Short-term vacation rentals are illegal in Lake Worth Beach. So, why won’t the city crack down?
Updated: Sep 11, 2022
THE WHOOPING AND yelling by the women around the pool had been going on for an hour when suddenly the noise morphed into a primordial chant usually heard at strip clubs, loud enough to breach the windows of nearby houses.
“Take it off! Take it off!’’
Was I dreaming?
It was 1:30 in the morning and another good time was being had next door by the latest occupants of the “party house’’ in Lake Worth Beach’s College Park neighborhood.
“The party house” is how neighbors, including this writer, refer to the two-story Spanish Mediterranean on the northwest corner of Federal Highway and Fordham Drive, and it’s not a term of endearment.
The house is advertised on short-term rental websites as a “Coastal Villa… 5 bedroom Oasis,’’ with nightly rates varying from the $400s to the $800s. Judging by the stream of guests who come and go on a fairly regular basis, it’s been a popular destination.
Many guests are respectful of the neighborhood and follow the house rules spelled out in the ad, such as: “Disturbing the peace is not tolerated” and “Quiet hours are from 10 PM - 8 AM.”
Other guests are not.
When the house rules are broken before 11 p.m., some nearby homeowners try to ignore the sounds of merrymaking, remembering how they, too, liked to let loose when they were in their 20s.
But when it goes on after midnight, as it has on several occasions over the past year, the only recourses are to: (A) pull the pillow against your ears in hopes of drowning out the noise, (B) walk next door to ask the revelers to keep it down or (C) call the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which patrols Lake Worth Beach.
Homeowners on the 200 block of Fordham Drive have resorted to all three options.
The first and only time this writer tried option B, just before midnight earlier this summer, a shirtless man with friends around the pool told him to “Fuck off.’’
Video clip captures noise from a party at 1 a.m. Aug. 27 behind the wall of a short-term rental in Lake Worth Beach's College Park.
Option C was used most recently on Aug. 27 when at least three residents on the block were awakened just before 1 a.m. by the rowdy guests at “Griffin’s Bachelorette” party (according to the pink letters on custom-made “Martinis and Bikinis” cups that overflowed from the lids of a trash bin on the street two days later).
When deputies responded, the women refused to come to the pool’s entrance gate at the end of the driveway. “We don’t have any clothes on,’’ one was heard replying through the wooden gate.
“We’re sorry,’’ she told the deputies. “We’ll quiet down.’’
And they did.
And the grateful residents on the east end of Fordham Drive went back to sleep.
The next morning brought the usual text exchanges of “Did you hear what I heard last night?” Though it was easy to laugh about the latest disturbance, the same question haunted everyone:
Will it happen again tonight?
Brianna Banchs signs a petition urging Lake Worth Beach officials to enforce an existing city ban on short-term vacation rentals (Joe Capozzi)
AS IF BEING awakened in the middle of the night by a loud party at the Airbnb next door isn’t infuriating enough, perhaps more exasperating for homeowners in single-family neighborhoods across Lake Worth Beach is this set of facts:
Short-term rentals are illegal in Lake Worth Beach, where an ordinance allows rentals only for durations of at least 60 days.
More than 500 homes and guest cottages across town offer rents for stays as short as a weekend or a few days at a time, according to short-term vacation websites such as Airbnb and Vrbo.
City officials have made no real effort to enforce their 60-day law, even though homeowners across town have complained for more than five years about problems caused by transient renters — multiple cars lining residential streets, trash bins on the curb for days and party noise disturbing the neighborhood peace, to name a few.
“As my wife said, ‘We might as well be staying in a Motel 6.’ Every morning you wake up, you’ve got new neighbors,’’ said Mike Bradshaw, who has lived on Wellesley Drive near the city’s north end for 36 years but has seen at least three short-term rentals pop up on his block in recent years.
“This is supposed to be a neighborhood,’’ he said, “and you don't have a neighborhood if you've got strange people in and out every other day.’’
Not all short-term vacation rentals are bad neighbors. Many operate in single-family neighborhoods across town like Parrot Cove and South Palm Park with little to no impact on surrounding properties, abiding by Airbnb’s party ban that went into effect in June.
