The “hotelization” of New Orleans; city planners question Airbnb
Gambit Weekly | Alex Woodward
June 15, 2016

Sometime this year, New Orleans will likely begin legalizing short-term rentals, creating some kind of framework for permitting and taxing properties on websites like Airbnb. It’s been a long, drawn-out debate among residents feeling the squeeze from increasingly tourist-filled neighborhoods, Airbnb operators trying to make a buck, indecisive city officials and departments, and now hotel operators, who fear not only losing business but the hospitality industry itself, pushed further from the heart of the city, unable to afford it.

And despite continued objections from many residents, the City Planning Commission (CPC) and members of the New Orleans City Council, the city planning staff keeps floating the legalization of renting out entire homes — “principal” residential short-term rentals — per the request of Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration. The CPC’s June 14 meeting was set to vote on those staff recommendations for changes to the city’s Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance, but the Landrieu administration requested moving the vote. The CPC agreed to move it to Aug. 9, which could mean a vote could come from the City Council, who has the final say on policy, as early as Aug. 11.

A packed crowd inside City Council Chambers on June 14 stuck through several hours of comments, mostly coming from residents from the Garden District and French Quarter and representatives from the city’s hotel and tourism industry. Commissioners largely agreed Airbnb’s creep could deal a crushing blow to the city if not legislated, enforced or regulated properly. “This is an emotional and complicated issue,” said CPC Chair Kyle Wedberg, “This is a hyper-local issue. It happens house by house, block by block, neighbor by neighbor. … An issue that’s not only vital for us to solve but vital for us to get right.”

New Orleans is an increasingly difficult place for renters to afford.  And while the city debates short-term rentals this week, it’s also welcoming more than 1,000 people in the “travel buying” business to New Orleans for the first time since before Hurricane Katrina. Tourists outweigh residents at about 25 to 1 (and much, much higher in the French Quarter), but with the city’s looming tricentennial boondoggle race to complete a stack of citywide projects by 2018, it’s looking to bring in more than 13 million visitors to the city, tipping the scales to 33 visitors for every one resident.

Data-scraping watchdog site Inside Airbnb lists more than 4,000 Airbnb rentals in New Orleans. More than 70 percent are entire homes or apartments, and more than half of the operators list more than one property (and “are unlikely to be living in the property, and in violation of most short term rental laws designed to protect residential housing,” according to the website). The city’s laws prohibiting those types of rentals, already on the books, have largely been unenforced — the city even recommends the film industry book them.

Speaking at the meeting, Airbnb operators — many of whom gave the address of their rentals — said they’re “ambassadors” to the city and have helped direct money into the local economy while adding income to help with rising property taxes and account for quality of life in a city with stagnant incomes. Operators painted a map of Airbnb across the city, from an artist in Pontchartrain Park to a former New Yorker who operates an Airbnb in the Marigny to help with the mortgage (“Airbnb is the way of the future. My generation loves that feeling of being at home when we travel”) to a 7th Ward resident renting four rooms (“We could have roommates but they would have cars, parties”). One woman from St. Roch said an employee from the Housing Authority of New Orleans suggested she turn one of her properties into a short-term rental (she did).

Hotel operators and bed and breakfast owners, who have urged the city for several years to place Airbnb operators on an even-playing field with hotel-motel-tax-paying businesses, can’t compete with short-term rental rates. And hotels and other hospitality workers could suffer — Ann Tuennerman with Tales of the Cocktail, an event deliberately held in July to support a slow hospitality season, shared a statement from Erin Rose bar manager Rhiannon Enlil, whose landlord gave her an eviction notice and told her the apartment would be listed instead on Airbnb. Tales of the Cocktail also posted a statement to Facebook asking the industry visiting for the event this summer to avoid the website: “Everyone wants the best deal they can find, but sometimes the best deal results in an exceptionally rotten deal for everyone else. We employ you: help us keep locals in their homes and guests visiting our city in the many beautiful and hospitable hotels and B&Bs New Orleans has to offer.”

Enlil isn’t alone. Viral Facebook posts about evictions-turned-Airbnbs, testimonies at City Council meetings and reports from housing organizations paint an increasingly bleak picture for renters in which there’s nothing preventing landlords from kicking out tenants and turning properties into potentially more-lucrative Airbnbs. (One Airbnb operator said short-term renting makes better financial sense because renters “destroy your property.”) Residents also fear block-by-block takeovers replacing residential areas with de facto hotels. Commissioner Royce Duplessis, following more than three hours of public comment from speakers representing hotels and the Garden District, pointed out “a lack of advocacy on behalf of poor people” at the meeting.

“Where’s the advocacy of people who can’t take off the entire day to be here?” he said. “Where are the advocates for people struggling to survive in this city?”

Commissioners also noted that if the meeting had been about affordable housing, the crowd’s makeup would’ve looked much different. But some confusion over whether the issue was pushed off the agenda may have prevented people from attending, despite weeks of hype from the parties involved. On July 13, the Landrieu administration said the CPC “will not vote” on the rules and would defer a vote to a future meeting: “Mayor Landrieu supports a robust public discussion on the impact of short-term rentals in New Orleans and we look forward to working with the New Orleans City Council on a legalization and enforcement policy that is balanced and makes sense.” The CPC kept the issue on the agenda for public input.

Commissioners will likely look to more testimony and reports from the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance (GNOHA) and the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which fear too much investment in short-term rental enforcement endangers what’s left of the long-term market, which is overwhelmingly in disrepair. Only one housing organization was present at yesterday’s hearing. Breonne DeDecker with Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, also a member of the GNOHA, linked whole-home rentals to the city’s affordability crisis and called for the city to also expand tenants’ rights (which are virtually nonexistent).

Many Airbnb opponents have agreed to some kind of compromise: people can rent out half of a double or part of a duplex on Airbnb provided that the owner also live on the other half. Opponents also called the CPC to preserve an already-in-place ban on short-term rentals in the Garden District and to add one for new rentals in the Quarter.

“New Orleans’ cultural capital is its only capital,” said Peter Morris. “If left unchecked, the short-term rental epidemic is like an invisible I-10 through our neighborhoods. Just as destructive and just as soulless.”

Funrock’n and Pop City owner Rhonda Finley told commissioners that if the displacement of voters and taxpayers and “real neighbors who care about the city” isn’t “enough to turn your stomach, think about this: you now live in Metairie.”

In his closing remarks, Commissioner Nolan Marshall said, “These things that make a good city for New Orleanians, we have to do those things before we do them for tourists.”

“What we’re facing here,” he said, “it has the potential to have a devastating effect on the city as we know it.”