Residents in one of the Baton Rouge's oldest neighborhoods have launched a crusade for regulations to prevent vacant homes being flipped into short-term rentals, something  they're afraid will ruin the historic charm and value of their community if not brought in check.

"We're not talking about a scorched-earth approach. We're talking about sensible regulations," said Marie Constantin. 

Constantin lives in the Spanish Town Historic District and is among the faction of residents in the downtown neighborhood hoping the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council will follow in the footsteps of New Orleans city leaders and adopt ordinances that would require the owner to live on site of a residential property being rented through sites like Airbnb. 

"Essentially, what we're starting to see here are all these mini-hotels without a manager or oversight," Constantin said. "Why are we having unregulated hotels in residential communities?"

The same in happening in the Garden District and Beauregard Town, two other historic neighborhoods near downtown Baton Rouge, she said. 

Collin Richie, president of the Spanish Town Neighborhood Association, said the discussion over Airbnbs has reached a crescendo with residents concerned about parking and noise.

There have been talks of possible building code violations involving dilapidated homes being renovated so owners can increase the amount of sleeping accommodations they can advertise to visitors — thereby increasing their cash flow.  

Debate over the issue is split.  

Richie said there are also neighbors who prefer an Airbnb over a vacant and/or dilapidated house in the community. 

"A lot of people want to work to find a solution to make everyone happy," Richie said. "As a community, we're trying to balance what's good or what's bad. Is a renovated home with an Airbnb better than a dilapidated home?"   

Richie and his wife have two properties they rent through Airbnb but have avoided the ire of their neighbors because they live on site and can intervene if guests, say, misrepresent themselves and rent out their properties to throw a wild party.  

He said the number of short-term rentals in the neighborhood fluctuates throughout the year with eight being the highest active number they've had at one time. 

"There are rumors of one building being converted into six Airbnbs, which would be impactful on parking," he said. 

Constantin, who has lived in Spanish Town for 20 years, said she can't think of any place in the neighborhood where there are six or more people living in a house. Airbnbs also don't foster the community relationships that has shaped the character of Spanish Town, she said. 

"A person staying in an Airbnb is not going to hold a potluck, they aren't paying civic dues. If someone breaks a leg, they're not going to bring them a meal or feed their cat if you're gone on vacation," she said. "If the person is on-site, we can have a relationship with the owner. They are invested in the community and want to preserve its historic value too." 

Councilwoman Tara Wicker agrees and is open to discussing the issue further. 

Wicker was instrumental in the implementation of the current Spanish Town parking permit policy which allots a certain number of permits for residents and their guests to park along the neighborhood's narrow streets. 

Lately, many neighbors have complained about not having anywhere to park for days at a time when three or more guests are staying at one short-term rental property and illegally parking along the street.

Wicker is scheduled to meet with the residents to discuss their concerns and how to advance proposals to the full Metro Council. 

"I've had conversations with the council person in New Orleans that put together their ordinance," Wicker said. "Spanish Town has a similar character as the areas in New Orleans that were experiencing problems with this kind of industry coming in." 

The city of New Orleans in January revised some of the provisions its had in place since 2017 regarding short-term rentals. Those regulations required homeowners have certain permits in order to rent their rooms and/or entire houses to tourists and prohibited short-term rentals in the French Quarter. 

Last month, the New Orleans City Council adopted the plan requiring owners to live on site of any short-term rentals properties being rented to tourists. The plan includes a framework to generate affordable housing funds for the city by hiking licensing and per-night fees on short-term rentals.

The regulations in New Orleans were born out of the same concerns for neighborhood preservation and to curtail how many affordable homes were being  transformed into high-price, high-end short rentals.

Those discussions were fraught with tension with neighborhood groups and affordable housing advocates criticizing existing regulations for being too lax and enabling short-term rentals to displace thousands of long-term residents and drive up home prices.

Short-term rental owners, on the other hand, argued the practice allows many property owners to supplement their income.

Laura Rillos, a spokeswoman for Airbnb, said the company has no problem sitting at the table with Baton Rouge city leaders to help craft legislation beneficial to everyone, which she says they've done in other cities, including New Orleans. 

"Airbnb helps Baton Rouge families earn meaningful extra income to help make ends meet, save for retirement and pay for home repairs, while bringing visitor spending to neighborhoods that haven’t typically benefited from tourism," Rillos said in a prepared statement. "We’ve worked with hundreds of governments around the world, on fair rules that allow our hosts and the city to receive the full economic benefits of short-term rentals, while protecting neighborhood character."

Rillos said that during the 2018 college football season, the Baton Rouge Airbnb host community welcomed 3,450 guests and earned $359,800 in supplemental income.

"The growth of home sharing in Baton Rouge has allowed the city to accommodate extra visitors and take full advantage of the unique economic opportunity presented by college football," she said.


Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.