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Commentary: Short-term rentals, big-time problems 

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The city lists exactly 214 legal short-term rentals in New Orleans. Inside Airbnb found 3,621 active short-term rentals in the city as of last week.

Signs stapled to utility poles in Bywater were blunt, sardonic and probably gave some tourism officials heartburn: "DEAR TOURIST, WELCOME TO NOLA!!!!" the signs read. "Are you staying in an illegal short-term rental listed on Airbnb or VRBO? If so, then YOU are directly responsible for displacing the last remaining long-time neighborhood residents that are survivors of the largest disaster that's ever happened in America ... Enjoy your stay in our former homes, y'all!!!!"

  City Hall has long promised to do something about short-term rentals. It hasn't, unless you count extended studies and no enforcement. In 2013, Gambit found dozens of illegal short-term rentals — from rooms to mansions — being rented out before Super Bowl XLVII. In response to a public records request, we discovered that not a single administrative subpoena had been issued for violations of the city's short-term rental law during the last half of 2012.

  On nola.gov, updated last month, the city lists exactly 214 legal short-term rentals in New Orleans — many of which are traditional hotels such as the Windsor Court and the Ritz- Carlton. Meanwhile, the website Inside Airbnb (www.insideairbnb.com), which is not affiliated with the company, found 3,621 active short-term rentals in the city as of last week, 72 percent of which were entire homes. The average rental rate was $207 per night.

  Short-term rental advocates often portray the industry as a net good, allowing locals to combat the skyrocketing cost of living with a side job. That's true in some cases, but the numbers show that right now short-term rentals in New Orleans are an aboveground economy that turns homeowners (and some renters) into unlicensed hoteliers, penalizes legitimate operators and leaves neighbors with little recourse as the houses around them become occupied by transients.

  In 2014, the New Orleans City Council voted 6-0 to tighten archaic short-term rental regulations to better fit the age of Airbnb. Since then, City Hall has studied and held a hearing on the subject, but otherwise little was done.

  The time for study is over. This year, licensed bed-and-breakfasts saw their first-ever vacancies during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, generally a high time for room rentals. Meanwhile, Airbnb boasted in a press release it had brokered 20,000 stays during Jazz Fest — 2.5 times the number from last year. In that time, the City Council has talked a lot and done little. Short-term rental critics argue, correctly, that such an overwhelming number of illegal rentals decreases housing stock and drives up real estate prices. By taking residences (often whole houses) off the long-term renter's market, short-term rentals take up apartments that otherwise could provide a home for permanent residents.

  According to a report issued last month by the city's Budget and Legislative Analyst's Office, fewer than 2,000 of the more than 7,000 Airbnb operators in New Orleans have registered with the city. An effort by state Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, to establish minimum standards for fire safety at the state level was shot down by lawmakers last week.

  New Orleans needs to get serious about regulating short-term rentals. No more talk. No more studies. It's time for real regulation, enforcement and taxation. It's a matter of public safety as well as fairness.

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