Land Use
 

Expedia agrees to help city of New Orleans find violators of short-term rental laws

Expedia, the parent company of vacation rental sites HomeAway and VRBO, has agreed for the first time to provide the names of customers that the city of New Orleans suspects of violating short-term rental laws.

Expedia spokesman Philip Minardi confirmed the company sent an email to New Orleans customers saying it would identify hosts of more than 200 listings sought by the city.

But, in an apparent reference to a move Monday to limit short-term rentals, he hinted that the company could change its mind in the future.

“Bans and moratoriums are a clear sign that collaboration is not on the horizon,” he wrote.

Monday, Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer submitted a proposal to consider a ban on the issuance of two types of licenses in much of the city.

The company’s decision relates to how the city enforces its short-term rental laws.

To find violations — specifically, when a host exceeds the 90-day annual cap for one type of short-term rental license — the city sends an administrative subpoena to the rental platform. That subpoena asks for the name and contact of the host.

Companies must respond to these administrative subpoenas within a month.

Airbnb has missed the deadline in the past, but Expedia has refused to respond altogether.

Last month, a spokesman for Expedia told NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune it wouldn’t respond to the city’s demands because the city had refused to work with the company on a system to notify hosts that they may be breaking the rules.

That changed this month. In a May 17 email to a HomeAway user, the company said it plans to give the city information more than 200 of its listings. That will happen next week.

That email, sent by HomeAway’s governmental affairs department, said the company would provide “basic subscriber information,” including the identity of the user, his phone number and his contact address.

The company said it would not provide other information requested by the city, such as the address of a customer’s rentals, if different from his contact address, and dates of bookings.

Minardi confirmed the authenticity of the email, saying it “went out to HomeAway customers in New Orleans.” He didn’t answer follow-up questions.

A spokeswoman for Airbnb said the company has cooperated with the city, creating a system to help its users register for city licenses and removing an estimated 3,000 unlicensed listings.

City must subpoena names of people who exceed annual cap

The ordinance that legalized and regulated the booming short-term rental market in New Orleans calls for the rental platforms to submit monthly reports on their customers. They show the number of nights each listing has been booked per month and year.

A “temporary” short-term rental license allows a resident to offer an entire home for up to 90 days a year. It’s supposed to accommodate residents who want to rent their homes while they’re away on vacation.

The reports from Expedia and Airbnb — the two dominant companies — are anonymized. Instead of customer names and addresses, the reports assign each listing a random string of characters.

Under the law, if the city suspects a customer has exceeded the cap, it can send a subpoena seeking the identity of the host and cite him for violating the law.

Affordable housing advocacy groups like the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative have called for the companies to provide full customer and booking information in every monthly report.

They say the anonymized reports make it easy for short-term rental hosts to evade enforcement because they can switch between different platforms.

According to the NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune report, Expedia had cited a federal law that limits the government’s ability to compel the production of electronically stored data.

The company made a similar argument when the city of San Francisco sought similar customer data. But courts in California rejected the company’s argument.

Minardi said Expedia and the city of New Orleans have started working together “to implement a system that would both assist the city with enforcement and compliance and largely negate the need for subpoenas in the future.”

The city’s ability to police large-scale operators may be impeded by Expedia’s decision not to provide rental property addresses. A number of local listings on Expedia’s websites are linked to large, out-of-town management companies like San Francisco-based Sonder and Stay Alfred of Spokane, Washington.

Expedia’s sudden shift comes as the New Orleans City Council considers overhauling its short-term rental laws.

Critics, including some on the city council, have said the laws encourage houses and apartments to be taken off the long-term rental market and converted to miniature hotels.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

This story was updated after publication to include a comment from Airbnb. (May 22, 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.