New Orleans brought the hammer down Wednesday on a handful of short-term rental owners in the French Quarter, levying the maximum fines against owners of a half-dozen properties accused of breaking new city regulations.
In all, property owners who were found to be listing their properties on Airbnb, VRBO and similar sites were assessed a total of $17,000 in fines in adjudication hearings.
Although the new regulations authorize short-term rentals in almost all of the city, most of the French Quarter remains off-limits for such activity.
The rapid-fire hearings included a complaint from one property's neighbor that a vacationer had defecated in front of her property while naked.
One owner said that all the reviews for her home on Airbnb came from her own family, and a handful of property owners said their tenants — not they — were the ones responsible for trying to rent out the units.
Schalyece Harrison, the hearing officer, took a dim view of the excuses being offered, especially since short-term rentals have never been legal in the Quarter — or, until recently, anywhere in New Orleans.
"In the French Quarter, you can never do it," Harrison said during the hearing. "That’s the problem with people ... saying, 'I took (the listing) down.' You were never allowed to do it."
The hearings were for the first 10 properties to be cited for violations of the short-term rental law enacted by the city last year, which went into effect this spring.
City officials moved first against violations in the French Quarter because short-term rentals are banned almost everywhere in that district, making violations more clear-cut.
They expect to go after illegal short-term rentals operating elsewhere in the city in the coming months.
For the most part, the properties that received fines Wednesday were given the maximum penalty of $500 per violation, an amount set in state law.
Most of the owners were charged with multiple violations that covered illegally listing the property, illegally operating it as a short-term rental without a license, illegally renting it out for less than 60 days — the minimum allowed in the French Quarter — and other infractions.
The defenses offered by the property owners were varied.
One said the apartment was used only to house musical acts for a bar she also owns, though reviews on Airbnb suggested otherwise.
Another woman suggested that even though her property is listed online, it was primarily occupied by her family and friends she let stay there.
Lillian McNee, the city's adjudication facilitator, responded, "I have family and friends stay with me, and I don't put the listing on VRBO. It doesn't make sense."
An attorney for one property owner, confronted by a neighbor who said a tourist had used her property as a toilet after being unable to get inside his short-term rental, said the event was "obnoxious and abhorrent" but occurred before the new law went into effect.
City officials said the listing for that property remained online after the new rules were in place and that they continued to receive complaints from neighbors.
The attorney, John Menszer, presented a two-month lease covering the time the violations had occurred, but officials noted it didn't prohibit short-term rentals.
"The (online) advertisement is enough for me," Harrison said. "It appears it is still going on, and we’ll bring him in again, and I will fine him again. I would strongly suggest he doesn’t continue to do this."
The fines can be appealed to Civil District Court, and Harrison repeatedly responded to complaints from those being penalized to "take it across the street" to the courthouse.
Those included a case where a representative of an apartment building said the owner had evicted the only tenants known to be using their units as short-term rentals.
"We appreciate your responsiveness in coming in. We appreciate that you took (the listings) down when you were informed they needed to come down," said Jennifer Cecil, director of the city's One Stop permitting office. "The part that is less pleasing to the department is that they were listed after it was well publicized this law was going into effect."
Harrison offered little in the way of leniency during the hearing, though she did impose fines of only $250 per violation on a unit that took down its listing after being notified by the city.
Only three of the properties targeted by the city in the first round avoided fines. One, at 941 Dauphine St., avoided penalties because the official notice of the violation was delivered to the deceased former owner of the home and not to the heirs.
The case against another, a property at 1025 Bienville St. owned by Vincent Marcello, was dropped because, even though a complainant said the unit had been listed as "Animal House" on a short-term rental site, enforcement officers were unable to find that listing.
Another hearing, on a property at 839 Decatur St., was postponed so the property's owner could attend. "It was still up," Harrison said of the listing for that property. "So I don't know what he's going to say."