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Miami Beach Shut Off Home's Electricity, Water, Over Unpaid Airbnb Fines

The fine is likely unconstitutional, and the city's strong-arm tactics were blocked by a judge this week.

Eur/Photoshot/NewscomEur/Photoshot/NewscomWhen a homeowner refused to pay possibly unconstitutional fines for an Airbnb listing, the city of Miami Beach, Florida, took the unusual step of turning off the water and electricity supply to the house.

In a lawsuit filed last month, homeowner Ralph Serrano accuses the city of resorting to "strong-arm tacitcs" to get him to pay "constitutionally excessive fines" totaling $200,000. Earlier this week, a district judge ordered the city to immediately restore utility services to the home

The saga began last year, when Miami Beach began cracking down on short-term rentals by issuing fines up to $100,000 for violations of city zoning ordinances that effectively outlawed Airbnb-style rentals in most of Miami Beach's residential areas. Serrano refused to pay a series of fines imposed during 2017, arguing that the city's penalty was a violation of the Florida Constitution's ban on excessive fines—other Miami Beach residents are currently engaged in a separate lawsuit against the city making the same argument, and even a member of the city council has admitted the fines are "grossly disproportional."

In March of this year, the city revoked the home's certificate of occupancy and later used the lack of a certificate to order Florida Power & Light and Miami-Dade County Water to shut off electricity, sewer, and water services.

The city zoning ordinance that allowed Miami Beach to target homeowners like Serrano for listing their property on Airbnb spells out the punishments for violating the rules, including the massive fines and the right to seek a court-order to mandate payment if property owners refuse to do so. Nowhere in the ordinance does it say that the city can terminate utility services or revoke a certificate of occupancy as punishment for refusing to pay a fine. The city's actions have resulted in "a de facto forfeiture" of his home, Serrano argues.

When Serrano approached the city about getting the power and water services restored, he alleges, city officials provided him with a list of demands that included showing proof of a long-term rental contract for the home—despite the fact that it is illegal to rent a home that lacks a certificate of occupancy—and required him to show evidence that he'd asked Airbnb and other short-term rental platforms to remove listings for the home. Those requests also exceed the city's authority under the zoning ordinance, Serrano says.

The lawsuit will move forward despite this week's order from Judge Jennifer Bailey telling the city that it must restore utility service. A hearing is scheduled for January.

"The judge's order is a step in the right direction, correcting these strong-arm, illegal and unconstitutional tactics by the City of Miami Beach," Serrano told Reason in an emailed statement. But Serrano says the house has already suffered mold damage after going months without power.

The action taken again Serrano represents a significant escalation in Miami Beach's ongoing war on short-term rentals. The city's aggressive policing of short-term rentals has made headlines for years, but it upped the ante in 2016 by increasing the maximum fines from $1,500 to $100,000 for a first offense. City officials have argued that the fines are not excessive because some of the rental rates in Miami Beach are astronomical—Kylie Jenner, for example, stayed at a $12 million Miami Beach villa, rented for about $8,000 a night on Airbnb. But that's hardly the whole picture. A $100,000 fine is still a lot of money, even for someone who owns a $12 million home—but that same fine can be destructive when levied against an average homeowner, and is no where near being proportional to the offense.

As of last year, the city had issued more than $6.5 million in fines, but had collected only about $125,000.

Longtime resident Natalie Nichols filed a lawsuit on the grounds that the Florida Constitution prohibits excessive fines. The Goldwater Institute, an Arizona-based libertarian think tank, is assisting with the lawsuit.

Miami Beach has apparently been undeterred. The city recently considered changing it's anti-Airbnb rules from a mere zoning violation to a full-fledged misdemeanor, meaning that violators could be tossed in jail for simply renting out a house for a weekend.

Photo Credit: Eur/Photoshot/Newscom

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  • Longtobefree||

    Amazon does carry pitchforks, and torches.
    To the barricades!

  • BigT||

    Nice city hall you got there. Shame if it burnt down!

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    More interesting to put it on AirBnB and bankrupt the city with its own petard.

  • BYODB||

    You see, you don't actually own your home you just rent it from the State via property taxes. Who are we to tell them what they can do with their property?


    /sarc

  • sharmota4zeb||

    If you'll allow me to play the devil's advocate, the origin of land ownership is military might. Only the origin of buildings is labor combined with resources. The ability to tell the kids to get off your grass depends on your willingness to enforce the deed to the land you got from the government.

  • Armchair Lawyer||

    The fine needs to be proportional to the value obtained from breaking the law.

    If the fine is only $1500, but the person is making $10,000 from the rental, then the fine is "just the cost of business" and won't stop the illegal behavior.

  • Get To Da Chippah||

    The fine needs to be zero, because you can do with your property what you want so long as it doesn't harm others.

  • Armchair Lawyer||

    While admirable, most people disagree. Zoning laws exist. Most neighbors would object to you turning your residential lot into a garbage dump, for instance.

  • Sevo||

    "While admirable, most people disagree."

    Fuck off, slaver.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    Zoning laws are not libertarian.

  • Still Curmudgeoned (Nunya)||

    Armchair lawyer, expert asshole.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    This kind of example just shows what a typical unimaginative statist fuck you are.

