A 2019 photo taken by resident Ada Phleger of one of the four short-term rentals on her block. Credit: Provided by Ada Phleger

Editor’s note (4/26/21): This is the second updated version of a story that originally appeared on Wednesday, April 21, under the headline, “City collected $1,500 — not $1 million — in short-term rental fines levied over two years.”

We have removed the original story from the website. A PDF version, including an editor’s note, has been archived. It can be viewed here.

On Friday, The Lens discovered serious errors involving the amounts of short-term rental fines that appeared in the original report. After city officials failed to respond to The Lens’ requests for additional information, we performed a review of what we had available: the city-prepared spreadsheet used in the original story. We checked the records against an online database, and the results showed tens of thousands in collected fines that weren’t included in The Lens’ original report. The results of that review were published in an earlier version of this story on Monday, April 26. 

Following publication, however, the city provided additional records showing more short-term rental fines had been collected during the period in question. The new numbers reported here are many times higher than what was included in the two previous versions.

The Lens apologizes to our readers for the errors.

New short-term rental records provided by Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office on Monday show that the city of New Orleans collected roughly $190,000 in short-term rental fines levied between January 2019 and January 2021, significantly more than the $1,500 The Lens previously reported last week.

A spreadsheet prepared by the city last week in response to a public records request appeared to show that from January 2019 through November 2019, the city had levied roughly $62,000 in fines and collected none of it. A second spreadsheet provided by the city showed that from December 2019 to January 2021, the city levied $5,500 in short-term rental fines and only collected $1,500.

The Lens shared the documents and findings with Cantrell’s office and attempted to verify and confirm the information multiple times prior to publishing the original story. Officials either confirmed The Lens’ reporting or failed to raise any objections. 

On Friday, however, The Lens received information that indicated the numbers were incorrect. The Lens then reviewed the list of short-term rental violation cases provided by the city in the spreadsheets, checking them against an online database of code enforcement actions. The information contained in the database confirmed that collected fines were larger than indicated, by more than $60,000. 

When city officials did not respond to requests for comment, The Lens published the results of that review on Monday. But on Monday afternoon, just minutes after the updated story was published, the city confirmed the records were incomplete and were compiled incorrectly by the City Attorney’s office while fulfilling a public records request from The Lens.

“The reason that the prior numbers may not have clearly portrayed this information is that this information is not stored in our systems in a simple way to aggregate,” LaTonya Norton, spokeswoman for Mayor LaToya Cantrell, said in a Monday email. “The person who responded to the initial request attempted to pull the data but didn’t understand that the data pull wouldn’t be complete and would need to be cross-referenced with other accounting data stored in a separate location.”

The city also provided a new and more complete set of records, showing that hearings officers levied about $292,000 in short-term rental fines and hearing fees for violations of city rules between January 2019 and January 2021. Of that, the city has actually collected $190,000, the records show. 

In addition, the records show that about $265,000 in fines and fees first assessed prior 2019 were collected between 2019 and early 2021. 

The Lens reached out to several City Council members to ask for comment on the updated information. None were immediately available to respond. 

STR fines were nearly half of total collections during two-year period 

In a March 4 City Council presentation, Department of Safety & Permits Director Tammie Jackson on short-term rental enforcement seemed to give an even larger total for collected short-term rental fines. 

“The grand total of fines paid between January 2019 to January 2021 is nearly $1,000,000,” the presentation said.

A spokeswoman for Mayor LaToya Cantrell, LaTonya Norton, told The Lens last week that the $1 million figure cited by Jackson “was inclusive of all adjudications not just short term rental cases.” However, including all short-term rental fines – those adjudicated from 2019 and those adjudicated earlier but collected between 2019 and early 2021 — they make up nearly half of the total. 

“We never said we had collected $1m in STR fines,” Norton said in an email. “We said in that period we’d collected close to $1m in adjudications of all kinds.”

But City Councilman Jay Banks told The Lens last week that he was under the impression that the $1 million figure cited by Jackson represented only short-term rental fines.

“I assumed that when they said that they were referencing short term rentals since that was the discussion we were having,” Banks said. “So I guess I’m a bit taken aback. I will not say it was anything malicious on their part. I will say I just did not understand what they were relaying.”

