Land Use

New Orleans City Council to consider limited rollback on Airbnb licenses

The New Orleans City Council advanced a proposal Thursday to limit the number of apartments that can be offered in a single building year-round on Airbnb. It’s the first legislative step to curtail short-term rentals since they were legalized at the end of 2016.

The proposal would create a “soft cap” on the number of commercial, short-term rental licenses in multi-unit buildings in some parts of the city.

“We are seeing too many home-to-hotel conversions” in multi-unit buildings, said Councilwoman and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, who offered the proposal.

There are about 4,300 Airbnb licenses in the city. In the hottest neighborhoods, residents complain they’re being pushed out as property owners and landlords convert long-term housing to tourist rentals.

Airbnb proponents, meanwhile, would like to expand which properties can be rented, and how often, on Airbnb.

Cantrell’s proposed change is a scaled-back version of what she offered last year while running for mayor. If it becomes law — which would require another council vote — it would apply to certain non-residential areas in certain parts of the city.

Under the current law, people who own property in most non-residential zoning districts are guaranteed the ability to get commercial short-term rental licenses, which allow them to rent entire homes or apartments every day of the year.

There’s no limit on the number of such licenses in each building, so an apartment building can become, in effect, an Airbnb hotel.

Some large apartment buildings in the city have dozens of commercial, short-term rental licenses. The Lens recently reported on a small Bywater apartment building that’s in the process of being converted to full-time Airbnbs.

Cantrell’s proposal would allow just two commercial, short-term rental licenses in each building. Anything beyond that would have to be vetted by the City Planning Commission and approved by the city council — hence the council’s description of the limit as a “soft cap.”

The proposed change would apply to two types of zoning districts: one type of mixed-use district and one type of low-density, commercial district.

Notably, it will not affect some downriver neighborhoods, including Faubourg Marigny and Bywater, which have some of the highest concentrations of Airbnbs in the city.

At the council’s next meeting, Cantrell said, she and Councilman Jason Williams plan to call for a study on the effects of short-term rentals, with an eye toward changing the city’s short-term rental law.

“We have heard from the public, and it is very, very clear that it is having an effect on rental costs, on rental availability,” Williams said.

Before the council voted to regulate the practice in 2016, the City Planning Commission estimated that as many as 4,000 Airbnbs were operating in the city, even though it was illegal to rent a home for under 30 days in most parts of the city.

Limited version of a limited rollback

The language Cantrell advanced Thursday is more modest than what she proposed in October.

Her original proposal would have changed the law to require council approval to get even one commercial license in the two zoning districts. She tried to attach that provision to the original short-term rental law in 2016.

Cantrell reintroduced it after a zoning dispute between the owners of the former Zara’s grocery store on Prytania Street and its neighbors.

The property owners, who were using part of the property for short-term rentals, wanted to rezone the building as mixed-use. That would allow a planned grocery store on the first floor to sell packaged liquor.

Neighbors opposed the rezoning in large part because it would lift the cap on how many days the property could be offered on Airbnb, from 90 days a year to 365.

At the time, Cantrell was in the home stretch of her mayoral campaign. Desiree Charbonnet, her opponent, criticized her for not being aggressive enough in limiting the growth of Airbnbs.

In a November press release, Cantrell said her proposal was an “important first step” toward a comprehensive reassessment of the city’s short-term rental law.

The proposal came before the city planning commission in January. Planning commission staff said the change could shift growth of short-term rentals to residential districts. Commissioners voted to recommend that the council turn it down.

The planning commission questioned the proposal in part because it wouldn’t apply citywide. Cantrell asked for it to apply only to zoning districts in what the city calls “Historic Urban” neighborhoods, which are scattered throughout the city.

It would not apply in similar zoning districts in “Historic Core” neighborhoods, which are concentrated in the French Quarter, Treme, Faubourg Marigny and Bywater.

Those neighborhoods have fewer commercial licenses in the affected zoning districts, but the licenses are more concentrated.

The proposal advanced Thursday must be drafted into an ordinance, which will have to go back before the council for approval before becoming law.

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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.