MIAMI (AP) — Jose Gonzalez was walking his two sons to his car early one morning to drive them to school when he glanced across the street and had to do a double-take.
“It’s 7 in the morning and some guy is changing, opening the back of the trunk of his car, taking out his clothes, and pulling down his pants. He’s in a Speedo,” says Gonzalez. “I’m going, what the hell is this?”
It was a strange scene for The Roads, a cozy Miami enclave nestled between Coral Way, Brickell and Coconut Grove, where families help each other find lost dogs and Facebook about stray foxes, traffic and stranger danger. But Gonzalez and his neighbors say they noticed a change around the holidays: Cars with California and Colorado license plates dominated on-street spots, Ubers picked up stragglers with backpacks, and random men and women on Fourth Avenue drank from cans in brown paper bags.
It turns out a homeowner across the street had leased her gated two-story, white-washed house to a new tenant who makes her money renting out properties on Airbnb. While living upstairs in the master bedroom, Bonny Tejada turned the ground floor of the six-bed, five-bath house into a hostel, renting out beds and mattresses by the dozen for prices as low as $30 a night – an offer neighbors claim attracted hundreds to the home over just a few months.
The business helped Tejada pay her $6,500 monthly rent and then some – for a time. But it wasn’t long before the guests at 2301 SW Fourth Ave. stoked an uprising among neighbors, led to eviction proceedings and then a tax fraud investigation. The fiasco also thrust the property into the middle of a political dispute between Airbnb and Mayor Tomas Regalado, and turned it into a cautionary tale about when Airbnb goes bad.
“It was a nightmare,” says Alicia Perez, the homeowner.
By most accounts, what happened in The Roads is unusual.
As even neighbors who complained about Tejada’s tenure will attest, hosts who rent their properties through Airbnb are largely doing so sporadically to small numbers of people over a total of four or five weeks a year. Right now, about a dozen properties in the immediate neighborhood are listed on Airbnb. And while some have proved problematic in the past, few if any have generated the kind of frustration that stewed around Bonny Tejada’s ad hoc hostel.
But even Airbnb’s South Florida representatives – who this week convinced a judge to block Miami code officers from targeting their hosts – have acknowledged some problems with investment properties. And the months-long battle to rid The Roads of Tejada and her tenants illustrates how difficult it is for city government and even Airbnb to tackle problem cases.
“The city doesn’t have the tools to go after these people,” Katie Gant, president of the Miami Roads Neighborhood Civic Association, said in a recent interview. “In the meantime, we’re screwed.”
Problems started sometime after Tejada signed a lease with Perez back in August as she was being evicted from three South Beach apartments where, according to court documents, she was accused of running an illegal short-term rental business.
She agreed to a deposit of $32,500 – an amount she says was her “life savings.” Perez strongly disputes this, but Tejada says she was willing to invest the money in the property only because they agreed that she could casually sublease the house through Airbnb, a popular short-term rental platform.
For a while, neighbors like Gonzalez were in the dark. But late in the year, they noticed an uptick in traffic on their street, the sudden lack of parking options and strangers deemed suspicious enough to call police. Gonzalez says there weren’t any all-night ragers across the street, but the sheer volume of people and the clientele attracted by Tejada’s prices became problematic.
Guests began to look less like tourists and more like drifters.
“I was like, who are these shady dudes and chicks? They don’t belong in the neighborhood,” he said. “I think it became an Uber hot spot.”
By December, code enforcement was coming around, taking pictures. Neighbors, meanwhile, tracked the property online, where they said ads showed single beds going for as low as $28 a night. A code officer cited Perez, as the homeowner, for running an illegal business in a residential area and demanded that she stop the practice or face a lien on her property.
During a hearing last month before Miami’s code enforcement board, Perez said she’d been unaware of how Tejada was using the house until December, when neighbors contacted her to complain. But Tejada says the opposite was true.
“I rented with her permission,” Tejada said in an interview. “There was no alcohol. No drugs. No parties. People came to sleep, not party at the house.”
Airbnb, for its part, responded quickly to complaints by removing Tejada’s property from its platform. Gant, the homeowners president, says the home-sharing platform was responsive and did what it could to stop the problem.
“Airbnb has no tolerance for hosts who abuse the trust of their neighbors and within 24 hours of this issue being brought to our attention, we removed the listing from our platform,” spokesman Benjamin Breit wrote in an email, adding that the city’s stance against short-term rentals actually complicates efforts to crack down on problem properties. “In cities where the mayors are willing to work collaboratively with us, the process of removing occasional bad actors off the platform is significantly simpler and streamlined.”
In the end, it wasn’t Airbnb’s actions that ended the problem, nor the city’s citations, at least not directly. Though Tejada says her business slowed down once she was booted from Airbnb, she moved her ads to Craigslist and continued to rent out the house. It wasn’t until Perez convinced a judge to evict Tejada that the rentals stopped.
Still, the headaches continue for just about everyone involved in the fiasco.
Perez, after being cited by code enforcement, was investigated by the Miami-Dade property appraiser for tax fraud and slapped with a $63,661.31 bill last month. Perez paid the bill, but she says that was only to stop interest from ballooning while she contests the property appraiser’s findings. Neighbors blamed her for being a negligent landlord, but she says Tejada took advantage of her and trashed her home.
“It was disgusting. They used to collect mattresses from the street and put them inside the property,” she said. “Do you know how many mattresses I took out? I took like 10 mattresses out of my house. The day I went in to inspect my property they had 23 beds, including bunk beds. Every time I think about it, it makes me cry.”
Tejada, who spoke to the Miami Herald shortly after she was, in her words, “wrongly evicted,” was scrambling to find a new place to live and make money. She says stories about her running a flop house aren’t true.
“I do this for a living and I still have to pay my bills. I have a baby,” she said. “What do I do now?”
Meanwhile, in the wake of the uproar over rentals in The Roads and other neighborhoods around the city, Mayor Regalado pushed for a political vote last month that led to a contentious hearing at City Hall. Afterward, the city threatened to go after hosts who spoke during the hearing and identified themselves by address and name.
Airbnb filed a lawsuit. On Wednesday, Judge Beatrice Butchko issued a temporary restraining order blocking the city from citing homeowners for illegal short-term rentals. After the hearing, Regalado promised to loop her into the regulatory process.
“If I get complaints,” said Regalado, “I’ll send them to Judge Butchko.”