City Will Explore Options to Regulate Short-Term Rentals

South Lake Morton short term rentals

The presence of nearly 200 Airbnb, VRBO and other short-term rentals in central Lakeland is “changing the character of our core neighborhoods and contributing to housing scarcity,” the president of the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association told city commissioners. On Monday, he asked them to look into regulating the rentals. While commissioners did not say whether they support regulations, they asked their staff to investigate their options, although they acknowledge that state law severely limits those options.

Commissioners asked City Manger Shawn Sherrouse to set up a workshop on short-term rentals after Billy Townsend, representing the Lake Morton association, told them residents are growing concerned.

AirDNA.com, which monitors the short-term rentals business, lists 188 units in the 33801 and 33803 ZIP codes, with the heaviest clusters in the Lake Morton, Lake Hollingsworth and Dixieland areas. (There was a jump from 72 active units in 33803 in the fourth quarter of 2021 to 117 units in the first quarter of 2022, according to AirDNA.)

AirDNA’s map of short-term rental units in portions of ZIP code 33801. The purple dots represent full apartments or homes for short-term renters, and the blue dots represent private rooms in homes.
AirDNA’s map of short-term rental units in portions of ZIP code 33803

It’s those neighborhoods with their interesting and historic housing that attracts short-term renters, Townsend said. In addition, parents visiting students at Florida Southern College find those neighborhoods convenient, he said.

Townsend said he wanted to make it clear that many central Lakeland short-term rental owners are good neighbors: “This is not us here banging a gavel and saying prohibit them.”

But there have been some “behavioral problems,” mostly in homes where the owners don’t live nearby, he said. “If you talk to people who live with several of them around them, their experiences is not what they imagined when they moved in to this neighborhood.”

Last summer, several Lake Morton-area residents complained of loud parties and parking issues stemming from short-term rentals with absentee owners.

Townsend, who was elected to a four-year term on the Polk County School Board in 2016, said his purpose in speaking to the City Commission was to determine:

  • What power the city has to regulate short-term rentals.
  • Whether the city is interested in exercising that power.
  • Whether the city is interested in working with state legislators to change the laws.

City Attorney Palmer Davis told commissioners that the Florida Legislature severely restricted cities’ and counties’ ability to regulate short-term rentals in 2011. Regulations in effect prior to June 1, 2011 were grandfathered in.

The Legislature subsequently loosened the reins a bit, he said: “They do leave open the door for some regulation of vacation rentals at the local level, provided they don’t result in an effective prohibition of vacation rentals.”

Flagler County on Florida’s Atlantic coast passed short-term rental regulations after 2011 that have stood up to a court challenge, according to Assistant City Attorney Jerrod Simpson. The Flagler County ordinance, he said:

  • Sets occupancy limits.
  • Requires parking for each room that would be rented.
  • Requires owners to provide a scale drawing of the interior to indicate how many rooms would be rented.
  • Requires that every room that would be occupied has a window.
  • Requires hard-wired smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors.

In addition, many local governments create a registry that let residents and officials how to contact the owner of short-term rental units when rules are being violated or issues arise, he said.

Mayor Bill Mutz commented that the growth in short-term rentals reduces the city’s stock of long-term residential rentals, which are in high demand. But he acknowledged that short-rentals can be more lucrative for the property owners.

Commissioner Stephanie Madden noted that tourism officials say there’s a shortage of hotel rooms in Polk County and wondered whether that is driving demand for short-term rentals. Townsend responded that several owners of short-term units cite hotel shortages as beneficial to them.

No date has been announced yet for the workshop. Once it is set, it will be posted on the City Commission calendar.