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Invasive, insatiable and largely unstoppable, monthly vacation rentals are the Burmese pythons of Key West, devouring the city’s housing inventory and devastating its workforce on the brink of extinction.

On May 3, Key West city officials unanimously blamed the city’s housing crisis on the proliferation and profitability of vacation rentals.

But unlike pythons, vacation rentals are protected by law. The Florida Legislature won’t let cities or counties stamp out intrusive vacation rentals or control their population in any meaningful way.

At their May 3 meeting, city commissioners received a stern reminder that the state government prohibits local governments from restricting vacation rentals unless a local law is in place before 2011. Key West had such a law in place at the time, but it only deals with transient or short-term rentals of less than a month.

Years ago, authorities recognized the threat of transient rentals — including night and weekdays — to residential neighborhoods and the community fabric. They therefore capped the number of transitional rental licenses and refused to issue new ones. They also moved temporary rentals out of residential neighborhoods to more commercial areas.

Those rules will stand until they are significantly changed, City Attorney Shawn Smith told the commission. If authorities try to tighten preexisting rental restrictions, the state will invalidate them, Smith said.

“What we have is what we have,” he said.

And what we have is the uncontrolled spread of monthly rents and almost no authority to control them. While transient rentals bother full-time residents, monthly rentals displace them. Buildings that once housed three apartments and six or eight workers have been renovated and replaced with luxury single-family vacation homes that now rent for between $10,000 and $14,000 a month.

Monthly rentals weren’t a problem 10 or 15 years ago. But they are now.

Unlike limited transitional rental licenses, Smith reminded the commission, any homeowner anywhere in Key West can walk to City Hall, pay $21 for a business license, and legally rent their home for a months or more, whether through a real estate agent, property management company or AirBnB.

There are no restrictions on monthly vacation rentals, Smith pointed out to correct the misperception that illegal rentals are the crux of the problem. Legal and authorized monthly rentals are an equal or greater issue due to their prevalence.

Smith acknowledged that some landlords were renting out their units weekly without an expensive transitional rental license. These violators can and should be investigated, fined and prosecuted, Smith said. Others rent by the month without the $21 city permit, which is hardly a hindrance and easily rectified if and when the offender is caught.

But, he said, increased law enforcement efforts and higher licensing fees could help, if not solve, the problem. Smith also said the commission should support an additional code and that police officers would come to the budget for those efforts to be effective.

Key West is not alone in its crisis, officials agreed. Miami Beach is working on legislation “that we can learn from,” said Smith, who is watching it closely.

Commissioner Jimmy Weekley wanted to know if the cities could file some sort of class action lawsuit against the state. Commissioners Sam Kaufman and Billy Wardlow, who represent New Town districts, said the vacation rental onslaught is affecting neighborhoods that have never been impacted before.

Smith promised to write up a potential order in the coming month for the commissioners to consider.

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