    No one's going to operate a garbage dump, or a pig farm, or build a big box store or a skyscraper, or dig an open pit mine, in a residential neighborhood. The infrastructure wouldn't support it. And absent eminent domain and crony government, they'd have to buy up all that land in voluntary deals with the residents.

    Why do you statist fucks have so little imagination and so little faith in people? You always come up with these stupid doomsday scenarios and act like they would be every day occurrences without a fucking nanny government to rein them in. The very thing you claim to be necessary is what enables your fucking doomsday scenarios, and you call it "what we the people choose to do together" because your distortion of the English language is as cracked as your understanding of reality.

    Fuck off, slaver.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    I visited my friend and his coparent in their new boarding house room this week. It has flees that will probably spread to the entire house. The entire neighborhood might get the fleas via the public spaces in this town. Ectoparasites are a natural consequence of having too many people living in too little floor space. We learned this over a century ago and made land use regulations to fix the problem. Hotels host guests from around the world. Hotel owners need to follow certain procedures to prevent contagious diseases from spreading in a neighborhood. The precautions are not complicated or expensive, but the average homeowner has no idea about them or the reasons behind them. I don't mind regulations for health and safety when it comes to AirBnB.

    Oh damn! It is early morning already. I have to go to the gym soon for my morning swim.

  • Agammamon||

    Ectoparasites are a natural consequence of having too many people living in too little floor space.

    No they are not. If that were the case cities - especially older ones - would be flea infested. I lived in a two bedroom trailer with 4 other guys when I wuz a young-un and we didn't get fleas. Because hygiene.

  • Two Buck Chuck||

    I'd be way more worried about Americans shooting giraffe porn in my place than some flea-bit 3rd worlder scraping up the airfare.

  • mlwjr||

    You must not live in a city or other highly populated area.

  • BigT||

    My brother had a home in a very upscale neighborhood of large properties (2+ acres). His neighbors decided to raise show chickens (who knew). The noise and chickenshit all over were more than annoying - health hazard. Eventually the city realized they could force out the chickens with zoning regs. Thankfully.

    My suggestion was to have lots of chicken dinners.

  • Agammamon||

    If the chicken shit was 'all over' then that's because your neighbors didn't clean up. Its not a health hazard. And the noise is not particularly annoying unless you're raising 30 roosters together.

    Its that they were in an upscale neighborhood and those neighbors decided to use the coercive power of the state to hammer something they didn't want around them. I don't know - maybe they were raising 30 of them on a tenth acre lot in the backyard of their mcmansion.

    I live in an area that's all two acre residential zoned lots. Three of my immediate neighbors raise horses, one of them also has a couple cows. Guy on the far side of the cow owner is raising roosters, one of my neighbors is raising chickens, I have chickens, rabbits, and goats now. Everybody has dogs. No health hazards.

  • Two Buck Chuck||

    Houston has no zoning laws, and it's the 4th largest city in America.

  • Still Curmudgeoned (Nunya)||

    So suddenly Marxists and Socialists do understand markets.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    As shown previously by sin taxes.

  • Star1988||

    "As of last year, the city had issued more than $6.5 million in fines, but had collected only about $125,000."

    You guys need to do a story on the guy who paid the $125,000! Seriously, I'd love to know whats behind that.

  • Still Curmudgeoned (Nunya)||

    Accidental autopay.

  • Juice||

    Are the water and electric municipally owned? If not, why did the water and electric companies shut off the services?

  • Trainer||

    Reading is fundamental:

    "In March of this year, the city revoked the home's certificate of occupancy and later used the lack of a certificate to order Florida Power & Light and Miami-Dade County Water to shut off electricity, sewer, and water services."

  • Rich||

    it upped the ante in 2016 by increasing the maximum fines from $1,500 to $100,000 for a first offense. ...
    As of last year, the city had issued more than $6.5 million in fines, but had collected only about $125,000.

    Obviously the city needs to up the ante again by including a 5-year prison sentence for a first offense.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    When I was trying to think up a better redress system, one of my ideas was to measure all crimes by harm done in dollars. Robbery etc are obvious. Murder would be tricky. You can measure lost future income, put standard figures on loss of companionship, pain and suffering, etc, but that implies it's better to murder an old geezer than a young person, and better to murder poor people than rich people. So it ain't perfect :-)

    But what it did do was make it obvious when "crimes" like AirBnBs are way out of line, punishment-wise. Like those straw bans with $1000 fines, way out of proportion to other crimes.

    There is really something wrong when the nannies get such control boners that they can put a higher penalty on AirBnB rentals than most physical crimes with real victims.

    (It also lead to an interesting revival of the original concept of outlaws, people whose crimes were so heinous that they were literally outside the law and could be, and should be, killed on sight. My variation was that if you owed any verdict restitution, you couldn't bring any redress complaints for less than what you owed; if you decided to not pay $1000 in restitution, other people could steal from you with impunity, as long as the stolen value was less than $1000. I liked that as simple community enforcement of verdicts, while simultaneously allowing an escape route for the wrongly convicted.)

  • sharmota4zeb||

    There is one fatal flaw in your logic:

    YOU STARTED IT!

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Miami Beach is strange. When someone in Hackensack wants someone to live without electricity, he simply vents to a cousin who takes the hint and makes an accident happen.

    Tell Warren I said, "Hi."

  • Two Buck Chuck||

    You get what you vote for.

    And the rest of us can take comfort in the fact that half of these property owners are statistically likely to be Statists.

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