Airbnb says local hosts made $8.8 million from roughly 64,800 guest arrivals in 2017.
That’s a pretty penny. But what was St. Johns County’s take?
The county has no agreement with the California-based hospitality giant regarding the collection and remitting of bed tax, but that doesn’t mean the county has no other recourse.
County Attorney Patrick McCormack told The Record on Friday these taxes are still due and can still be collected.
“There’s not a requirement to have a contract or an agreement with Airbnb to collect these,” he said. “These property owners are liable to pay for those.”
Four percent of the $8.8 million figure provided by Airbnb works out to just over $350,000.
A search on Airbnb’s website for two guests, anytime, in St. Johns County yields 300-plus results, which include entire homes and apartments, or private rooms and suites — even sailboats. But it’s unclear what the “plus” in “300-plus” means. Additionally, addresses for the properties listed are not provided until booked.
Search results for listings in the county indicate an average nightly price of $162 with options well below and above that price point. Applying the 4 percent bed tax to the average works out to about $6.48 per night that should be remitted to the county.
St. Johns County Tax Collector Dennis Hollingsworth didn’t have any figures at the ready on Friday regarding how many Airbnb-listed properties (or other properties listed with other sharing-economy sites) have been identified in St. Johns County or how much those properties have paid. He told The Record that most of the property owners his office has gotten in touch with have been cooperative and interested in doing things “the right way.”
The county had considered joining a class action suit to be brought by some Florida counties against Airbnb in 2016, but was ultimately not a party to that litigation, which is essentially seeking a requirement for Airbnb to disclose information on participating properties and other specifics to ensure proper collection and use of local bed taxes.
“We have an accountability issue here,” McCormack said. “You want to know where that money is coming from.”
Airbnb is authorized to collect and pay the state sales tax on all bookings in Florida. The company also collects and pays local bed taxes in 39 counties. In 2017 alone, Airbnb secured new tax agreements with six counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Sarasota, Polk, Hillsborough and Leon.
In counties with agreements, hosts collect and pay nothing and Airbnb collects and remits the taxes, paid by guests as part of their reservation, on their behalf, but without providing backup to counties on where that money is coming from. Elsewhere, it’s up to the host to make sure they’re on proper footing with the local taxing authorities.
Hollingsworth said his main concern is being fair and equitable, which he said is something he can’t guarantee in lieu of any backup for Airbnb or other sharing-economy companies.
He said someone with a homestead exemption could be renting out a room and not telling anyone and not paying the tax (and keeping his or her exemption fully intact), whereas someone else with a homestead exemption who is renting out a room but playing by the rules could be paying the tax and losing all or a part of his or her exemption.
“They refuse to provide the identifying information of the taxpayers they’re collecting for,” Hollingsworth said of Airbnb. “That’s just not fair. If I’m renting and don’t pay and you’re renting and pay, then what kind of tax collector do we have if he’s turning his head and not being fair and equitable by all?”
He said other Florida counties seem to have accepted Airbnb’s terms with a better-than-nothing attitude.
“My attitude is, I like a good fight,” Hollingsworth said. “We need to meet on mutual grounds and either the legislators can change the law so that everyone’s being treated fair or make (the Florida Department of Revenue) comply with the law that’s already on the books.”
Both Hollingsworth and McCormack said the county is looking at ways to work around the barriers. They talked about the possibility of hiring a third party vendor to track down the information, if the price is right. As Hollingsworth said, if companies are looking for as much as $100,000 or so to provide the information the county needs to make sure it’s properly collecting a couple hundred thousand dollars, is it worth the trouble?
“You’re darned if you do, darned if you don’t with some of these positions,” he said. “But I’m trying to do what’s fair by everyone.”
Hollingsworth and McCormack said while Airbnb has garnered agreements with 39 counties, that leaves St. Johns County in the same boat with more than two dozen other counties including Monroe, Palm Beach and Bay counties as well as nearby counties such as Duval and Volusia. (Flagler County’s bed tax, as well as that of 23 other counties, is administered by the state, which has an agreement with the company.)
Airbnb does say on its website some hosts are required by their local regulations to charge a tax.
“We recommend they include the tax in the price of the reservation, but some may require the tax to be paid directly upon check-in,” the company says. “We ask that hosts explain any taxes they may be required to collect in their listing description and their communication with guests prior to booking.”
“In some locations, Airbnb has made agreements with government officials to collect and remit certain local taxes on behalf of hosts,” the company continues. “The taxes vary … When you book a listing in one of these locations, the local taxes collected will be displayed automatically when you pay and appear on your receipt once your reservation is confirmed.”
In the meantime, it doesn’t appear the hospitality giant is going anywhere anytime soon.
Altogether, the state’s Airbnb hosts earned $450 million from 2.7 million guest arrivals in 2017, marking a significant increase over last year’s figures. Miami-Dade County, where hosts made $134.6 million, saw the highest number of guest arrivals in 2017, at 667,200.
According to the company, there are now nearly 40,000 Floridians sharing their homes or vacation rentals through Airbnb, with hosts earning an average of $6,700 annually.