Land Use
 

‘This Airbnb displaced 5 people’: Here’s the story behind that photo that spread on Facebook

April Leigh

April Leigh used to live in this house. As the busiest tourist season of the year approached, she said she wanted vacationers to know how short-term rentals are changing the neighborhood. So she spray-painted this message.

The charming double shotgun on Josephine Street is ideal for your New Orleans getaway. Located in up-and-coming Central City, just blocks from the Mardi Gras parade routes and a few minutes’ drive from Bourbon Street, the historic home has been lovingly renovated and freshly painted.

Harper Richards could tell you what a great house it was; she lived there for two years and put more than $1,000 into it. That was before her landlord told her to leave and turned it into an Airbnb.

“I got this specific apartment because I thought I was going to live there with my daughter for years and years and years,” Richards said in an interview.

April Leigh’s Facebook post was shared hundreds of times. Her spray-painted message was removed later in the week.

Last year, she, her roommate and her one-year-old daughter Montgomery were kicked out of her half of the double. On the other side, April Leigh and her boyfriend at the time were kicked out as well.

Earlier this week, Leigh spray-painted a message on the sidewalk in front of her old home on the 2100 block of Josephine Street: “This Airbnb displaced 5 people.” She posted it to Facebook, where it was shared widely.

Central City is one of the more popular neighborhoods for Airbnb in the city, according to an analysis conducted last year by The Lens and HuffPost.

As the busiest tourist season of the year approached, Leigh said she wanted vacationers to know how short-term rentals are changing the neighborhood. (And yes, she knows it’s illegal to vandalize a city sidewalk.)

“Now both sides are an Airbnb and I thought I might let the outta towners know… #welcometonola #happymardigras,” she wrote on Facebook.

It’s difficult to know how many New Orleans residents have been displaced because their landlords wanted to cash in on the city’s tourist trade. But stories like this aren’t hard to come by.

Airbnbs are concentrated in the city’s hottest neighborhoods

In late 2016, the New Orleans City Council passed a law legalizing and regulating short-term rentals. Starting in April, people who want to rent their properties on Airbnb and similar platforms had to get a license.

As of this week, the city has issued more than 4,000 licenses, and it’s possible unlicensed properties are being rented out, too.

Airbnb can be lucrative. Most places in the city cost $100 to $200 per night, but tourists pay a premium during major events like Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. Some large homes go for thousands of dollars per night.

Most full homes and apartments can be rented a maximum of 90 days a year. Doubles with an owner on-site or homes in mixed-use or commercial zoning districts can be rented every day of the year.

In the Marigny, next to the French Quarter, one in 10 residences are registered as Airbnbs.* In the Central Business District, which is seeing a boom in luxury condos, about 6 percent of residential addresses are licensed for short-term rentals.

Airbnbs are concentrated in the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, particularly those along the river. Many parts of town have become richer and whiter since Hurricane Katrina, particularly those neighborhoods.

Airbnb critics say residents are being pushed out as property owners trade reliable income from long-term tenants with greater, if less certain, income from tourists. Proponents say Airbnb provides homeowners and renters with extra cash to pay the rising costs of living in New Orleans.

Residents trade places with tourists

For our story last fall, The Lens and HuffPost spoke to two people who said they had been evicted so their landlords could convert their homes to Airbnbs. Soon after, we spoke with a woman whose Lower Garden District rental was converted to a full-time Airbnb for half the year.

This week, we spoke with the former occupants of the house on Josephine and a tenant in a four-unit Bywater apartment building that will soon become a year-round Airbnb.

“Now we’re just getting to the point where 25 percent of the people I know have gone through some sort of situation like this,” Richards said.

Leigh owns a laundromat on Carondelet Street, not far from her old house on Josephine. She moved to the neighborhood about seven years ago in part because it was affordable. She paid $650 per month most of the time she lived there; Richards paid $750 for her half of the house.

They said it was hard to find something they could afford when they left the house last year.

In March of last year, her longtime landlord sold the house to a company called NOLA Touro St. LLC for $207,000. Compare that to 2014, when Leigh said a friend of hers bought a renovated shotgun house around the corner for $115,000.

Studies about the impact of short-term rentals on housing costs have varied. But Leigh said she thinks short-term rentals are behind the rising rents in her neighborhood.

“In three years, nothing changed, except Airbnb came to town,” she said.

Charles Maldonado / The Lens

Three of the five former residents of the house on Josephine: Harper Richards (left) holding her daughter Montgomery, and April Leigh. They occupied both sides of a shotgun double in Central City. Now it’s an Airbnb.

Even before that, real estate prices in the city had been rising for years. The Data Center reported that as of 2016, 35 percent of New Orleans renters were “severely cost-burdened,” meaning they spent more than half of their household income on rent. That rose from 24 percent of renters in 2004.

