Supporters and opponents of short-term rentals in New Orleans clashed Tuesday evening before the City Planning Commission, early in a process that could shape how websites like Airbnb are allowed to operate in the city in the future.
Apartments, homes or rooms that are rented to out-of-town visitors for a few days have been an issue in the city for decades, and city regulations now ban private residences other than registered bed-and-breakfasts from renting to anyone for less than 30 days or less than 60 days in the French Quarter.
Enforcement of those rules is exceedingly rare, however, and short-term rentals have been spreading quickly in the city through the aid of sites such as Airbnb, Homeaway and others that allow residents and owners to list their properties online.
With more than 100 people in the audience for a hearing Tuesday evening, speakers were limited to a minute each. That left little time for deep discussions from most speakers.
Opponents pointed to a variety of ills they blame on the spread of short-term rentals: destabilization of neighborhoods due to the lack of permanent residents; rising rents from landlords who can make more renting out a property to tourists rather than long-term tenants; a lack of civic engagement by absentee landlords; and the noise and other annoyances that partying visitors bring with them.
Much of the opposition came from residents and neighborhood association representatives from the French Quarter and Marigny, where short-term rentals have spread dramatically in recent years, as well as from existing, regulated B&Bs and their associations.
Those opposed to unregulated short-term rentals gained a pair of powerful allies at the meeting, as both the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association called for strict rules that would hold the rentals to the same safety standards as traditional B&Bs and require they pay the same taxes.
The two groups had been neutral on the issue during earlier discussions, but Hotel and Lodging Association Executive Director Mavis Early said Tuesday they were seeking a “level playing field” and warned that widespread vacation rentals could destroy one of New Orleans’ biggest draws: the charm and culture of its neighborhoods.
On the other side, owners who rent to vacationers and the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, a group that advocates for about 100 properties that are used for short-term rentals, cast the practice as one that allows property owners to make some extra money on the side and that contributes to the tourist economy.
“It has allowed me to maintain and upkeep my home,” said Eric Ben, who said he has been using his home as a short-term rental for two years. “It’s allowed me to maintain the quality and integrity of my neighborhood.”
Ben said he had tried to rent the home to a long-term tenant, but that tenant had more of a negative impact on the neighborhood than those who rent only for weekends.
Owners of traditional B&Bs and the associations that represent them also called for their new competition to be held to the same rules they have to live by.
Meg Lousteau, executive director of the Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents and Associates, stressed that any kind of regulations need to require Airbnb and similar sites to provide the city with data on which properties are being rented. Without that information, there would be no way to track and regulate short-term rentals, rendering any regulations meaningless, she said.
French Quarter businesses also have been hurt by short-term rentals, said Susan Guillot, of French Quarter Citizens. Guillot read a letter from the owner of Matassa’s Market, who said he was struggling due to the loss of permanent residents and the influx of tourists who want to buy only incidentals like cigarettes.
“The community is my customer base, and the community is dying,” Guillot read from the letter.
Representatives of the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity said they were looking for regulations because their members want to be within the law.
“We aren’t saying we don’t want to be regulated,” said Bob Ellis, who represents the organization. “We’re saying we want to be regulated and taxed, and we want to level the playing field.”
But the organization took a hard line at the meeting. Polly Hardie, the alliance’s president, blasted opponents for trying to “pull up the bridge” behind themselves and stop their neighborhoods from changing.
“We have no right to expect our neighborhood to conform to our vision of what we want it to be like,” she said.
And that, according to other representatives, could mean dramatically loosening the rules.
James Uschold, attorney for the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, said his group has recommended that zoning rules be changed so that each block can automatically include up to 20 bedrooms rented out as short-term rentals. Another 10 bedrooms could be used for the purpose as a conditional use.
That proposal drew scoffs and gasps from opponents in the audience.
The Planning Commission is expected to release its recommendations to the public by Dec. 1.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.