In London, a few years ago, along a lush residential avenue known as “Billionaire’s Row,” I became aware of a curious phenomenon. The mansions on the row, some of the most desirable “residential” real estate in England, were selling in the tens of millions of pounds. But nobody was actually living in them. Instead, wealthy businessmen and foreign investors were using the houses as a form of “land banking,” buying them up as convenient places to park (and perhaps launder) money. Billionaire’s Row was becoming a ghost town.
People buying up property they rarely use is not uncommon in an age of extreme wealth inequality.We’re beginning to see a less pricey version of it right here in New Orleans, and it’s long since time we did something about it.
Wander through the residential half of the French Quarter, where I live, and you’ll see rows of closed shutters. In other words, many of our “residents” don’t actually do much residing. More and more of the Quarter is owned by people who use their holdings at most a few times a year, otherwise leaving them empty or renting them out illegally through bed-and-breakfast services. In the fully-leased Lower Pontalba building on Jackson Square, for example, there were only three full-time residents as of 2015, according to one of them.
Decades have passed since either Pontalba was an option for low-income New Orleanians, but in a city where affordable housing is already hard to come by, under-occupancy in gentrified neighborhoods has a spillover effect. Every home that people choose to leave empty decreases the housing supply, driving up rents. A restricted supply might be appealing to landlords, but it causes economic hardship among New Orleanians who actually need a place to live.
And it also slowly destroys neighborhoods. I recently toured a condo for sale in a lovely building on St. Philip Street. I was alarmed when the realtor told me that most of the building was uninhabited much of the time. If I made the condo my home, I would be living in an empty shell, with few neighbors.
It should go without saying that having a vibrant and flourishing community depends on having people live in that community. Every empty housing unit makes the people around it less safe. “Eyes on the street” are a critical deterrent to criminal activity. Desolate streets lack the protection that comes with people relaxing and chatting on porches, stoops, and balconies.
An under-occupied residential infrastructure also hollows out nearby commerce and services. A corner store dependent on foot traffic shrivels and dies when fewer and fewer neighbors are walking by.
Owners of uninhabited properties aren’t breaking a law. But they are imposing a penalty on those around them by eroding the character and safety of the “neighborhood.” I believe it’s time we imposed a financial penalty for their doing so. Property rights are not unlimited; they end where what you do to your property infringes on the well-being of neighbors and the city at large. It’s why we don’t let people demolish historic homes. It’s why zoning rules forbid your turning your front lawn into a commercial junkyard or 24/7 drive-through daiquiri stand.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say that houses ought to be lived in, and that a ghost town is no town at all. It should be even less controversial in a place with great need for more and cheaper housing.
It’s perfectly reasonable, then, to look for ways to increase genuine residential occupancy. No condo owner can be denied the right to absent herself from the property at will. But the city is entirely within its rights to require that the owner’s tax bill reflect the “negative externality” that their absence inflicts on others. Owners are still free to do as they please: live in a place, rent it out, or leave it empty. But leaving it empty must come with a price tag, because of the damage it does.
It’s the flip side of the Homestead Exemption, the tax break that favors those who make a New Orleans property their primary residence. Yes, monitoring occupancy is partly — but not entirely — an honor system. But if increasingly computerized government records show that you are claiming a second homestead, you are breaking the law and can lose your exemption. The restoration of postal service proved to be a good index to the revival of residential neighborhoods after Katrina. Utility bills are another way to explore a neighbor’s complaints that a property is, in fact, empty most of the time.
More creatively, the city could send a postcard to each residence on a random day every six months, stipulating that it be sent back within a specified period of time. There will be ways to get around every system, of course. But that’s true with any ordinance; the point is that a principle must be established, and the costs of absenteeism must be raised.
More of the people who own property in our communities need to be part of these communities, or rent to someone who is. I love my neighborhood. I love my neighbors. But I sure wish I had more of them.
Nathan Robinson, a doctoral candidate in social policy at Harvard University, is the editor of Current Affairs, a New Orleans-based magazine of political analysis.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.