During most of New Orleans’ long-running debate over short-term rentals, the city’s hospitality industry has kept to the sidelines. Even when a few representatives for various industry groups opted to get involved, their voices seemed to get lost in the larger debate about the value of sites like Airbnb and VRBO.
But as the debate appears to be nearing its end, the city’s hotels have decided to bring in the big guns to push back against plans — apparently supported by Mayor Mitch Landrieu — that could allow thousands of entire homes in residential districts throughout the city to be rented to tourists and conventioneers.
As the City Planning Commission on Tuesday began considering proposed rules that would legalize various categories of short-term rentals, the hotel and tourism industry launched a major effort to pare back the number of properties involved.
The commission put off a decision on the issue until later this summer, but members seemed sympathetic to striking unlimited whole-home rentals from the plan — a change both the tourism industry and many neighborhood groups have pushed for.
“This has the potential to have a devastating effect,” Commissioner Craig Mitchell said as he discussed the need to get the regulations right. “From what I’ve been able to see, no other city has really figured it out yet.”
For more than three hours, the Planning Commission heard from residents, lobbyists and groups as to how the city should regulate the growing number of properties in the city available for short-term rentals, which now stands at more than 4,300 on Airbnb alone.
As in the past, opponents of short-term rentals largely argued that the practice is disruptive to neighborhoods and can cut down the supply of affordable housing and lead to evictions as owners realize they can make more money renting to tourists than to local residents.
Short-term rental owners who spoke at the meeting — nearly all of whom said they rent only rooms in their houses or half-doubles instead of whole houses — argued the extra income they earn allows them to pay their mortgage or repair their properties, some of which were blighted when they first moved in.
The major new presence at the debate was high-powered lobbyists and tourism workers who joined representatives of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association and Professional Innkeepers Association of New Orleans in arguing that competition from short-term rentals is hurting their members and employees.
The impact, those groups argued, is multifaceted: Hotels are being hurt by unfair competition, and their employees and other service industry workers are being forced out of some neighborhoods to make room for short-term rentals.
The coalition argued against allowing rentals of entire homes and supported efforts by neighborhood groups in the French Quarter and Garden District to ban short-term rentals in those neighborhoods altogether, noting that no new hotels or bed-and-breakfasts are allowed to open there.
The group’s efforts have included hiring Mike Sherman, Landrieu’s former lobbyist and executive counsel who now frequently represents applicants with business before the Planning Commission.
Connections to Landrieu aren’t limited to the hotels. The Garden District Association, which opposes whole-home short-term rentals and is pushing to have all short-term rentals banned within its boundaries, is represented by Shelley Landrieu, the mayor’s sister, and Norma Jane Sabiston, one of the mayor’s close political advisers and a resident of the neighborhood.
At the Landrieu administration’s request, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to defer a vote on the topic until Aug. 9.
The commission is considering a proposal that would allow several types of short-term rentals, all of which would have to get city permits and pay hotel taxes. Those include allowing the rental of rooms in owner-occupied homes or of the unoccupied half of doubles where the owner lives in the other half, and allowing the rental of entire homes for a total of no more than one month per year — ideas that are relatively uncontroversial.
Another idea, to allow whole units in commercial or mixed-use developments to be rented, has raised some eyebrows.
But most opposition is now squarely focused on a provision that would allow entire houses in residential neighborhoods to be rented to visitors all year, though with limits on how many of those units could be on the same block.
The commission previously rejected that idea, but its staff included it in the current version of the proposed rules based on a request drafted by the Landrieu administration.
“I think the commission has been pretty clear in our views on the short-term rental issue,” Commissioner Nolan Marshall said before arguing the city has to do more to make “New Orleans a good city for New Orleanians” before “we start turning neighborhoods over to tourists.”
The commission does not seem to be of one mind on the matter, however. Commissioner Royce Duplessis noted that while there were a number of arguments made about affordable housing, many groups that advocate for that issue were not in attendance.
Only one affordable-housing group, the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative in Mid-City, showed up Tuesday to argue against whole-home rentals on the grounds that they increase the cost of housing and lead to residents being kicked out of units. Other citywide groups have argued that short-term rentals are not a major problem for housing affordability in the city.
“I’ve heard a lot about housing, but I’m concerned about the fact that there are advocates in this community who advocate on behalf of low-income everyday citizens, and I don’t see them here,” Duplessis said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.