New Orleans Struggling To Regulate Short-Term Rentals

Sep 28, 2016

Alex Ramirez, right, with his father Carlos, on the porch of the first home he bought. He now has several homes in the neighborhood in the short-term rental market.
Credit Eileen Fleming / WWNO
Brian Luckett stands between two props for a protest of whole homes being used for short-term rentals.
Credit Eileen Fleming / WWNO

Love them or hate them, short-term rentals are booming in New Orleans. On October, the City Council is expected to make its first vote on regulating short-term rentals. It’s considering rules proposed by the City Planning Commission.  One of the biggest points of contention is whole-house rentals. Many locals say that when short-term visitors rent whole homes, it changes neighborhoods.

Patricia Gay is the executive director of the Preservation Resource Center. The group is dedicated not only to saving historic architecture, but maintaining the feel and fabric of neighborhoods. She says much of New Orleans’ appeal is its authenticity.

She said, “The tourists who come here are fascinated with our neighborhoods.”

So it makes sense they would jump at the chance to have the neighborhood experience…their own New Orleans house for a few days.

But Gay said, “A neighborhood without neighbors is not a neighborhood.” 

The PRC sent an email blast asking people to oppose whole-home rentals. Leonard Baudoin of the Broadmoor Improvement Association, agrees.

He said, “We have a really strong neighborhood and we’re all about neighborhood pride and diversity in the neighborhood and we want to maintain that by continue having residents -- long-term residents -- in the area.” 

He’s a lifelong resident in New Orleans, and helps people coming into Broadmoor find affordable housing. He says after Hurricane Katrina, a two-bedroom unit rented for about $800 a month. Now it’s almost $1,300.

The Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance also opposes whole-house rentals. It says they’ve made the post-Katrina housing shortage worse.

These arguments irritate Alex Ramirez. The 32-year-old bought his first home in 2010 – a double in Lower Mid-City. Two years later, he bought an adjacent property, fixed it up and tried to find a long-term tenant. He couldn’t. So he listed it on websites like AirBnB and HomeAway, and started making money. Since then he’s bought and fixed up several more homes on the block, and put them to work as short-term rentals.

Ramirez said, “It’s not about corporate America or greedy corporate America coming in here and buying up all these properties. It’s about the small business owner being able to leverage tools like HomeAway or AirBnB and being able to put their own names out there and competing with the big guys.”

He lives nearby with his wife and baby, and his mom and dad work in his company. He says his properties have improved the neighborhood.

But in the St. Roch neighborhood, residents met last weekend to rehearse a protest march against whole-home rentals. Brian Luckett bought his home in the Bywater 20 years ago, for $40,000. 

A few years ago he noticed whole homes vacant during the week, and full on weekends with new people.

He says this type of short-term rentals has made the neighborhood quieter, but he misses the bustle and socializing with long-term residents.

Luckett said, “Fortunately, right on either side of me, I have terrific neighbors, longtime neighbors, and you know, they look out for me and I look out for them and I’m really glad they’re there.” 

Far from a grassroots second line, Airbnb is conducting a $1 million media campaign ahead of the planned council vote. Its ads focus on middle class people who make extra money with Air Bnb. But those ads don’t make a distinction between renting a room in a house, or the whole house – with the owner perhaps off-site. The San Francisco-based company says of its 4,100 or so hosts in New Orleans – at least 3,000 are whole-home listings.

Asked if the company would drop the whole-home option, Air Bnb spokesman Chris Lehane also didn’t distinguish between types of rentals.

He said, “The vast majority of our hosts in New Orleans are really doing this as supplemental income. They’re not doing this as their full-time commercial activity. We also know that there’s a significant chunk of people in New Orleans who really do depend on this income to make ends meet.”   

In its proposed rules, the City Planning Commission recommended that whole-home rentals only be allowed 30 days a year, letting owners make some money during major tourism events like Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras. New rules would allow owners unlimited rental nights for part of their homes, or for property in commercial areas with permission from the City Department of Safety and Permits.

But the mayor’s office put the whole-home option back in the proposed ordinance, saying all options should be in play for discussion by the council.