New Orleans residents would be able to continue renting out rooms on Airbnb but would be barred from using entire houses and apartments solely for short-term stays by tourists under a proposal being crafted by City Councilwoman Stacy Head.
The plan would crack down on a practice that has been at the center of debates over short-term rentals in the city and comes as a new analysis estimates that at least 1,764 houses and apartments in the city are being fully rented out on a short-term basis.
But Head is thinking about holding out a carrot to those looking for an exemption: If they fix up one of the thousands of blighted homes in the city, they would be allowed to use it exclusively for short-term rentals for a few years.
The debate over Airbnb and similar online services, such as VRBO and HomeAway, that allow residents to market all or portions of their properties to visitors who will be in town for just a few days has been simmering for years.
The fight has pitted neighborhood groups and people pushing for more affordable housing against those who use the sites to make money and argue they should be able to do with their property as they wish.
Neither of those groups will likely be completely satisfied with Head’s proposal, and, in fact, the difficulties of getting an agreement has dragged out the process of introducing the ordinance.
“I thought we could deal with the simple stuff first, but even the simple stuff has me stymied,” said Head, who began working on the issue last year before putting it aside to focus on the new comprehensive zoning ordinance the council passed in May.
With that out of the way, Head said, she’s turning back to the issue of short-term rentals and could present a version of her proposal to the council within weeks.
The basics of the plan are simple and are designed to address one of the most frequently raised concerns about Airbnb and similar services — that some property owners are using their entire homes as “mini-hotels.”
Head’s plan would legalize short-term rentals, which are currently barred in New Orleans under a seldom-enforced ordinance, but only in cases where a resident is renting out part of a property where the resident in fact lives.
That would include cases where an owner lives in one half of a double and rents out the other half to tourists, but there would be a cap on the number of bedrooms that could be used for short-term rentals per property.
Money from licensing those rentals would be directed back into enforcement efforts to crack down on those who don’t follow the rules, Head said.
Those resources are needed because pursuing violators is an expensive and labor-intensive process, she said.
“We want to reduce the negatives and answer the complaints people have while recovering revenue for the city to allow for better enforcement against the bad actors,” Head said. “And this answers the call from the people who want to do this as sort of a cottage industry in their own home.”
Short-term rentals raise several problems in the eyes of critics:
- That turning properties into ad hoc hotel rooms further cuts down on an already limited housing supply, potentially exacerbating the soaring rents and housing prices in recent years.
- That filling apartments with temporary visitors, rather than residents, can break up or prevent a strong neighborhood community from forming.
- That the unlicensed rentals are not subject to the taxes paid by hotels and motels.
“There are people arguing that the proliferation of short-term rentals has directly negatively impacted the rental market for long-term tenants,” Head said. “I think there’s absolutely some truth to that in certain areas of the city.”
InsideAirbnb.com, a website that is critical of the service and attempts to analyze its proliferation in certain cities, recently began gathering data on its use in New Orleans.
The site, which gathers data from Airbnb’s page and provides a map and analysis of its findings, estimates there are about 2,614 properties in New Orleans listed with the service. About 67.5 percent of those — a total of 1,764 — are listings for a full house or apartment. And about 91 percent of the properties are available for more than two months out of every year, a figure the site uses as a benchmark for properties that are not being used by a full-time resident.
About 45 percent of the total were posted by people who have multiple listings on the site, which Inside Airbnb argues is a sign that they’re running a full-scale business rather than simply trying to cover their rent or make a little extra money on the side.
The numbers posted to the site track with data the city previously received from Airbnb directly, Head said.
Should her initial proposal get approved, Head said, she is looking into the more complex issue of whether short-term rentals could be used as a tool to get investors to clean up blighted properties and bring them back into commerce.
One solution to the 10,000 blighted properties in the city could involve allowing people who purchase them and fix them up to fully rent them out to short-term tenants for several years, giving the neighborhoods they are in a chance to stabilize to the point where longer-term rentals are possible, Head said.
And that, in turn, could lead to a situation where it might be less of an issue to ease the restrictions on short-term rentals elsewhere in the city.
“There are so many blighted properties that if all of our efforts to get them into commerce were successful, it’s possible there would be a place for non-owner-occupied short-term rentals,” she said.
Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.