Lauren Elizabeth Wells is the registered agent for the house’s current owner, NOLA Touro St.

Her name is on the Airbnb license for 2109 Josephine St. The license holder for 2111 is Tony Detre. Both list the same California phone number. (No one answered when we called.)

Wells holds a license for another short-term rental on Marais Street near Franklin Avenue, according to city records.

She toured the Josephine Street house early last year, asking the tenants to stand outside while she looked at it, Richards said.

Richards said she asked that day if she would need to find a new place. She said Wells told her she’d get back to her.

In March, both women got an email from NOLA Touro saying the owner “intends to undergo major renovations … which require a vacant property.” They had 45 days to leave. They were told their last month’s rent would be refunded once they left and the property had been inspected.

In October, Wells and Detre applied for their short-term rental licenses.

Meanwhile in the Bywater…

Sue Ward has lived in her Poland Avenue apartment since 2014.* It’s a utilitarian building, right next to a train track. But she pays $800 per month, a good deal for an apartment in the expensive Bywater neighborhood.

Her apartment has “no New Orleans charm,” she said, but it’s “close to the bus lines and affordable to people in the service industry.”

Soon, possibly in the next month or two, Ward and her boyfriend will have to find a new place. So will her only remaining neighbor in the four-unit building.

Lisa Morgani, whose company Morgani Properties bought the building in late 2016, told The Lens she intended from the start to convert the apartments into full-time, short-term rentals. Two apartments are already licensed and operating.

Ward said her landlord hasn’t told her about those plans, which Morgani acknowledged. “If she’s concerned about it, she should have called me herself to ask what’s her day to get out,” Morgani said.

One of the apartments was already empty. Morgani said she evicted another tenant late last year for not paying rent. All the tenants in the building have been on month-to-month arrangements after their old leases expired last year.

This week, Morgani said, she told another tenant, Wayne Wheeler, he will soon have to leave. She said she offered him a place to stay while he finds new housing.

Ward said Wheeler, who works at a hotel, has lived in the building for more than a decade.

Morgani explained that the rent at the building is too low and said her tenants were frequently late with their rent.

“They’ve been riding on the low rent,” she said. “You’re not going to find an apartment in the Bywater that nice for $800.”

Good tenants, but not enough income

Samantha Glatstein contacted The Lens last fall with her story. At the time, she was about to leave her rental house at 722 Josephine Street in the Lower Garden District, where she and several roommates had lived for about two years.

Her landlord, Hampton Myers, told her they would have to move out because he wanted to use the house for short-term rentals. Glatstein said Myers was fair about it; he gave them several months’ notice and ultimately agreed to pay them for their trouble.

Still, she said, the situation was frustrating, and she was unable to find a nearby place that she could afford.

“I decided, as a direct result of this, that I am leaving the state because I am sort of fed up,” she said last fall.

Now she’s in Denver.

Myers, who has short-term rental licenses for eight properties around the city, said he was happy with his tenants in the house, particularly Glatstein.

But he made just a few hundred dollars each month in profit from the house when it had long-term tenants. He thought he could do better, especially in such a desirable neighborhood.

Myers believes short-term rentals can cause rents to rise. His license allows him to rent the property to tourists for up to 90 days a year. He’s holding to that, renting the property through short-term platforms during the busiest tourist months of the year, October to May.

He plans to offer three-to-six month leases for the rest of the year. He said he knows of plenty of short-term rental operators who are going well beyond that 90-day limit, with few, if any, repercussions.

“The sad reality is that there are so many cheaters in the Airbnb space,” he said. The city has only “regulated Airbnb on paper.”

The city hears cases of short-term rental violations on a nearly weekly basis, according to online records. As of last fall, the city had issued about 1,200 violation notices and collected $217,000 in fines.

Myers said the real cause of rising rents is city policy limiting density in historic neighborhoods. If those were lifted, he said, the additional capacity would reduce rent in the long-term.

Besides, he said, he and other short-term rental operators have invested in their properties, unlike the owners of blighted properties throughout the city.

“There’s many more homes in New Orleans that are vacant than are being used for Airbnb,” he said. “We never villainize the slumlords, but we do villainize folks like me.”

*Corrections: Due to a production error, this story originally stated that 1 in 10 residences in the Quarter are Airbnbs. That figure is for Faubourg Marigny, next to the Quarter. The story also misstated how long Sue Ward has lived in her apartment. Both errors have been corrected. (Feb. 10, 2018)

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About Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado covers the city of New Orleans and other local government bodies. He previously worked for Gambit, New Orleans’ alternative newsweekly, where he covered city hall, criminal justice and public health. Before moving to New Orleans, he covered state and local government for weekly papers in Nashville and Knoxville, Tenn.