Houses or hotels: Are short term rentals a danger to St. Johns County?

By Emily Braunstein

Tourism brings money and prosperity to St. Johns County, but it also brings increased housing prices and a decrease in housing availability. Short term rentals may benefit the visitors, but some people believe that it is at the expense of the residents.  

The fear is that residential neighborhoods are becoming business enterprises and being used for commercial purposes; homes are becoming hotels. The question remains of who is to blame?

President of the North Beach Community Alliance, Carolyn Anderson discussed how the rental property industry has affected the surrounding community.

“The short-term rental industry has deeply impacted local communities in terms of housing prices and availability. While the short-term rental industry started as a way for individual property owners to make money on vacation homes while not being used, investors caught on to how lucrative it would be to create short-term rentals as a business,” Anderson said.

Adopted in 2019, the city of Saint Augustine in St. Johns county, established the renting time requirements dependent on the location. A minimum one-week stay is required in Residential Single Family Zoning Districts 1 and 2, and a minimum 30-day stay required in Historic Preservation-1 zoning.

All other zoning districts allow for renting on a nightly basis. All short-term rentals are also required to be registered with the city. 

In the Florida State Legislature, SB 280, that aims to create uniform rules for short-term rentals in the state, was postponed prior to being voted on by the state senate. Currently, there are no advancements for an additional state-wide regulation on short-term properties.

St. Augustine requires that “at the time of registration, and annually, each short-term rental is inspected for life safety, zoning and property maintenance compliance,” according to the City of St. Augustine website; ensuring that all of the available properties are up to standard. The city has regulations on the effects of short-term rentals, but not how many.  

Delaney Graff is the Administrative Assistant to the St. Johns County Board of Commissions and spoke in regards to the overall County’s regulations.

“Due to the State preemption, the County cannot limit the number of homes in any given neighborhood that become short-term vacation rentals.  It is up to the HOAs and COAs (HomeOwners Association and Council of Aging) to set a limit in time of amount to prevent an excessive amount of short-term vacation rentals in any given community,” Graff said.

The tourism industry is an incredibly significant aspect of St. Johns county, due to its proximity to the ocean and rich cultural background with St. Augustine being the nation’s oldest city. Utilizing the city’s unique, historic architecture for visitors brings an influx of visitors from all around the globe, and therefore prosperity for the city.

“Tourism is responsible for more than $1.1 billion annually and 22,000 jobs for St. Johns County. It is estimated that nearly 9.6 million tourists visit St. Johns County annually with St. Augustine being the principal destination,” the Florida Auditor General for 2021 said. “St. Johns County estimates that less than half of these people visit and return home the same day. This type of tourism, short-term and daily visitors, is less affected by downturns in the economy, and has seen an increase as people avoid popular high-priced venues and come to Florida due to relaxed COVID-19 restrictions.”  

The county is faced with the dilemma between benefiting both the tourism industry and the long-term residents. The regulations enforced aim to minimize the effect of disruptions in the community, and create more of a harmony between tourists and residents.

Regarding her property in the city of St. Augustine, Rachel Carr an Airbnb property owner spoke about the city’s regulations.

“The city’s regulations do not appear to have been crafted in a way that is overreaching or intended to eradicate the industry. Put simply, I think the level of regulation is appropriate,” Carr said.

As an owner of a short term rental, Carr believes that the city’s regulations are both fair and necessary. The regulations are put in place to benefit property owners, not hurt their business. 

“The city includes guidelines for responsible hosting, such as rules on guest behavior and limits on the number of guests allowed,” Carr said. “By promoting responsible hosting practices, regulations can mitigate negative impacts associated with short-term rentals, such as excessive noise or property damage. This helps create a more balanced and sustainable short-term rental industry that benefits property owners, residents, and the broader community.”

When the regulations on responsible renting are enforced, there is a reduced amount of damage and disruptions on the community. This allows the tourism industry to benefit the county, whilst still being mindful of the residents. 

“I think that the city has probably struck the right balance between allowing short term rental owners/operators to run their business and establishing rules and regulations in the short term rental space. The city has addressed the fundamental components associated with this industry (e.g., health and safety; intensity of use; parking; etc.),” Carr said, regarding the city of St. Augustine specifically. 

St. John’s residents are also taking initiative to minimize the impact of increased tourism’s integration in communities.

The North Beach Community Alliance has developed the Good Neighbor Program, to “provide useful information about safety, beaches, resources, and attractions to property owners in exchange for their commitment to communicate the need to be a “good neighbor” to their renters,” Anderson said.

Renting out the distinctive, historic architecture and beachfront properties brings many financial benefits to the county, and allows visitors to get a positive experience with the area. Houses and apartments give a unique experience and atmosphere that hotels cannot replicate. This draws people in, and the market for short term rentals is only growing. 

This high number of tourists, while providing benefits, requires a high number of housing that impacts the long term residents. While the county has actively been preventing the disruption that comes with short term visitors, the number of visitors is the increasing dilemma. 

Regarding the rental properties in the 3 mile span of North Beach in St. Johns County, “Approximately 40% of the property in our community was owned by vacation rental property owners and of those, 70% were either bought or built to become vacation rentals since 2018. It seemed to happen overnight, which created a sense of frustration among the residents,” Anderson said.

Communities that were intended to be family or residential properties for the people who live and work in St. Johns county is becoming vacation rentals.

“There often is an inherent tension between STR owners/operators and nearby residential neighbors,” Carr said. 

Tourism is, without a doubt, an extremely important aspect to the county. Property renters have good motives; wanting to share architecture and homes with visitors while earning a steady income. The business of short term rentals is being condemned as a whole, when the problem may be a larger issue. 

The blame is constantly put on the county and individual tourists, but this problem may be bigger than those two elements.

“The biggest change seems to have come in 2017-18, as homes for sale in areas ripe for vacationing were bought for cash by large organizations. That shut out the home buyer that would have required a mortgage to purchase the property as a home because of the time it took for mortgage approval. The cash purchase was obviously attractive to the seller,” Anderson said.

In St. Johns County, the only regulations that exist are to minimize the effects of short-term rentals on the community, not the increasing number. The blame is being placed on both the city and the individual property owners, however, the question remains as to who is the root of this problem. 

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