publisher’s notes by beverly s. mckenna
“Get in where you fit in” is one of those old, time-worn adages that I had never really pondered or applied to my personal life until . . . the May 16 City Council meeting.
As a matter of fact, ego aside, I have never felt limited in anything I want to attempt based on merit or my willingness to expend the effort needed to get the job done. I have felt constrained only by the lack of opportunity to get in the game and the level of the playing field once I get there—which we all know has never been an equitable one for Blacks compared to Whites.
We arrived at the May 16 meeting promptly at 9:30 a.m., surveyed the crowded Council chamber, then listened intently to numerous testimonies, both pro and con, around the issue of the day — short term rentals/AirBNBs. No matter what you call it, it was hot.
In the interest of full disclosure, we, a group of friends and associates, have banded together in the last couple of years around this STR issue which we all care passionately about. We have attended public meetings, spoken out at city council hearings, visited the seven council members individually, while unapologetically, yet respectfully, expressing our opposing views on the very “political” argument that small, locally-owned STR operators are the primary reason for the affordable housing crisis and need to be put out of business.
Who are we? Simply put, we are a group of energetic, persevering, mature Black women who have worked hard through the years at any one of a number of jobs and professions. We have judiciously saved our money while investing in neighborhood properties, picking up one or two here and there with several motives that include: building safeguards for our approaching retirements, as well as augmenting our current incomes through the rentals of property we own and control. For some it is securing another source of money to help finance grandchildren’s college tuitions as we look to the future; and of course, many of us have felt strongly that through the purchase of properties in areas where the neighborhoods had been Black-owned and populated for generations that we could resist the onslaught of gentrification and maintain in some measure these areas for those who had long lived here. There are others like my family who intentionally operate at least one affordable housing unit for every STR that we have invested in. We keep Section 8 units in our portfolio as a push back against gentrification and the blatant eradication of housing available to those most in need. Noble reasons all….or so we thought.
We Know the Truth
It is also worth pointing out that we are all well informed about the workings of our city and knowledgeable about the intricacies of what keeps it moving economically; and we, of course, are aware of the impact of tourism, the leading industry in our community, and the major role that it plays here.
We know well the statistics: in 2018, there were 18 million visitors to New Orleans and that bolstered our economy by spending nearly $9 billion. My friends and I understand these kinds of numbers and statistics and what they mean for “us.”
And of course, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that despite these very impressive numbers attesting to the contributions of tourism to the New Orleans economy, Black people have, as usual, been left out of the dollars that these guests bring to our city, never mind that it is the African cultural retentions and Black people as the authentic culture bearers who attract the numerous visitors to our city.
So while faced with the stark, truths of the situation, we admitted to ourselves and each other that few if any Black middle-income people have the ways or means to benefit from the tourism dollars that keep our economy soaring. We don’t own hotels or other valuable CBD real estate, nor do we own restaurants or other businesses in the French Quarter
Virulent racism, historical government sanctioned policies like redlining, and blatant inequities in lending practices of banks and other financial institutions have seen to that.
Yet we, my friends and I concluded that the operation of short-term rentals was the most realistic and immediate way that we could participate in and benefit from tourism economy if even only on a marginal basis. While several of the group had been renting rooms in properties they owned for years, following in the footsteps of forbearers who had rented rooms in their homes during segregation when Blacks were legally barred from hotels and other public accommodations, the rest of us agreed that we would look at entering the STR tourism opportunity that had presented itself.
This is where “getting in where we fit in” becomes applicable to the subject at hand. To our way of thinking, this was an area where Black middle-class people, as well as Whites, could benefit directly from the tourism dollars that pour in to our city annually, but never spread to those neighborhoods outside the CBD and the French Quarter. Here is a way in which New Orleanians (local residents; not absentee landlords) could legally operate a STR and benefit economically in an appropriate space . . . SO WE THOUGHT.
