Louisiana House panel shoots down safety bill for short-term rentals _lowres

Advocate Photo by MARK BALLARD – State Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, and State Fire Marshal Butch Browning testified Tuesday on legislation that would require basic safety measures of people renting their homes to tourists for short stays. The House Commerce Committee voted against the measure.

A Louisiana House committee Tuesday shot down legislation that would have required people who rent their homes to tourists on a short-term basis to certify with the State Fire Marshal’s Office that they comply with simple safety measures.

“This has to do with basic safety,” said Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, sponsor of House Bill 952.

The House Commerce Committee voted 9-5 to defer the legislation, which likely will end its chances for this legislative session.

In response to opponents, Moreno amended the measure to make it simpler for hosts to follow. Basically, they would have outfitted their rental with fire extinguishers, smoke and carbon monoxide monitors, and a map of the exits and would have ensured exits were unobstructed. The owners would have signed up on the website of the Office of the State Fire Marshal and would have paid $25 for a five-year certification.

The legislation would have applied to anyone in Louisiana renting their home for 29 days or less. But the issue of short-term rentals is mostly relevant in New Orleans. Moreno pointed out that the Airbnb website, which brokers rental space in private houses and apartments, sent out a news release that it had handled 20,000 reservations for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival alone.

Had the legislation succeeded, Fire Marshal Butch Browning would have had the ability to check the dwellings to verify the safety features really were in place. But he said it would have been far short of the type of inspections done on commercial properties because short-term rentals fall somewhere between a single-family dwelling and a business. His inspectors could check for the fire extinguisher, for instance, but if they found, say, improper wiring on a refrigerator, there would be little his office could do.

Browning’s reassurances were not universally embraced.

“This is the largest expansion of the fire marshal’s power in history,” said Jim Nickel, a Baton Rouge lobbyist representing Airbnb.

State Rep. Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville, agreed: “My biggest concern about this is the overwhelming monitoring.”

While Airbnb may be the largest website, it’s not the only way owners can rent their homes to visitors.

The Travel Technology Association said the business of short-term rentals is growing and basically only requires a posting on the Internet. Many of the rentals are direct transactions between owners and tourists, said Danny Ford, a Baton Rouge lobbyist representing the Travel Technology Association.

“Safety, safety, safety,” Ford said — the debate started out on that premise but quickly morphed into “leveling the playing field.”

Bonnie Rabe testified that her bed and breakfast on St. Charles Avenue near Washington Avenue is licensed and inspected. It’s unfair not to require the same of short-term rentals, she said.

Plus, most of the short-term rentals are for the whole house and don’t restrict the number of people who stay. “We live on the property, and we shut down loud parties,” Rabe said.

Besides, the rentals are illegal in New Orleans, though the law is unenforced.

Moreno said the New Orleans City Council soon would come to a decision on how best to regulate short-term rentals.

In the meantime, Marion Fox, of the Louisiana Travel Promotion Association, said it’s important for the tourism industry as a whole to have some level of safety associated with this growing segment of the market.

She pointed to a February account in The New Orleans Advocate about an early morning fire that trapped an Airbnb guest.

Had the tourist died, the coverage of that fire would have gone national. “It could hurt tourism as a whole,” Fox said.

Voting for the legislation to require basic safety equipment and measures (5): Reps. Jean-Paul Coussan, R-Lafayette; Kenny Cox, D-Natchitoches; Rodney Lyons, D-Harvey; Moreno; and Steve Pugh, R-Ponchatoula.

Voting against HB952 (9): Reps. Andy Anders, D-Vidalia; Chad Brown, D-Plaquemine; Patrick Connick, R-Marrero; Falconer; Paul Hollis, R-Covington; Patrick Jefferson, D-Homer; Joseph Lopinto III, R-Metairie; Gene Reynolds, D-Minden; and Rob Shadoin, R-Ruston.

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