I was despondent about the City Council decision last week to ignore calls to ban whole-house short-term rentals. Instead, the council said it’s comfy with allowing absentee landlords to Airbnb them for up to 90 days a year.
So I met with my Libertarian friend, Gary Rand, to try to look on the bright side.
We met at Mimi’s in the Marigny, which is where he hangs out since Bootie’s in the Bywater closed. He likes bars that put the name of their trendy neighborhood right up there on the sign. I had suggested my usual haunt, St. Roch Tavern, since that also has the neighborhood name in it, but he said the beer selection was weak — fewer than 20 hoppy microbrews on tap falls below market standard. He also warned me about going anywhere behind the new St. Roch Market. “Good luck trying to get an Uber back there!” he chortled.
We bellied up to the bar and I got an Ugly Bastard Organic Molasses I.P.A. It was 10 bucks, but he was buying. “Aren’t you worried about Airbnb making it impossible for regular people to live and work in New Orleans?” I asked him.
“Dude, you’re looking at it the wrong way,” he assured me. “New Orleans is just resistant to change. Platforms like Airbnb give us just as much opportunity as challenges. We need to embrace the new, and we’re doing that. New Orleans is on Creative Capitalist Magazine’s top 10 list of innovative extractors of wealth. Instead of whining about getting left behind, we need to get in front and lead.”
“But how can somebody do that if they can’t find a place they can afford to rent?”
“Great example. Instead of whining about not being able to afford the rent, people need to buy up properties and start building their portfolio.”
Gary knows what he’s talking about. With a small loan from his parents in Connecticut he was able to buy some wrecked houses after Hurricane Katrina that he converted into artist lofts. He’s very proud of the work he put in to rebuild the city and make it a lure for creative talent from around the country.
“But Councilman Jared Brosset says it could erode the character of our neighborhoods,” I pressed.
“Great point,” he conceded. “We do need to be wary of that. Local people are part of our brand, even though they’re sometimes a drain on our resources. But the good news is that you can become local really fast here in New Orleans, because the locals are so friendly and easy to imitate!
“Alternative Travel Magazine listed New Orleans in the top 10 for people who are eccentric but also friendly and cooperative. We want to keep New Orleans weird, but we need to do it like Austin does, like, weird in a way that’s fun for visitors and not scary or put-offish.
“Like, how Whole Foods is alternative but also high-quality and with a price point that discourages troublemakers and people who are just depressing to be around because they can never afford anything.”
I asked, “But if eccentric locals can’t afford to live here anymore, will the tourists still want to come? How will they do their — what’s it called? — ‘people watching’?”
Gary also writes a travel blog. It’s called “How to Not Look Like a Tourist.” He knows how to walk the walk. He was wearing a cap from a coffee shop in Asheville, N.C., and a T-shirt from a snowboard shop in Park City, Utah. His shoes were limited-edition New Orleans-themed Nikes. He’s given lots of tips to New Orleans visitors, like don’t wear beads when it’s not Mardi Gras, and be sure to bad-mouth Bourbon Street. His latest post added Frenchmen Street to the list of places to loudly complain about.
“The City Council needs to get creative about how we can preserve the city’s character,” he continued. “But that doesn’t mean caving in to the people who aren’t directly contributing to brand development and brand sustainability. Nobody comes here to see some boring normal-looking schoolteacher or nurse or bus driver or whatever. It’s about focusing on the ‘culture bearers,’ giving them a way to capitalize on their authenticity.”
“But where are the culture bearers supposed to live? If an absentee landlord can rent a whole house for up to 90 days, how can they also rent it out to a local who needs a renewable lease of a year or more?”
“Dude, you’re the one being conservative,” he retorted. “It’s called the ‘sharing economy’ for a reason. It’s called ‘house sharing.’ People need to learn to share. It’s especially selfish for people living in New Orleans’ old neighborhoods to refuse to share their housing with others. New Orleans is a national treasure. It belongs to everyone.”
“But how can somebody live in a house if they have to give it up for a tourist three months out of the year?”
“You need to be more creative. Old solutions are not going to work for the 21st century. Consider the wisdom of the market: When do most tourists come to visit?”
“What? Mardi Gras? Jazz Fest?”
He guffawed. “You’re thinking too small! That’s the problem with you old-fashioned socialist types. Always wanting to shut down the energy of the marketplace. New Orleans is a draw all year round now, even in summer, with festivals every weekend!”
“So we can’t live here at all?”
“Not what I said. I agree with the council’s 90-day limit. But people wouldn’t rent out for three months in a row; they would probably Airbnb their properties on the weekends mostly. See?”
“That means traditional renters could still occupy the properties during the week.”
“What would they do on the weekend?”
“Lots of possibilities there. Let’s brainstorm. The city could use tax revenues generously shared by the platforms to build temporary housing units in New Orleans East. Culture bearers could use them for the weekend, with a special shuttle to get them to their jobs while they’re out there. During the week they could maintain the properties they used to call home.
“Maybe the wealth creators — the property owners — could be induced to help the locals even more by renting their units below market value on weekdays, like, say $1,500 a month instead of $2,500. It would be worth it because the people without enough money could help keep things authentic.
“New Orleans needs its locals! They know what little knick-knacks and hot sauces and stuff to stock so that the apartment seems like a real New Orleans place, not some hotel for tourists. And — who knows? — forward-thinking home sharers could also maybe keep, like, a little back room or outbuilding to house the culture bearers on site. That way the guests could have, like, a real local on the stoop to greet them and help them get situated.
“But remember, a large homeless population isn’t quite so bad here as it would look in other places. The homeless just need to stay upbeat about it. They’re part of the scenery, too!”
Gary started crooning a Gershwin song, “I got plenty o’ nothing, and nothing’s plenty for me-ee”.
Like that, see? “It’s all about having the right attitude. That way our visitors won’t be made to feel uncomfortable. Basically we need to license the locals and monitor them to make sure that, you know, when they’re hipping visitors to out-of-the-way bars that only locals know about, or just acting weird on the streetcar, that they don’t take it too far.”
I asked him about muggers, about whether our reputation for crime was also a part of our brand that we wanted to continue to promote. He said it could be done as long as tourists didn’t actually get hurt. To witness some locals having a catfight or shooting at each other — it might be the perfect nightcap after an adventurous evening on the town.
“All part of gettin’ wild on the weekend, yeah you right!” He slapped me on the back and winked.
I had never thought of all these ramifications of short-term whole-house rentals. That’s why I always go to Gary when capitalism’s creative disruptiveness — Mother Nature’s economic system — gets me down. He’s a real creative guy. He’s designed lots of local microbrew names and labels, like “Big Easy Misery,” just voted the sourest triple-hopped gutbucket ale in the Deep South by Hop Hip, an influential beer blog. I think he also helped design the New Orleans-themed décor at the Starbucks on Canal and St. Charles.
I wanted to talk more but he got an urgent text. Airbnb guests were arriving at a property of his in Desire Garden, a former housing project where he’d managed to wangle a market-rate unit. He wanted to get over there to spin an old Meters L.P. on the vintage turntable and put on a costume — show them what New Orleans is all about. “I love sharing my city with people from all over the world!” he beamed.
With that, he hopped on his custom titanium bicycle and sped off, turning his head to shout one last piece of advice: “Relax, man! Enjoy the revolution!”
C.W. Cannon’s next novel, “French Quarter Beautification Project,” is now available for pre-order at Lavender Ink/Dialogos Press. He teaches “New Orleans Myths and Legends” and other courses at Loyola University.