Land Use
 

Airbnb stops helping its users obtain licenses after New Orleans City Council puts the brakes on short-term rentals

Airbnb has stopped cooperating with the city of New Orleans on a key part of its enforcement of short-term rental law, a direct result of the city council’s recent decision to freeze some licenses while the planning commission studies the effect of the year-old law.

As of last week, Airbnb no longer allows its New Orleans customers to use its website to apply for short-term rental licenses with the city, a process known as “pass-through registration.”

“We’ve been working in partnership with the City of New Orleans for the past two years, implementing a package of enforcement tools,” Airbnb spokeswoman Laura Rillos wrote in an email. That includes data sharing and the registration system.

“The City changed the rules in May 2018, and these unilateral changes are incompatible with one of the enforcement tools, the registration system previously available through Airbnb,” she wrote.

At its first meeting after several new members took office, the New Orleans City Council decided to halt the issuance of new and renewed temporary licenses in areas where short-term rentals are most popular, including Bywater, Faubourg Marigny, Treme, Mid-City and much of Uptown. The freeze is in place for nine months. 

Meanwhile, the council is mulling the establishment of a citywide moratorium on temporary licenses.

Those licenses, the most common of the city’s three kinds of short-term rental licenses, allow property owners and tenants to rent full houses and apartments for up to 90 days per year. Unlike commercial licenses, which also allow rental of entire homes, temporary licenses are available in residential areas.

Rillos did not explain how the council’s move is incompatible with pass-through registration. The decision to grant a license is still made by city employees, not Airbnb.

Short-term rental hosts can go to the city to apply for licenses.

The end of pass-through registration by Airbnb is why many New Orleans listings on the site no longer show city license numbers, which allowed city officials to check listings against their registry and allowed prospective guests to see if Airbnbs were legal.

Those license numbers appeared automatically on listings once the city approved a license. Rillos said the company has provided hosts with copies of their license numbers, and they are free to add them to their property descriptions.

“I’ve learned not to ascribe motives to what other people do,” City Councilman Joe Giarrusso said when asked why he thought the company had stopped pass-through registration. “But I think what needs to happen is that rather than someone picking up their marbles and going home, there needs to be a conversation about what is feasible and what is best for the people of New Orleans.”

Rillos said the company is still cooperating with the city in other ways: submitting monthly reports on bookings, responding to subpoenas for information on hosts suspected of violating the law, and collecting taxes on behalf of the city.

The council’s decision to curb short-term rentals appears to have caught the company by surprise — unlike the negotiations that preceded the passage of the law legalizing and regulating short-term rentals in late 2016.

When the city council passed the landmark legislation, the law was hailed as a “national model” of cooperation between cities, which have struggled to control the exploding market for vacation rentals, and Airbnb.

Officials with former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration worked closely with the company and its lobbyists when drafting the bill, emails obtained by The Lens show.

The city’s regulations were based in part on what Airbnb could offer. Last month, an executive with HomeAway, the other major short-term rental platform, even complained that the law was “tailored to a particular platform’s existing business model.”

Airbnb has touted its cooperation with the city of New Orleans when responding to criticism that short-term rentals contribute to gentrification and displacement of renters in New Orleans. Affordable housing advocates have said the Landrieu-backed law was too lax, prioritizing tourists and the rental platforms above residents.

Giarrusso said council members did not consult Airbnb before introducing the motion to freeze temporary licenses. But it shouldn’t have been unexpected, he said, given that he and Councilwoman Kristin Gisleson Palmer campaigned on tightening the city’s short-term rental law.

Palmer introduced the motion that halted new licenses by proposing an interim zoning district, or IZD.

“We made it very clear what our positions were on the campaign trail. For anyone to say they did not see this coming, I do not see as accurate,” Giarrusso said. “We didn’t hear from Airbnb after the election, before the IZD was introduced or after the IZD was passed.”

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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.