The City Council has called on the Cantrell administration several times to give presentations on short-term rental enforcement since it passed a slew of new short-term rental laws and restrictions in December 2019. The city had already created a set of rules in 2016 under then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu. But critics said the rules made it too easy to convert entire homes into vacation rental properties and too difficult to shut down unpermitted rental properties. 

The 2019 rules prohibited almost all whole home short-term rentals in residentially zoned properties, and started forcing platforms like Airbnb to include permit numbers in their online listings and delist delinquent or unpermitted properties at the request of the city.

But even before the law went into effect in December 2019, there were already concerns about how well the Cantrell administration would enforce it. Throughout the 15 months during which the City Council crafted the new rules, council members repeatedly expressed that all of the work would mean nothing without enforcement.

The Lens previously reported on how, over the course of 2019, the Cantrell administration walked back plans for beefed up enforcement, reducing the proposed number of short-term rental enforcement staff from as many as 16 in January to as few as three in August, shortly after the council passed the new rules. Records showed that the administration was worried, in part, about tax revenue losses that could occur if they started strict enforcement, with one top official referring to short-term rentals as a “cash cow” for the city.

The council has also expressed concerns about whether the city is properly spending millions of dollars from a state-controlled fund that is supposed to be used exclusively for short-term rental enforcement. And last year, the city put a former short-term rental executive in charge of the department that enforces the short-term rental rules, sparking concern among short-term rental critics. 

Cyberattack, pandemic led to lower numbers in 2020

Of collected fines that were levied in administrative hearings between 2019 and early 2021, the overwhelming majority were handed down in 2019, prior to a slowdown in enforcement related to a late 2019 cyberattack and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. 

Another document obtained by The Lens shows $5,501 in fines from Dec. 1 2019 (when the new short-term rental laws went into effect) to Jan. 31 2021. City records show that $1,500 of that was collected.

Norton, the Cantrell spokeswoman, pointed out that less than two weeks after the new law went into effect, the city was hit by a cyberattack that brought many city functions to a grinding halt and has taken over a year to recover from. Norton said that the cyberattack, combined with the coronavirus crisis, in part accounts for the low level of short-term rental adjudications since December 2019. 

“The City’s new STR rules were implemented December of 2019 during the cyber attack; therefore, 13 months would include 10 months during the cyber-attack and pandemic which hearings had not occurred,” Norton said in an email. “Hearings resumed in October, 2020.”

As Jackson pointed out at the March council meeting, hearings are only one way for the city to crack down on illegal rentals. The city’s laws force platforms to delist properties at the request of the city. Jackson said that “the total properties delisted from Airbnb and VRBO is 267.” Councilwoman Kristen Palmer asked whether that was just recently or since the law first went into effect. Jackson said she believed those were only recent numbers, but said she didn’t know for sure. 

Palmer told The Lens that while the pandemic may have slowed down the tourism industry, she still gets frequent complaints about illegal operators, or short-term rentals that were hosting large events despite coronavirus restrictions.  

“Absolutely there’s been a decline in visitors. But I will say that my complaints for short-term rentals, the illegal ones, have not gone away.”

Palmer said that the lack of enforcement also takes money out of the pockets of responsible short-term rental owners and operators that follow the city’s rules.

“At the end of the day, not all STRs are bad,” she said. “We have legally operating, well managed STRs. And they’re being hit because we have illegally operating ones.”

She also said that she wants the city to focus on enforcement now, before the tourism industry gets back into full swing. 

“If they are really aggressive now with the enforcement, with shutting down the illegal STRs, their job will be a lot easier going into a full recovery,” she said. 

Norton told The Lens that the city is working to bring more cases into hearings. 

“The department also vowed to add more STR cases on the docket as it increases the number of cases on the docket,” Norton said. “This increase of cases will occur gradually until the fall when the Center for Disease Control also anticipates a decrease in COVID infections.”

This story was updated to include data provided by the city early Monday afternoon, after an earlier version was published.

Michael Isaac Stein

Michael Isaac Stein covers New Orleans' cultural economy and local government for The Lens. Before joining the staff, he freelanced for The Lens as well as The Intercept, CityLab, The New Republic, and...