Bringing Others With Us
We and the other STR operators, with whom we had forged alliances, really came to think of ourselves as small entrepreneurs, using our investments and ingenuity to add another revenue stream to our annual incomes. But more than just fostering our own narrow self-interests, we enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to bring others along with us as we attempted to enter the market. We were happy to be able to employ Black workers and service providers at fair and equitable salaries and retainers that the local tourism industry has never been known for. The opportunity to direct our out-of-town guests to other small Black-owned businesses, like Dizzy’s, Dooky’s, Morrow’s, the small businesses on Bayou Road and many others intrigued us, as well, and got positive responses from those business owners.
We also saw ourselves filling a much needed void in the industry, so that guests to our city, those seeking unique, personal interaction with New Orleans residents could do so on a regular basis. We were excited! Nothing but good could possibly come from our participation and the participation of others like us. What you had as a result of our entering the field were happy tourists, happy STR operators who had the opportunity at long last to benefit from the tourism economy, ecstatic small business owners tapping into another revenue stream and new tax revenue our small enterprises would pay to the city coffers for the improvement of city services.
There we go again “getting in where we fit in” with everyone benefiting ….RIGHT?
NAH. Not so fast!
Getting Pushed Out
Kristin Gisleson Palmer and several other members of the New Orleans City Council made the eradication of STRs their number one platform item (not affordable housing or minimum wages, not the sewerage and water crisis, nor even repair of the pot holes in our streets which are always hot topics of disgruntled voters, mind you) emboldening their constituents to rise up in very vocal protest against short term rental operators.
And then there were the wealthy hoteliers, developers who are said to have contributed handsomely to finance STR opposition while they unabashedly and with no shame seek concessions, tax abatements and other subsidies to construct a hotel on Morial Convention Center land at the expense of local tax payers all the while hypocritically lamenting that STRs detract from neighborhoods for “the people.”
They want to raise their voices against small time players like my friends and others like us, whose presence on the playing field might require them to share in a very minor way by siphoning a few dollars those who have now entered the STR business themselves.
Don’t even mention to me that the self-same city council members who have granted unconditional permits to operate STRs in commercial buildings, which are nothing if not small hotels, have NOT demanded that affordable units be included in these buildings for the benefit of the hotel and services workers whose jobs are located downtown. They have done this in the flourish of fancy press conferences and immersed in lofty words. You can’t make up stories like these.
Calling Out the Gentrifiers
And lest we forget, another group that has complained arduously about the short term rentals and AirBnBs, thus attempting to prevent us from getting in where we fit in, where we belong and have always been in New Orleans are these new-to-the-neighborhood (and often the city) gentrifiers, who have overtaken our communities in full force, all the while clothed in mock morality and with hypocritical talk of the STRs robbing the city of affordable housing, neighbors to get their mail or smile at, as they themselves displace the indigenous people who have lived in these neighborhoods forever. Have you checked out the changing complexion of the 7th Ward or Mid-City or Bywater? A hypocritical and disingenuous argument if ever I have heard one from people who will walk down the street, plop down on your front porch if they want to rest, and not even glance in your direction let alone smile at you.
I recall an incident several years ago when a drunk White guy came on my porch, knocked loudly and demanded to be let in . . . he even ripped a lantern from the porch wall. When the police arrived, they calmly and courteously put him in the patrol car for a ride home, they said. I cringed in horror when I think of what the outcome would have been had the neighborhood intruder been Black.
Which takes us back to the concept of “get in where you fit in”.
I have come to realize that it is no longer meant for the average citizen to “get in” or “fit in” in New Orleans. With our failing public education system (high-jacked from local control by cunning greedy outsiders) coupled with other policies that are purposely stacked against us, New Orleans is turning out to be no place to call home if you are Black, or middle-class, or poor, especially when your endeavors—no matter how minuscule they are in the grand scheme of things—somehow interfere with powerful and rich interests.
We were certainly no match for the hotel industry and wealthy land developers intent on monopolizing an industry that is big enough for all to get a fair share, if the truth be told.