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Home Sweet Hotel: Keys Vacation Rentals Pricey But Popular

Nancy Klingener
This home in Key West is for rent for $10,000 a month during the busy tourist season.

Online home renting sites like Airbnb have greatly expanded the vacation rental market — when travelers rent a home or apartment instead of a hotel room.

Two new studies illustrate the impact that's having on the Florida Keys.

One is from the National Association of Realtors, which analyzed every county in the country and found that more than 6 percent of them qualify as "vacation home counties," where more than 20 percent of the homes are not used by full time residents.

Four of those counties are in Florida, including Monroe County, where the number was 22.4 percent.

That comes at the same time as a recent study for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, which uses tourist lodging taxes to promote the Keys as a destination. The study said the increase in vacation rentals "poses a threat to traditional lodging in the Florida Keys."

The Keys ranked fifth in the country by the cost of real estate. The median home price last year was more than $477,000.

Homeowners can make 40 percent more by renting to tourists rather than longterm residents, according to the study.

And for seasonal residents, it's a way to make money from a home that's otherwise unoccupied.

The study surveyed 1,000 travelers and found the Keys to be the top choice among beach destinations, compared to mainland South Florida, Mexico, the Caribbean and Hawaii.

It doesn't surprise Keys residents to learn that the popularity of vacation rentals and vacation homes is huge. And it's a problem both economically and in quality of life, said Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers.

"You're not building community. You have areas that are completely uninhabited, save for one or two houses on the block, except for a few months of the year," she said. "The fulltimers don't have a place that they can live."

Renting for less than 28 days requires a special license in most parts of the Keys, and the number of those licenses is limited. But monthly rentals are unlimited and renting boats by the night is increasingly popular.

"We can't do anything about it. We can't change the rules," Carruthers said. "The state has pre-empted us from touching the vacation rental ordinances."

Carruthers said she feels the impact from a vacation rental home next door to her house in Old Town Key West.

"Every once in awhile they rent it out to people who don't understand that they're living in a neighborhood where kids have to go to school the next morning," she said.

Increasingly in the Keys large employers including the county and the public school district are starting to work on building housing for employees. So are some of the larger resorts.

But that doesn't help small businesses like guesthouses and restaurants find employees — who need housing they can afford on a service worker's wage.

"I can't go anywhere any more without seeing a 'help wanted' sign. Everybody needs employees, including the county," she said.

Nancy Klingener was WLRN's Florida Keys reporter until July 2022.
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