To Rob White, a neighborhood looks like “Barbara’s marmalade,” the holiday treat he received from one of his neighbors this week. It also looks like the box he keeps in his French Quarter home to store the keys and home-alarm pass codes of his neighbors.
“It doesn’t look like the short-term renters, the illegal bed-and-breakfast folks that show up, disappear,” White said, addressing the City Council’s Community Development Committee on Wednesday as it weighs how to respond to the growing cottage industry of short-term rentals spurred by websites like Airbnb and VRBO. “Every one of those units that’s a short-term renter is displacing a neighbor.”
But Laurie Dennery said renting out two or three bedrooms in her five-bedroom Octavia Street home has let her improve her neighborhood. With the income she earns from renting, she said, she paid to raise her home after Hurricane Katrina and for other improvements to the structure that she otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford.
“I have nothing but good feelings from my neighbors about what I am doing, about what I’m using the money for,” Dennery said. “I do Airbnb because it helps me to supplement (my income) to be able to work on my house.”
There was no legislation to consider at Wednesday’s meeting. Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, the committee’s chairwoman, said the meeting and others like it will “set the tone” for the contents of an ordinance the council may introduce sometime next year.
The body is aiming to find a balance between protecting residents’ quality of life and existing businesses’ operations on one side and, on the other, supporting new businesses and the additional tax dollars they bring.
The council is expected to try for a more ambitious amendment to the laws governing short-term rentals in the new year than a measure passed in July that refined the definition of “transient vacation rentals” in the city code.
The amended law says it is illegal to rent out a dwelling for less than 30 days at a time — 60 days in the French Quarter — unless the rented space is within a licensed hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast. The old ordinance was vague and difficult to enforce because it said properties qualified as transient vacation rentals only if owners rented them out for shorter periods “over the course of one or more years.”
The council received an earful Wednesday from people on both sides of the issue.
Several opponents of the rentals urged members to abandon any attempt at creating new laws in favor of enforcing those already on the books.
“What’s stopping someone from looking at these on a case-by-case basis and cracking down and enforcing the current laws instead of turning a blind eye to what is happening?” asked Carol Gniady, executive director of the group French Quarter Citizens.
Critics of the rentals said they affect the affordability of housing both for rent and for sale. They also objected to the wedging of what they said are commercial businesses into residential neighborhoods.
Licensed bed-and-breakfast operators also objected to short-term rentals at Wednesday’s meeting, though they seemed more amenable to legislation that would regulate the operations of such businesses rather than try to ban them. For instance, some speakers said, short-term renters should be registered, licensed, have commercial insurance and commercial mortgages, pay city and state taxes and be subject to fire marshal inspections.
Supporters of short-term rentals, led by the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, argued that they promote economic opportunity, help preserve the city’s housing stock and provide more lodging choices to tourists who visit New Orleans. The latter purpose, they said, supports the city’s goal of bringing 13 million visitors a year to New Orleans by 2018.
The supporters said they reject the idea that short-term rentals are responsible for rising home and rent prices.
“We need to open our arms and welcome these visitors,” Alliance board member Christian Galvin said. “Consumer preferences are shifting. Travelers’ preferences are shifting. They want a home, and are we going to tell them that they cannot come to New Orleans because they are not allowed to stay in a private home?”
The Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, a group of homeowners who rent their homes on a short-term basis, has sent council members a draft ordinance that proposes a way for the city to legalize and regulate short-term rentals. The ordinance proposes a structure through which certain fees and taxes could be assessed to registered renters.
“Of course, we have not done a great job with enforcement in our city, and that has led to us not having a real handle on this issue of short-term rentals. I think immediately that’s something that we have to look at — enforcing the laws that we have on the books,” Cantrell said.
“But at the same time we do have to continue to receive information and be realistic as to what is happening in our communities, in our neighborhoods, and make some decisions as to how we — if we choose to — regulate.”