City Council sends issue of short-term rentals back to Planning Commission _lowres

Advocate file photo: A sign on Burgundy street in the French Quarter advertises an apartment for rent in New Orleans. Many long term residents in the French Quarter are worried the neighborhood will soon be only rentals.

The New Orleans City Planning Commission on Tuesday endorsed the City Council’s recent decision to halt the issuance of most licenses for short-term rentals of entire homes in the neighborhoods where such rentals are most common.

One commission member suggested additional areas should be included in the moratorium while a study on new citywide regulations for the rentals is completed.

Meanwhile, in the face of competition from out-of-town companies with numerous local listings on sites like Airbnb and VRBO, some short-term rental operators who live in the city appear to be coming around to a position staked out previously by critics of all the rentals: making a homestead exemption a prerequisite to getting a license to rent a home out to tourists.

To get a homestead exemption, an owner must swear the property is their principal residence. 

The commission’s 5-1 vote endorsing the temporary moratorium came after nearly five hours of public comments from more than 100 people on both sides of the debate.

The speakers were not only weighing in on the temporary halt to some short-term rental licenses but also stating their views for the planning commission’s long-term study, which is due September.

Short-term rental regulations have been passionately debated in New Orleans for years, even before rules crafted through negotiations between former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and Airbnb were approved in 2016 and went into effect last year.

Some residents, affordable-housing advocates and hospitality workers argued Tuesday that thousands of short-term rentals in the city have forced up the price of housing and led to tenants being evicted from their homes to make way for wealthier travelers whose brief, sometimes noisy visits chip away at the fabric of neighborhoods.

Groups seeking tighter rules include various neighborhood organizations, hospitality workers with UNITE-HERE Local 23 and New Orleans and Co. — the new name for the city's convention and visitors bureau.

“There are people who work here and live here and get this city ready for the tourists that you all are so concerned about that can’t afford to live here,” Sharon Jasper said. “They pushed us out of the communities. How would you like to come here and stay near some of these short-term rentals?”

Short-term rental operators defended the practice, arguing that it provides owners with a steady source of income that, in some cases, has allowed them to stay in their homes in the face of rising taxes and other expenses.

Those arguments took on a new flavor Tuesday, with some owners saying the council's decision to halt some licenses had caught them off-guard and prevents them from continuing to rent out their properties. But they suggested they might be amenable to new regulations.

The commission’s action was largely a formality. The City Council, almost immediately after five new members took office in May, began the process of creating an "interim zoning district" to force the city to stop issuing new "temporary" short-term rental licenses or renewing old ones for entire homes in the city’s historic riverfront neighborhoods and the Central Business District.

That policy will remain in effect until the commission's study is completed or until nine months pass.

Temporary rentals allow entire homes in those areas to be rented out for up to 90 days a year.

The council also halted a small number of “commercial” short-term rental licenses, which allow properties that are not zoned residential to be rented 12 months a year on a short-term basis.

“Accessory” short-term rental licenses, which are issued for owner-occupied properties where anything from a bedroom to a half-double is rented to tourists, were not affected by the council’s actions.

The council's vote immediately stopped the city from issuing licenses in the "interim zoning district," but the creation of the district itself still had to go before the planning commission and eventually back to the council.

Many of the short-term rental operators who spoke Tuesday also endorsed a homestead exemption requirement or a cap on the number of short-term rentals an individual can own.

They cast blame on large-scale operators renting out numerous properties with little on-scene oversight for many of the problems that neighbors complain about. 

“If we can just rein in the bad actors, we can eliminate them with the homestead exemption requirement,” said Dana Washington, who said she has a short-term rental and supports making a homestead exemption a requirement for a temporary license.

Other speakers called for relaxing a prohibition on short-term rentals in most of the French Quarter. At the same time, some Garden District residents asked that the ban be expanded to cover their neighborhood.

The city planning staff is expected to release its report Aug. 21. The commission will have a meeting to send the recommendations to the City Council after that.

In the meantime, longtime Commissioner Kelly Brown urged the council to expand the areas where licenses would not be renewed to include Gentilly, the Lakefront and New Orleans East, so as to address concerns raised by residents there.

Commissioner Walter Isaacson suggested that owners who previously had short-term rental licenses in the area of the "interim zoning district" should be allowed to renew at least one of them, even if new licenses are banned.

Neither of those ideas could be formally added to the commission's vote of support because of procedural requirements.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.​