The New Orleans City Planning Commission heard Tuesday from affordable housing advocates, residents who say they’ve lost their neighbors to short-term rentals, and property owners who say Airbnb has allowed them to afford their own homes.

Under a motion passed last month by the New Orleans City Council, the planning commission has until July to approve a study that could lead to tighter restrictions on short-term rentals in New Orleans.

Residents of neighborhoods with the most short-term rentals, Faubourg Marigny in particular, made a strong showing at Tuesday’s meeting. They described loud, disruptive tourists and said the influx of short-term rentals is hollowing out their neighborhoods.

“I live in the Marigny. It’s all short-term rentals now. I’d like to have my neighbors back,” said Margaret Walker.

Prior to April 2017, it was illegal in most of New Orleans to rent a house or apartment for fewer than 30 days. But with illegal Airbnbs popping up all over the city, the city legalized and attempted to regulate short-term rentals.

When the law was passed, it was hailed as a national model of cooperation between local government and sharing platforms such as Airbnb and VRBO. But critics have said it is too permissive.

Though the law bans short-term rentals in most of the Quarter, it does not limit how many rental licenses one person can have or how many rentals can be on a single block. It doesn’t require most license holders to live at their rental properties.

In March, the city council called for the planning commission to study how the city’s year-old law has affected residents’ quality of life.

Opponents at the meeting generally didn’t ask for the city to reinstate its ban on short-term rentals. Instead, they asked for tighter regulations, with many saying proof of residency should be required to get a short-term rental license.

Some said the city should license short-term rental platforms themselves and require that they assist in enforcing the law, such as by removing unlicensed listings from their websites.

“The fact that platforms have zero skin in the game, face zero fines and zero liability, means they have zero incentive to play by the rules,” said Meg Lousteau, a Treme resident and the director of Vieux Carré Property Owners, Residents and Associates.

Airbnb proponents, meanwhile, pointed out how residents have benefited from Airbnb. Eric Bay, president of the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, said his group’s members pledge to pay a living wage to workers who clean and maintain rental properties. He said the hotel industry has offered no such promises.

“New Orleans does not have an affordable housing crisis. We do have an affordability crisis,” caused by few jobs and low wages, Bay said.

Another proponent said her rental properties include short-term rentals as well as affordable and market-rate housing.

Airbnb investors “have invested money in developing properties, in many cases, like me, when others would not buy them,” she said.

When the planning commission examined short-term rentals in 2016, it estimated there were between 2,500 and 4,000 short-term rentals illegally operating in the city.

As of Tuesday morning, the city has issued about 4,500 licenses. The tracking website Inside Airbnb shows about 5,200 listings on that platform alone, indicating that some continue to operate illegally.

A recent study by Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, an affordable housing group, found that most Airbnb listings in New Orleans are for full houses or apartments. The group also found that a handful of property owners and managers control nearly half of the city’s short-term rental licenses.

“New Orleans has lost thousands of units of housing over the past several years due to the proliferation of short-term rentals,” said Breonne DeDecker, program manager for the group, at the meeting. “Many short-term rentals are not even run by New Orleanians. They’re run by large corporations.”

As her group prepared to release that report, a spokeswoman for Airbnb pushed back against some of its findings but declined to provide data on New Orleans hosts.

When The Lens and HuffPost examined short-term rentals last fall, we found that the hottest neighborhoods for tourist rentals have become richer and whiter than the city as a whole, bolstering opponents’ arguments that Airbnb is contributing to rising home prices.

We’ve talked to several people who say they were kicked out of their homes so their landlords could convert their homes to vacation rentals.

Mayor-elect and Councilwoman Latoya Cantrell, along with Councilmen Jason Williams and Jared Brossett, sponsored the motion calling for the new study.

“Commercialization of our neighborhoods, with these short-term rental disruptions, [is] deteriorating the very fabric of our city,” Brossett said at the March meeting.

The motion did not limit the scope of the study or the planning commission’s recommendations, but it mentioned a few possible areas of study:

  • Limiting the number of rentals on each block
  • Capping the number of licenses a single person can hold
  • Requiring residency as possible areas of study

“This body has an historically important chance now. There are many things that caused the affordable housing crisis, and you cannot fix all of them,” said Hannah Kreiger-Benson of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans. She said she supports stricter regulations on short-term rentals.

“But in this case,” she said, “I think you have the chance to stand on the right side of history.”

The planning commission’s staff has until July 3 to produce a report. The commission must vote on recommendations to forward to the council by July 10.

Meeting recap

This story was updated after the meeting. (April 24, 2018)

Charles Maldonado

Charles Maldonado is the editor of The Lens. He previously worked as The Lens' government accountability reporter, covering local politics and criminal justice. Prior to joining The Lens, he worked for...