Apartments or houses offered for short-term rentals could have to be registered and inspected by the State Fire Marshal’s Office under a bill proposed in the Legislature.
The measure, House Bill 952 by Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, stems from concerns about the safety of converting private residences into what amount to hotel rooms through sites like Airbnb and VRBO and about a lack of regulations that makes it difficult for neighbors to file complaints.
“I think first and foremost it’s a safety issue. We take our responsibilities very seriously in this case in regard to tourists and visitors coming into Louisiana,” state Fire Marshal Butch Browning said.
The legislation, which is not yet scheduled for a committee hearing, would apply statewide but likely would be felt most in New Orleans, where thousands of short-term rentals are in operation despite laws that prohibit them.
Browning said most of the calls his office gets about the issue come from the New Orleans area, where debate has raged between residents who say the practice decreases the cohesiveness of their neighborhoods and short-term rental owners who argue it’s a good way to bring in needed extra money.
Moreno said the proposed rules are designed to make sure there’s a regulatory process in place to govern the rentals.
“We’re not trying to jam anybody here, but we do need to make sure that the people who are renting these units are safe and that, overall, somebody has oversight over these units,” Moreno said.
The legislation deals only with fire safety issues. It leaves the thorny questions about where and how short-term rentals should be allowed to local authorities. The New Orleans City Council has been considering zoning regulations that would legalize the businesses, though there has been no public discussion on the matter since January.
For many rentals, the state process would be relatively simple. Those renting out units would have to register them with the Fire Marshal’s Office, at a cost of $50 for the first five years, and show they have smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, unobstructed exits, fire extinguishers and a map showing guests how to get out of the building in an emergency. Those features would be verified by an inspection.
Some of those requirements could be a particular problem in New Orleans. For example, Moreno noted that many shotgun houses don’t have working back doors or else have exits that are blocked by burglar bars.
That problem was thrown into sharp relief earlier this year, when two people had to be rescued from an Airbnb rental in Central City that caught fire. Firefighters had to rush into the building to save the men because the building — a single that had been converted to a duplex — had only one exit, which was blocked by the blaze.
Those requirements are less stringent than the ones required of a full commercial structure but more demanding than is typically required of a residential building.
Things could be potentially more complicated for rentals that are aimed at large groups, which frequently appear on short-term rental sites. If a structure would house five or more unrelated people at a time, it would be considered a commercial venture and subject to a higher level of regulation that already is on the books.
That level of regulation could go some way toward discouraging some of the short-term rentals that have drawn most of the ire of opponents — residential structures that are advertised to large groups for free-wheeling weekends in New Orleans.
The proposed law does not require short-term rental websites to submit their property listings to the Fire Marshal’s Office — a requirement sought by many short-term rental opponents, who argue it is necessary to ensure people do not continue operating illegally.
However, the measure does require the websites to notify people offering units for rent about the registration requirement. And if the regulations are put in place, complaints about anyone who doesn’t follow the rules could be lodged; those found in violation could be fined up to $1,000 a day.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.