But there are lingering debates across the United States over whether they belong in single-family residential districts at all and whether the city can legally impede on the rights of single-family homeowners who want to offer their homes to short-term renters.
“If I were to buy a house and I moved in and found out there was an Airbnb next door, I would be upset,’’ said Realtor Erin Allen, who supports efforts to regulate short-term rentals. “You don't expect to have a hotel next to you, and that's what they are, little motels.’’
Some homeowners accuse the city of purposely turning a blind eye to the “hotelization” of single-family neighborhoods, as one opponent describes the problem. After all, the city hasn’t had a hotel since The Gulfstream shuttered in 2005 and short-term rentals supply fresh visitors who spend money at downtown restaurants, bars and shops.
But to say city officials are ignoring the problems wouldn’t be accurate. In fact, they’ve debated the issue off and on for at least the past seven years.
At a workshop in 2020, then-mayor Pam Triolo shared horror stories about an Airbnb across the street from her College Park home where she said various renters have filmed a pornographic movie, taken drugs in the driveway and hosted a Halloween Party that attracted 400 college students and their friends.
“What do we do with this problem? Everyone has been kicking this can down the road for 10 years,’’ Betty Resch, the current mayor, said at a City Commission meeting this year.
But it’s not just any can being kicked. It’s a proverbial can of worms that, if not opened with care, could make the city liable.
One problem is the existing ordinance, enacted more than 15 years ago, dictating the 60-day minimum.
“It's been on the books and basically not been enforced. The longer we go not enforcing it, the more difficult it becomes to enforce it,’’ City Attorney Glen Torcivia said at a pre-agenda work meeting July 13.
Another problem is a state law passed in 2011 that prohibits local governments from banning short-term rentals or regulating the length or frequency of stays. (City officials say their 60-day rule was in effect before the state law and is thereby grandfathered in, which is moot unless they enforce it.)
The city’s land development regulations and zoning code do not contain any language about short-term rentals. “The way of our code is, unless it is expressly allowed, it is by default not allowed or prohibited,’’ William Waters, the city’s Community Sustainability director, said at a meeting.
But because of the state law, city officials have been reluctant to add any language about short-term rentals that would even “recognize their existence,” according to a memo.
“The state has got our one hand tied behind our back,’’ Resch said in an interview last month. “I would love to have a special ordinance for short-term rentals but we can’t.’’
Lake Worth Beach officials appear to have three general options:
Start enforcing the existing 60-day limit.
Do away with the limit and allow business as usual for short-term rentals.
Try to enact regulations and oversight that would not conflict with the state law but offer some protections for homeowners living near short-term rental properties.
Many local governments in Florida have managed to enact various rules offering protections to homes located near short-term rentals, from noise penalties in Panama Beach to a limit on the number of guests in Bradenton.
In Miami Beach, short-term rentals are banned in single-family homes. Marco Island voters recently approved restrictions.
Slide from a May 23, 2022, workshop when Lake Worth Beach City Commissioners debated what to do about short-term vacation rentals.
Lake Worth Beach officials this summer have been considering several ideas that could offer protections for nearby property owners while respecting the rights of property owners wanting to use their homes to make extra cash. Among them:
Requiring properties applying for business licenses to show they have an active state license to operate as a lodging establishment, are registered with the county to pay bed taxes and are not homesteaded.
Charging commercial utility rates at short-term rentals.
Imposing occupancy limits and parking restrictions.
Revising the calls-for-service standards for vacation rentals and hotels to lower the number of complaints needed to declare them chronic nuisances.
“We can have those regulations,’’ Resch said at the July 13 meeting, “but when it comes down to it, we have a 60-day limit and we are not enforcing it and people are asking why we are not enforcing it.’’
With the Gulfstream Hotel renovation project finally approved for construction, some residents hope city staff will have time to focus more attention on short-term rentals.
Last month, commissioners declared a state of emergency over the housing crisis — a crisis some residents say has been exacerbated by a wave of short-term rentals reducing the inventory of available dwellings.
