An Open Letter to the New Orleans City Council: 99 Problems, Airbnb Ain’t One

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Dear City Council Members:

On Oct. 6, you are expected to vote on an ordinance to regulate short-term rentals—one that would effectively ban whole home rentals such as those that are traded through online marketplaces like Airbnb.com.

As the city of New Orleans seeks to strengthen these ordinances, the worst possible scenario would be any law that would ban whole-home rentals. To be sure, a ban would not halt the practice. In fact, it would be difficult and costly to regulate, ultimately resulting in a waste of city resources and efforts.

Quite frankly, we find it absurd for the City to dictate the terms under which property owners can lease their property. Whether a home owner chooses to rent out their entire domicile for a weekend, a week, a month or a year, ought to be at the sole discretion of the individuals involved in the transaction. So long as no criminal activity is taking place, property owners have the right to do what they want with and in their homes—any other notion is flat-out anti-capitalist and clearly un-American.

And for many homeowners trying desperately to hang on to their property in the wake of tough economic times, rising insurance rates, the enforcement of strict, sometimes onerous codes and increasing tax bills, being able to offer their homes on a short-term basis at profitable rates has provided opportunities to earn the capital needed to maintain and upkeep their property.

Even for those for whom short-term, whole home rentals is a  business, banning it cannot be an option. Finding a way to assess it and regulate in a manner that allows property owners to maintain their ability to use their property as they see fit is one thing. Telling people they cannot rent the property they own because someone else thinks it hurts the “character of the neighborhood” or erroneously believes it is driving up housing costs is another.

And for those who don’t like the idea of tourists living in residential neighborhoods while they vacation here, let’s not forget what we are always reminded of–that tourism is the lifeblood of our economy. What is so wrong with a little more of that lifeblood flowing through New Orleans’ veins to all parts of the city? Perhaps, that is the real reason some are so against the idea of individual property owners bartering directly with vacationers and offering up their homes to tourists? Could it be that they are not too happy with regular folk taking a bite out the pie that the well-heeled, corporate elite has become accustomed to keeping for themselves? Let’s be honest here! Have we really done tons of work to study short-term rentals and amend ordinances because people are distraught about not knowing their neighbors anymore? We think not.

There is a lot about the argument against short-term, whole home rentals that disturb us here at The New Orleans Tribune, but none bothers us and boggles our mind as much as the false narrative of whole home rentals as a chief cause of New Orleans’ affordable housing crisis.

Wait, what? Scapegoat, much?

Really, exactly when did Airbnb become the boogieman?  As we recall, it was this body, the New Orleans City Council that voted nearly 10 years ago to tear down traditional public housing for fewer mixed income units without a real plan for ensuring that enough quality housing would be available throughout the city for low-wage earning New Orleanians. When never relish in “I told you so,” but the fact is the The New Orleans Tribune and other concerned community entities have been trying to bring the housing crisis to the attention of the political and business community for years. And while you have finally turned your focus to affordable housing for all of the city’s residents through some policies that have at least attempted to marginally address the real issue along with the creation of HousingNOLA, we hope that you are not buying into this ridiculous notion that banning short-term, whole home rentals will save affordable housing in New Orleans.

Please do not be fooled by the rhetoric that paints short-term, whole home rentals as the reason New Orleans has an affordable housing problem. Make no mistake about it, the nightly, weekly or monthly rental cost of a St. Charles Avenue mansion, or a Garden District bungalow, or a Bywater hide-a-way traded on Airbnb.com is not why hardworking people in New Orleans are having a hard time finding affordable quality housing. The people that actually need this city’s leaders to concern themselves with affordable housing issues in New Orleans are not looking to rent a mansion on St. Charles Avenue.

They just really want a decent, affordable, safe place in the neighborhoods they love and have always called home.

There are 99 reasons many hardworking New Orleanians are having such trouble in the arena of affordable housing; but Airbnb ain’t one.

The shrinkage in the number of subsidized housing units at former housing development sites coupled with market rate rents as much as $1500 a month for a two-bedroom in what used to be the Iberville or the Lafitte make it incredibly difficult for the very women and men who are the backbone of New Orleans’ thriving tourism industry to have a decent place to call home. That is the problem. Not Airbnb.

In fact, we find it downright insulting to hear folk go on about how short-term rentals are making it hard for the “cool” people to make New Orleans home. Exactly what cool people are we talking about—the influx of gentrifiers earning exponentially more than minimum wage but because we hardly recall any outcry from all the special interests groups that have popped up around this issue now about a decade ago when maids, busboys, wait staff, daycare workers, fast food cashiers, and other hardworking individuals stuck in low-paying jobs were pushed out of the city’s housing market as many of the places they once called home were boarded and then razed. They were apparently not cool enough or rich enough or White enough to warrant well-funded media campaigns extolling the virtue of their existence despite the fact that they are the people on whose backs this city rests and the very people whose rich culture and history make New Orleans such a diverse and unique place.

Meanwhile, once rarely enforced guidelines that were inexplicably strictly enforced after housing projects were redeveloped post-Katrina have kept many former public housing residents from daring to return to the new, mixed-income developments to rent one of the few units set-aside at affordable rates.

Nope, Airbnb is not why a single working mother, or father for that matter, making minimum wage at both of his or her jobs just to stay afloat can’t find a decent place to live without spending half of their monthly income. The fact that the same neighborhood their families have lived in for generations has seen property values and rental and purchase costs skyrocket in the last 10 to 12 years has nothing to do with short-term rentals and everything to do with the gentrification that has been embraced in New Orleans like the prodigal son returning home. As property values skyrocket and tax bills increase, the real hardworking New Orleanians, whose blood flows through the city’s veins, have been pushed out of historical neighborhoods across the city to make way for the so-called “cool” people.

That’s why New Orleans is in the throes of an affordable housing crisis—at least a chief reason.

Yes, the affordable housing crisis is one we expect our city’s leaders to address. But to be clear, we want you to actually address it and not waste time or attention on contrived conspiracy theories that have absolutely nothing to do with why we are in this predicament.

Airbnb was founded in California in 2008 and has only gained widespread popularity in New Orleans arguably within the last few years. Let’s just say you effectively banned Airbnb type rentals in New Orleans and forced those homes back on the traditional rental market? Exactly what stops a homeowner from asking for $1800 , $2000, $2500 a month, which prices out poor, working class and even middle class New Orleanians, anyway? There are landlords commanding these sorts of lease payments now for traditional rentals, especially in the newly gentrified areas across the city, and that is the problem—not Airbnb.

New Orleans’ affordable housing crisis is bigger, deeper, and wider than a handful of homeowners earning some extra money renting their houses to tourists and vacationers. We actually believe that each of you is insightful enough to know that, but just in case there is any doubt, we thought we would tell you, urging you to move wisely on this matter so that you can return to the real important business of making life better for all of New Orleans’ residents.

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