This message was spray-painted in 2018 by the former tenant of this house in Central City. (Photo courtesy of April Leigh.)

In August, the City Council unanimously passed stricter short term rental rules that will go into effect Dec. 1. The new rules create a cap on short-term permits in buildings in commercial districts — where, unlike permits for residential districts, operators won’t need to live onsite — but that cap won’t apply to anyone who completes an application by Nov. 30. 

During the hearing, a steady stream of individuals with well-reasoned and well-researched positions urged the council to place a moratorium on permits in commercial districts between August and December to avoid a Wild West “gold rush” mentality with speculators getting while the getting was good. 

The City Council dismissed this advice, passing the stricter rules without putting a moratorium in place in the interim, and in fact admonished housing advocates for being so passionate on this point. Since the August vote, we’ve seen more than 300 new commercial permits approved by the city, bringing the total to nearly 1,400, up from about 1,100 last spring. Affordable housing advocates certainly aren’t surprised by the outcome; council members and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration shouldn’t be either.

In October 2016, a similar scene played out in council chambers full to capacity; back then it was resident after resident urging the council to follow the City Planning Commission’s recommendation and vote no on whole-house rentals in residential areas. But the council instead voted 6-1 in favor of a Landrieu administration plan that allowed whole-house rentals in residential areas for up to 90 days per year. The chamber erupted in boos at the vote. In an op-ed published in The Lens (“Short-term rental vote deals a blow to neighborhoods — and citizen engagement”, 10/25/16), I described the scene and the reaction as the expression of “indignant incredulity” of a diverse group of people feeling ignored and dismissed by their elected representatives. 

As Cantrell tries to push ballot measures that will bring much-needed revenue to the city, the public needs to trust that they are heard and that the process works. Time and again, the public has been asked to trust the process, to trust online platforms like Airbnb to play fair, to trust the administration and the council to take positions in support of New Orleanians. Instead we hear about enforcement budgets getting slashed, and millions of dollars intended to prioritize affordable housing over speculative real estate investment going to vague “indirect cost” categories like “maintenance of office and grounds” and “other.”

In 2016, I closed my op-ed by stating that “a council chamber full of impassioned citizens clamoring for public policy that reflects the public will is an expression of hope, optimism and faith in the system.” When people no longer trust the system, they stop showing up to voice their opinion, or to vote in favor of ballot measures intended to finance improvements for the public’s benefit.

As vote after vote and budget allocation after budget allocation defy common sense, transparency, accountability, and best practices, and inflict serious harm on all of us, and especially our most vulnerable residents, cynicism and skepticism replace hope and optimism. And that’s a tradeoff New Orleans’ city council, administration, and public can ill afford.

Dana Eness is executive director of The Urban Conservancy.