Alex Cull (center) discusses his petition with a passerby on Lake Avenue on Sept. 3. Flanking Cull are volunteers Chelsea Tinny (left) and Robert Patterson. (Joe Capozzi)
“We simply want them to enforce the existing law,’’ said Alex Cull, who formed a grassroots movement loosely called “Save Lake Worth Beach Neighborhoods From Airbnbs.’’
Cull, a member of the city's Planning and Zoning Board, said he was motivated into action after a friend was evicted from a home he was renting long-term on M Street. The landlord started marketing the property as a short-term rental and the evicted tenant and his wife were forced to live in a car while they struggled to find an apartment.
Roughly every other weekend or so since July, Cull and his small army of volunteers have set up under a tent on a Lake Avenue sidewalk downtown where they have collected more than 400 signatures on a petition imploring the city to act.
“This is one of those rare issues where there is so much solidarity,’’ he said.
One short-term rental operator said the city should consider restricting Airbnbs to mixed-use zoning districts close to downtown where they’re compatible with their surroundings.
The Banana Inn at 307 Federal Hwy. is a short-term vacation rental in Lake Worth Beach. (Joe Capozzi)
One successful example is The Banana Inn, a former bed-and-breakfast that has operated for three years as a popular short-term rental at 307 N. Federal Hwy.
The house, originally built in 1923, is surrounded by apartment complexes and near a motel and a law office in a district zoned for mixed uses, including bed and breakfasts.
“We could have chosen to open an Airbnb in a single-family neighborhood but we didn’t think that was the right thing to do because of concerns people would have about a business being run in their neighborhood,’’ said Troy Yohn, who owns The Banana Inn.
Yohn said he requires minimum stays of three days and he tells tenants about security cameras outside that help him make sure large parties are not being held.
“We've had zero issues’’ with neighboring properties, he said.
Troy Yohn in the sun room of The Banana Inn, a short-term vacation rental he owns in Lake Worth Beach (Joe Capozzi)
While restricting short-term rentals to a mixed-use zoning district may sound like a logical solution, former City Commissioner Andy Amoroso said it’s not that simple.
“If you were to change and say they’re only allowed in these districts, I think it's going to be a huge lawsuit because they're already in those (single-family) areas,’’ he said. “I don’t know how you can stop them now without major, major lawsuits.’’
Until the city either attempts to enforce its law or enact new protections, the problems will go unchecked. And to do so effectively, the city will need to hire more staff.
“Nobody’s cracking down,’’ said Amoroso, who recalled a failed attempt years ago to allow airbnb operators to self-regulate.
“It’s like the sober homes. There are good players and bad players. The good players pay bed taxes, get their county license, have onsite supervision and cameras. But there’s probably 50 percent of them that aren’t and there’s no one cracking down on them.’’
When short-term vacation rentals started to take off in the years after the Great Recession, many cities could not envision how successful they would become.
“When this came across our dais in 2011 or 2012, it wasn’t as popular as it is today,’’ then-Mayor Triolo said in 2020. “We were hesitant to do anything because we had no hotels for people to stay at.’’
The pandemic produced a new market of travelers seeking lodging options without the crowds seen at large hotels, and that helped fuel the recent real estate boom that saw investors buying single-family homes, in many cases adding tens of thousands of dollars in improvements to former dilapidated properties, and converting them into short-term vacation rentals.
Although many of these refurbished properties enhanced neighborhoods, the short-term rental model forced unwanted inconveniences on people who chose to live in single-family homes for traditional reasons.
“Short-term vacation rentals are damaging the fabric of our neighborhoods,’’ former City Commissioner Cara Jennings told the City Commission during public comments on Aug. 2.
“We know investors are buying up homes in areas zoned for residential use and renting them essentially as motels,’’ she said. “They just call them Airbnbs and somehow that has given them a pass.’’
At the height of the Airbnb craze a few years ago, there were so many operating across town that many local real estate agents claimed they weren’t aware the city outlawed short-term rentals.
Realtor Erin Allen said that after she learned about the 60-day rule, she started informing potential home buyers, who’d shared their intentions with her, that their planned short-term rentals could be shut down.
“That scared some people away, but others moved forward with their purchase,’’ she said. “The conundrum is that the city says they do not allow them but knowingly allows them to operate.’’
