Each of the three top candidates for mayor called for changes to New Orleans' recently implemented policy on short-term rentals at a forum Tuesday night, suggesting that they would push for stricter rules, more enforcement or incentives to increase homeownership in affected neighborhoods.

The question of short-term rentals kicked off a broad discussion about neighborhood issues, preservation and balancing the interests of residents and tourists during the debate among Michael Bagneris, LaToya Cantrell and Desiree Charbonnet, who polls show lead the field of 18 candidates in the Oct. 14 mayoral primary.

The forum, held at Loyola University, was organized by the Louisiana Landmarks Society and the Preservation Resource Center and hosted by the university’s Institute of Politics and Center for the Study of New Orleans.

It was easily one of the most well-attended debates of the campaign, with a capacity crowd in Nunemaker Auditorium and two overflow rooms making up a total in-person audience of 400 to 450 people, according to the organizers.

Charbonnet, a former Municipal Court judge, pointed to the affordable housing plan she released last month, which raised the possibility of allowing short-term rentals only in properties with a homestead exemption, meaning they are the owner's principal residence. That would prevent people from buying multiple properties solely to rent them out to tourists.

She expanded on that idea Tuesday night, saying that licenses should be granted only to people who have lived in the city for five years or are registered to vote in the city, a move apparently aimed at cutting down on out-of-town speculators.

She also called for having more city staff members to enforce the rules.

“Those who are doing short-term rentals know we don’t have the ability to enforce this,” Charbonnet said.

Bagneris, a former Civil District Court judge, called for greater community input into what kinds of restrictions should be placed on short-term rentals in individual neighborhoods. He suggested some areas might seek to cap the total number of rentals, limit how many would be allowed per block or require a homestead exemption for a license.

That would allow some neighborhoods, such as in New Orleans East, to have looser restrictions if they think the rentals are aiding in their redevelopment, while areas where the operations are more numerous and more controversial could opt for more restrictive rules, he said.

Exactly how neighborhoods would express their wishes, whether through some sort of organized vote or by neighborhood groups lobbying their City Council members, was not clear.

“Short-term rentals are, in fact, driving the price of long-term rentals up,” Bagneris said. “Where I was originally born, in the Treme area, you can’t get a long-term rental there anymore.” 

Cantrell, a  City Council member, focused more on increasing enforcement and offering incentives and financing to help people stay in their neighborhoods.

“We need to double down on how we provide education and incentives to make sure that neighborhoods can stabilize,” she said.

Cantrell also defended her vote last year for the ordinance that legalized short-term rentals, calling the final version a compromise on “one of the most contentious issues we have in the city” and suggesting that without it, short-term rentals would have continued to flourish without any regulation.

She also pointed to her vote for a failed amendment that would have required a homestead exemption to rent out an entire home.

Cantrell also found herself defending plans for a "riverfront overlay" zoning district that would allow taller and denser buildings to be built on properties near the Mississippi River in downtown neighborhoods — an idea that is opposed by some Marigny and Bywater residents.

“We have to encourage density and redevelopment in areas that do not flood,” Cantrell said. “Shame on us if we don’t move more of our people to safe high ground.”

That led one of the moderators, Michael Duplantier with the Louisiana Landmarks Society, to point out that Cantrell first rose to prominence as a neighborhood activist fighting for the post-Katrina rebuilding of Broadmoor, which he called the lowest area of the city.

After firing back that Lakeview is even lower, Cantrell said the neighborhood's redevelopment involved incentivizing mitigation strategies such as abandoning the first floors of some homes and managing stormwater.

Both Bagneris and Charbonnet came out against the idea of allowing higher or denser building in historic neighborhoods.

A broader question about how to balance the demands of tourism with the needs of residents produced a variety of responses from the candidates.

Bagneris took issue with the notion that “balance” is the key, arguing that residents' concerns should trump tourism.

“If you have a great place to live, you’ll have a great place to visit,” he said. “Protecting your neighborhoods — that’s what’s going to draw tourists here.”

Cantrell focused on the “disconnect” for those who don’t see how tourism benefits them or their city and argued for going to the Legislature to get a greater share of tourism tax revenues for city coffers.

“I would call for a hospitality plan that would ensure we’re not only growing the industry but that we’re investing in the people that make New Orleans what it truly is,” she said.

Charbonnet said it is important to ensure that communities and residents have a seat at the table when decisions are being made about tourism.

“I’m happy about tourism because I’m happy people come here and spend their money, but if people feel like they’re not being heard, they should be,” she said.

On a question about what to do with blighted public properties, Bagneris called for turning the former Charity Hospital into a multi-use development including housing for doctors, nurses and other workers at nearby hospitals.

He also suggested the Municipal Auditorium should be returned to its former use as a performance venue, which could be at odds with the Landrieu administration’s plan to seek proposals from developers for another use for the building.

Charbonnet suggested moving City Hall into Charity Hospital, a plan that Mayor Mitch Landrieu long pursued but later dropped. Bagneris had opposed Landrieu’s plan, which would also have moved Civil District Court into the building, when he was chief judge at the court. Charbonnet also said Municipal Auditorium could serve as a City Hall annex because of its location and abundant parking.

Cantrell said she favors turning over vacant and blighted public properties to nonprofit groups who could use tax credits and the FEMA money for their restoration to redevelop them.

In response to a question about the controversy last year over plans to build a soccer complex on the Fly section of Audubon Park, all three voiced support for keeping open spaces in parks undeveloped.

They all indicated their support for raising the minimum wage, although that would require the approval of the state Legislature, which has traditionally been hostile to the idea.

All three also supported improvements to the Regional Transit Authority's operations to improve the level of service and increase regional connectivity.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​