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Commentary: taking on whole-home short-term rentals 

click to enlarge A protest last week outside New Orleans City Hall urged the City Council to outlaw whole-home short-term rentals.

PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD

A protest last week outside New Orleans City Hall urged the City Council to outlaw whole-home short-term rentals.

In May, when we last examined New Orleans' largely illegal short-term rental (STR) market — fueled by online companies like Airbnb and VRBO — there were an estimated 3,621 STRs in the city. By June (the latest month for which statistics are available), there were 4,316 — an increase of more than 600 in just one month (and that's just Airbnb). Make no mistake: Despite years of foot-dragging by City Hall, operating an unlicensed B&B in your house, which is what unlicensed STRs are, is as against the law as operating an unlicensed restaurant in your garage.

  What have officials done about this? Not much. In July 2014, the City Council voted 6-0 to tighten regulations. In 2015, District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell called it "the year of regulation," but little if any enforcement followed.

  The universe of STRs is diverse. It includes owner-occupied as well as dwellings of absentee owners, whole homes or apartments as well as a room or two, and year-round rentals as well as rentals for just a week here and there. The New Orleans City Planning Commission (CPC) voted unanimously in August to recommend banning whole-home STRs, which account for more than 3,000 rentals, or 72 percent of the local market. Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration has urged the City Council to reconsider whole-home rentals in residential areas, a move opposed by many neighborhood groups — and one that proved embarrassing last week when The Times-Picayune | NOLA.com revealed that Phyllis Landrieu, the mayor's aunt, has been renting out a four-bedroom house on St. Charles Avenue for $750 a night on Airbnb.

  The City Council will take up the issue again this Thursday (Oct. 6). The CPC recently approved a long list of suggested updates to the city's zoning code to reflect the current market of internet-based exchanges for STRs of less than 30 days. The commission does not have the final word, however. The City Council must decide whether short-term rentals in New Orleans — in certain neighborhoods or citywide — will be allowed, and under what circumstances.

  There are valid arguments on both sides of this issue. Many fear that taking homes off the long-term market by turning them into year-round STRs cripples not just the housing supply but also the uniqueness and livability of neighborhoods. Many homeowners — some of whom live in doubles, triplexes or fourplexes — say the only way they can remain homeowners is by turning their attached apartments into STRs.

  Also on the table are short-term rentals in areas not zoned as residential, which include most of the French Quarter and large swaths of downtown. CPC recommendations would not restrict the number of whole-home STRs in such areas. If the city is serious about preserving neighborhoods for residents first, the regulations banning whole-home rentals should include all neighborhoods.

  Commissioners and many residents feel comfortable with the city allowing homeowners to rent an extra room or half a double (if the owner occupies the other half) for several weeks or more a year. But taking year-round, absentee-owned, whole-home STRs off the table in every neighborhood is the very least the council can do to address this longstanding issue.

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Speaking of Whole-home Short-term Rentals, New Orleans City Planning Commission (CPC)

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