city of Miami, which has routinely criticized vacation rentals as a public nuisance to the city.
Last month, a group of Miami property owners renting their homes out on Airbnb showed up at Miami City Hall, begging Mayor Tomás Regalado to reject a measure declaring their businesses an illegal nuisance.
According to the Miami Herald, they pleaded with the mayor and city commissioners, imploring them to end the war with Airbnb and give the hosts a fair shake.
But instead of reasoning with the hosts, the Miami City Commission voted 3-2 to declare Airbnb an “illegal nuisance,” effectively outlawing the vacation rental site altogether.
To make matters worse for residents, the commission then told the hosts who gave their names and addresses on the record they had outed themselves to code compliance, which means the city plans to come after them to hit them with a bevy of fines, all for renting out their homes on Airbnb.
Three of the plaintiffs -- Bell, Tobin and Bowles -- all attended the city commission meeting.
The lawsuit largely centers around the commission’s decision and a state law passed in 2011 which prohibits cities and municipalities from banning vacation rental homes unless those laws already existed.
City commissioners say they can ban companies like Airbnb since they interpret city codes in Miami 21 to mean they had already outlawed vacation rentals.
That interpretation was news to Airbnb, which disagrees there were rules on the city’s books banning vacation rentals. According to the company, there was never a mention of a vacation rental ban nor was there a published interpretation of Miami 21 which said vacation rentals were outlawed.
The suit also alleges the city has infringed on hosts’ First Amendment rights by targeting them for speaking at last month’s City Commission meeting.
“Emergency relief is needed in order to protect against the City’s imminent threat against individual rights,” the suit read. “The City should not be permitted to trample on the property and speech rights of its citizens undeterred by the Courts.”
According to the Miami Herald, Regalado said hosts have only been issued notices of violation, which means hosts can reply and say they have stopped renting out their homes. A city attorney, Regalado said, will be sending out cease-and-desist notices to hosts present at the meeting.
Airbnb, meanwhile, points to a booming tourism industry the site contributes to by offering travelers, many of whom are middle class visitors, the opportunity to see and experience Miami through the eyes of a local.
The company is asking the court to clarify that vacation rentals are not prohibited as Regalado says and also demands Miami discontinue targeting residents renting out their homes on Airbnb.
Regalado has pushed for months to ban short-term rentals in suburban areas and to create a set of hoops to jump through for renters who want to list their homes on Airbnb legally, equipped with rules, fines and compliance codes for residents.
Miami isn’t the only city in Florida cracking down on vacation rentals. In Miami Beach, Mayor Philip Levine has jacked up fines for illegal renters from $500 all the way to $20,000 -- and if he can swing it, he’s aiming to make that figure even higher.
In March, the two mayors teamed up for an anti-Airbnb press conference where they doubled down on their intentions to take a no holds barred approach towards dealing with the homesharing company, whose users pumped $253 million into the city last year alone.
Meanwhile, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez has struck a deal with the company, agreeing on a tentative 6 percent county bed tax for Airbnb, which would pump around $8 million into the county annually.
Two polls have shown overwhelming support for vacation rental sites like Airbnb and Home Away, with 80 percent of Floridians supporting the sites. Other surveys have found support as high as 94 percent in other parts of Florida.
The City of Miami has yet to respond to the suit.