A yard sign links short-term, whole-house rentals to the lack of affordable housing in New Orleans. Credit: The Urban Conservancy

Last week, New York became the latest of several states and cities in the U.S. and abroad to pass restrictive laws drastically curtailing short-term rental (STR) activity by absentee owners. New York’s move was a bid to rein in what is recognized as a threat to housing affordability.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the Landrieu administration’s version of the short-term rental amendments passed 6-1 — Councilmember Jared Brossett cast the lone “no” vote — with loopholes so big you could drive a whole-house rental through them. Several, actually.

Airbnb and other home-sharing platforms like VRBO and HomeAway have been making their presence felt increasingly in New Orleans and other tourist destinations. They have left municipalities scrambling to update regulatory language to address the proliferation of STRs that are not licensed B&B’s.

Since January, City Planning staff, the City Planning Commission, the administration, and the City Council have been debating whether to permit, in residential areas, the short-term rental of whole houses not occupied by their owners. The alternative is to limit STRs to residences that qualify for a homestead exemption.

The nine-member advisory City Planning Commission has expressed steadfast opposition to the conversion of entire houses into STRs. In doing so it has been in step with prevailing public opinion, but at odds with recommendations put forth by the City Planning staff, the Landrieu administration and now the City Council.

I didn’t have the opportunity to speak last Thursday, but in the end, I don’t think anything I or anyone else in the standing-room-only crowd had to say would have swayed the council. They appeared predetermined to vote in favor of the amendments allowing whole-house rentals by absentee owners.

From where I sat, I saw a room full of deeply concerned people with strong opinions about the corrosive effect absentee-owned STRs have on neighborhood cohesiveness and housing availability.

What I would have shared were the comments of Becky, a disillusioned housekeeper in my neighborhood — not the Marigny, or Bywater, or the French Quarter, or the Garden District, but less trendy Carrollton. After two years of first-hand experience, Becky has discontinued providing her services to absentee owners who rent to Airbnb customers, because the owners do not properly manage the property; they use her, the housekeeper, as their surrogate “manager” to deal with the overflowing garbage and frequent damage to the structure, furniture, appliances, and plumbing.

Neighbors put up with late parties and unruly guests because they don’t know whom to call, since the “host” who is presumably accountable for the bad behavior of the “guests” is not on-site, and usually not even in Louisiana.

“The owners are convinced that they are ‘ambassadors for NOLA’ and that they are providing jobs to housekeepers, gardeners, etc,” says Becky. “Those jobs would be provided by a homeowner anyway, and are not a result of Airbnb.”

Her  main concern, which I share, is community resilience and the quality of  neighborhood life. “Our neighbors make our neighborhoods livable,” is how Becky puts it. “Hotel accommodation is a commercial transaction and should be treated as such. Property owners should be protected from unwanted commercial operations in a residential zone.”

Becky correctly sees properties owned by absentee investors and rented out to tourists for short visits adversely affecting housing affordability and availability for those living paycheck to paycheck — which, ironically, describes the vast majority of those working in the tourism sector, one of the major drivers of the New Orleans economy.

Becky’s comments reflect values expressed in data the Urban Conservancy collected last November at a public panel discussion, Short Term Rentals: What Works for New Orleans. The data were shared with the city planning staff as they drafted their recommendations.  We surveyed attendees and asked what was of highest importance when considering a “workable regulatory framework” for STRs in New Orleans.

Three quarters (77 percent) of the respondents listed a host-in-residence requirement as “extremely important” or “important.”  Significantly, this was not an anti-STR sampling: 74 percent of the respondents had stayed in an STR; 46 percent were currently STR hosts or had hosted in the past; and 70 percent had considered hosting an STR.

Council President Stacy Head presents a straw-man argument in her “Response to the Oct. 20, 2016, City Council vote on Short-Term Rentals.” In it she she writes, “It would be politically expedient to vote ‘no STRs.’ The doomsday scenario painted by opponents has frightened many New Orleanians and such a vote would be the most popular.”

Casting the argument as one between “proponents” and alarmist “opponents” of STRs is a false dichotomy that serves as a distraction from the central issue. The conversation at present in New Orleans revolves around whether we create a system that requires STRs to be owner-occupied, or whether we also permit whole-house rentals by absentee owners.

The anguished boos in the council chamber on the 20th were not the wild-eyed cry of misguided fanatics calling for a ban on STRs. It was the indignant incredulity of a diverse group of people — black, white, rich, poor, young, old, representing every council district and different walks of life. Many of them have “conducted significant research into how other cities worldwide are working to regulate STRs,” to borrow the language Head used to describe the work her staff has done.

Research and first-hand experience like Becky’s led many in the audience to very different conclusions about the impact of whole-house rentals by absentee investors on the livability of our neighborhoods.

But efficient enforcement is a moot point if the amendments … make affordable housing even more unattainable for the very people who keep this city alive.

As I looked around the council chambers on Oct. 20, I tallied the thousands of dollars in parking fees paid and and work time sacrificed by people in the room, citizens who in good faith had prioritized dedicating several hours of their day to a public process, only to have legislation ramrodded through without any opportunity to review it in advance. Hard copies of the amendments to the recommendations were made available at the Council meeting — the first time the public had been allowed a look at them.

The citizens weren’t the only ones denied sufficient time to review the Administration’s amendments; the same was true for councilmembers, who got them shortly before the meeting.  Indeed, as the hearing got underway, Councilmember Susan Guidry’s staff was drafting an amendment that would have reinserted the owner-occupancy requirement for whole-house rentals. The hastily drawn amendment failed — as might be expected when bills are cobbled together at the eleventh hour. It’s unfair to everyone and undermines public confidence.

In the absence of transparency, we can only speculate about what drove Thursday’s outcome. Perhaps it was for expediency’s sake, to do something rather than nothing. Perhaps the council believes that whole houses constitute the bulk of short-term rental properties in New Orleans and if legalized, would pay for an enforcement program and generate city revenues. Perhaps it was a condition imposed by the booking platforms like Airbnb that hold the data that City Hall needs if rules are to be enforced effectively.

But efficient enforcement is a moot point if the amendments passed by the council on Oct. 20 make affordable housing even more unattainable for the very people who keep this city alive, including those working in tourism, our first responders, our culture bearers, and native New Orleanians just graduating from high school and college and entering the workforce.

Thursday’s vote was a preliminary consideration of proposed rules. Formal ordinances that codify the standards will require another round of approval from the council, but the 6-1 vote last week is an indicator that the council is ready to do the bidding of the STR industry. New Orleans will not be the first city to have taken the bait dangled by Airbnb with the expectation of a tax windfall, and it won’t be the last to strengthen restrictions on whole-house rentals once it realizes it’s been played by powerful interests.

Elected officials who circumvent public process are more likely to draft tone-deaf legislation that defies community sentiment and makes a mockery of citizen engagement in governance. A council chamber full of impassioned citizens clamoring for public policy that reflects the public will is an expression of hope, optimism and faith in the system.  It is far preferable to the silence of an empty chamber in a city where people no longer feel their opinion — or their presence — is valued.

Dana Eness is executive director of The Urban Conservancy

Dana Eness

Dana Eness is executive director of The Urban Conservancy.