CLEARWATER — Like other Clearwater residents, David Irmen has had vacation renters ask for things they think he’s supposed to provide.

“I’ve had renters knock on my door and say, ‘I’m having a little trouble with the pool, do you know who I should call?’” Irmen told the Municipal Code Enforcement Board on April 24. “Or, I don’t have clean sheets and I don’t have utensils, (our unit) doesn’t seem to be ready.”

Irmen does not advertise his home on Airbnb, HomeAway, Innclusive or any other peer-to-peer internet rental listing, but the people who own the house next door do.

And Irmen has seen how the rentals chip away at a street’s quiet character.

“I’ve seen some of the comings and goings, a lot of the comings and goings. I’ve seen far too many new faces next door to me,” Irmen told the code enforcement board. “It is obvious to me that it is not rented a month at a time.”

The house in question — a one-story bungalow at 839 Lantana Ave. — has become a focus of enforcement for city Code Inspections Specialist Julie Phillips. After repeated visits to the house and warning its owners against short-term rentals, the owners continue to book guests. By searching availability dates on its Airbnb web page, Phillips discovered that 839 Lantana is completely booked through October — despite $34,500 in code enforcement liens against the property since 2016.

And the owner illegally rents other properties he owns, code enforcement records show.

“The owner, Muhamed Faour, owns four properties on Clearwater Beach,” Phillips said. “839 Lantana Ave. has a lien for $3,000 from May 24, 2016, and a repeat violation lien for $31,500, which was placed on April 24, 2019.”

According to Phillips, Faour has illegally rented other homes on Clearwater Beach, including:

• 937 Bruce Ave., which “went to the Code Board in 2015; no liens accruing at this time.”

• 843 Lantana Ave. has had a lien of $6,000 for booking short-term rentals since Aug. 25, 2016.

• 763 Mandalay Ave., the fourth property, has not been subject to enforcement liens, Phillips said.

“Faour’s total liens that have not been paid are at $40,500,” Phillips told the Beacon. Faour has been notified about the liens and why they’ve been attached to his properties, Phillips said, but she has not heard from the owner recently.

Faour, who did not return calls for comment, is far from unique. The case against 839 Lantana Ave. and other Faour properties are part of a growing trend in unauthorized short-term rentals in Pinellas County beach communities like Clearwater, Dunedin, Indian Rocks Beach and St. Pete Beach.

Phillips, who has been busting illegal short-term rentals for years, said problem properties pop up daily.

“I don't have an actual number of how many illegal rentals are out there,” Phillips said. “However, we get new complaints for short-term rentals daily that are located all over our city — not just Clearwater Beach.”

The fines for a single property have been this high before. In a 2017 case Phillips investigated, the code enforcement board issued $35,000 in fines to real estate developers allegedly renting rooms illegally on Northridge Drive in Clearwater.

Homeowners in districts zoned Residential are allowed to rent for 31 days, or one calendar month or longer, but must possess a city Business Tax Receipt. Short-term rentals are allowed in the Tourist District if homeowners have a Business Tax receipt and meet Florida permitting requirements.

A few Clearwater homeowners in residential districts, however, are allowed to rent rooms by the day or week.

Exactly 31 residential homes won permission to rent by the day or week on April 20, 2007, when a judge sided with them in a lawsuit against the city. The owners, many of whom purchased homes as investors, sued to challenge new city codes banning short-term rentals on Clearwater Beach. The homeowners requested “grandfathering status” because to change the rules midstream would cause them severe financial hardship.

So, years after that court case and illegal short-term rentals continue to pop up in Clearwater’s residential neighborhoods, the city continues to fight them with heavy fines and liens, to mixed results.

Michael Fuino, the assistant city attorney who handles code enforcement cases, said most homeowners stop illegal short-term rentals once the city contacts them.

“Property owners have voluntarily come into compliance with the city’s codes after being issued notices of violation or after code board meetings for these violations,” Fuino wrote in an email. “The city has not yet foreclosed on any properties that have Municipal Code Enforcement Board liens for the sort of violations that you describe. And yes, (the board’s) power is generally limited to issuing compliance orders and fines for these sorts of violations.” 

Other violators continue to rent in spite of heavy liens, Phillips said.

“Many of these properties are rented from $100 to $600 per day, and most fines are paid,” she said. “In some cases, the owner continues to violate and they are continually brought back before the enforcement board as a repeat violation.”

The Florida Legislature added to the misery of towns like Indian Rocks Beach, Clearwater and other beach towns in Pinellas when they voted in 2011 to preempt local governments’ ability to prohibit or restrict the use, classification or occupancy of short-term rentals.

However, that didn’t mean towns like Indian Rocks Beach could not write codes to mitigate the effects of short-term rentals on neighborhoods, Indian Rocks City Attorney Randy Mora told the Beacon.

So, in January, the town passed an ordinance requiring short-term rental owners to obtain a Florida Department of Revenue certificate for collecting tourism development taxes, a state Business and Professional Regulation transient public lodging and a town business tax receipt document.

But short-term rentals continue to irritate residents in the town.

Several residents complained about short-term rentals in their residential neighborhoods before the Indian Rocks Beach City Commission’s May 14 meeting. One resident of 26 years, Bonnie Sullivan, said short-term rentals were a “sad reality” in changing the city.

“We face a dilemma — do we want to sell our property?” Sullivan complained to the commission.

John Pfanstiehl told commissioners he knows several people who have moved out of Indian Rocks Beach rather than live next door to short-term rental properties.

Indian Rocks Beach Finance Director Dan Carpenter said the city has been aggressively enforcing the city’s rules requiring state licenses and tax receipts.

“I’ve personally seen stacks of letters going out to homeowners who are in violation of our codes,” Carpenter said. “We actively seek people who are advertising their homes. If they don’t have the business tax receipt or a sign with the business tax receipt number on their website, they get a letter from code enforcement to comply.”

The threat of fines has worked, he said.

“Though there are very few people purposefully not wanting to comply, some we have had to educate how to comply. We’ve had a flood of people to City Hall registering their short-term rentals,” he said. “Just short of 100 people have come in since January.”

The city hasn’t exercised liens and other tough financial penalties, but “we’re probably not far from doing that to those who aren’t in compliance,” he said.