Allen, former owner of the Mango Inn, the city's first bed-and-breakfast, said she has told homeowners: If you are upset about problems caused by an Airbnb, report the location to the city. But Allen said she subsequently learned many homeowners have done just that but the city has done nothing.
“The city has created the monster,’’ she said, “and now it’s in their court to figure out how to blend them into the community without violating people’s rights to the quiet enjoyment of their home.’’
City officials agree many problems plaguing nearby homes can be avoided if the short-term rental had a property manager on site or at least next door so they can hear party noise and see lines of cars on streets.
“The ones where the owners are present usually aren’t the problem. It’s the one where (the renters) are alone,’’ Triolo said in 2019.
“Take care of your property and realize that your neighbors are people,’’ she said. “Just because (renters) are on vacation doesn't mean that your single-family neighborhood has to be turned into an amusement park. And if you want that, go across the bridge and stay at a hotel.’’
Video shows garbage from a short-term rental blowing across Fordham Drive in College Park on Aug. 28.
Many exasperated homeowners are skeptical that the city will ever do anything, pointing out how officials have been aware of the problems for years but have failed to act.
“I’ve complained to the city so many times about this and nothing happens,’’ said Todd Cusumano of 216 Vanderbilt Drive, referring to noise from a Wellesley Drive short-term rental immediately south of his house.
“Some of the (renters) are quiet,’’ he said. “But some of the people scream in the pool at 2 a.m. Some of the people throw garbage over the fence. Some of the people smoke near the fence where it comes right into our yard. It’s not good.’’
Cusumano said the short-term rental’s ad includes rules for tenants to be quiet. And he said the property owner, who does not live onsite while the property is being rented, tries to rectify problems when Cusumano texts with complaints about noise and trash.
“But it doesn’t matter. It still goes on,’’ he said. “If it was up to me I'd sell the house and go back to Palm Beach Gardens where I came from and where it's quiet and more civilized. But I love this neighborhood and I love this house. I just don’t like what goes on around it.’’
The College Park “party house” at Federal and Fordham is owned by a limited liability corporation with a Delaware address. On short-term rental sites, the property's “host” is a woman named “Rebekah,” who has an Arizona address.
Video clip captures noise from a party at 1 a.m. Aug. 27 behind the wall of a short-term rental in Lake Worth Beach's College Park.
The actual on-site property manager is a woman who lives in nearby Lake Clarke Shores. She is polite and has encouraged College Park homeowners to bring problems to her attention. When that happens, she texts sympathetic replies with promises that she will remind the tenants about the house rules. She also encourages homeowners to call PBSO.
But the problems still persist, with no apparent pattern of which tenants will respect the neighborhood and which won’t.
Around 1 am. on Aug. 27, Fordham Drive resident Amanda Kahan, six months pregnant, was awakened by noise from the bachelorette party across the street at the “party house.’’
When she walked outside to her front yard, she was so startled by the volume of noise from across the street that she recorded short video clips, which she then texted to the property manager: “In case you want to hear what we all have to hear during the night …”
The property manager replied later that day with a text that read in part: “I don’t have my phone on after 10pm so I can’t do anything in the middle of the night when I’m not right there.’’
Kahan replied: I also keep my phone off after 10 to eliminate disturbances, because that makes sense for people who just want to live peacefully in their home. I wish the people you allowed to rent this home felt the same way.’’
Meanwhile, as short-term rentals continue to impose inconveniences, many frustrated homeowners have watched code enforcement officers patrol neighborhoods in search of violations for unkempt lawns instead of cracking down on the city’s long-term rental law.
Other homeowners say they have struggled to get permits for new windows and roofs only to be rejected because of historic district rules, but are stuck putting up with inconveniences forced on them by short-term rentals.
“I can’t do anything to my house that I own yet they are having these Airbnbs move in all around me that are illegal and not do anything about it,’’ said Bradshaw.
“These Airbnbs are attracting people who go downtown and spend money, I'm sure that has something to do with it,’’ he said. “But if it’s not legal, it’s not legal.’’
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About the author
Joe Capozzi is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020.View all posts by Joe Capozzi.