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Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Urban farm owner responds to Airbnb controversy

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2015 at 1:30 PM

Last week, a listing on Airbnb for "simple, cheap camping" in the 9th Ward drew a lot of attention on social media, as did a post on Gambit's website about the listing, which has since been removed from Airbnb. Tom Mosakowski — who purchased the lot earlier this year to turn it into an urban farm and community space — offered his response to criticism of the site plans:
In light of the recent press about my property, particularly the catalyzing article titled "Site of deadly 9th Ward fire is now an Airbnb camp" in the Gambit's Blog of New Orleans, I would like to take this opportunity to share with the public my current and future plans for my property which I bought on February 10, 2015.

I purchased the land in the Upper 9th Ward of New Orleans with the intent of experimenting with a way of living that strives to take full responsibility for the health, welfare, and safety of all of life in the broadest and most long-term sense; or, said briefly: a way of living that is sustainable. I believe this can be practiced in one shape or form anywhere, whether in an old-growth rainforest a thousand years ago or in a regulated, polluted, former parking lot of today. For me, so far on this property, this has taken the form of working every day to clean up the considerable amount of trash that littered this site for years; establishing mutually beneficial relationships with neighbors; intercepting materials destined for landfills and re-purposing them into beautiful, functional, healthy components of the landscape, such as a living, edible, evergreen hedgerow around the property and a small wattle-and-daub storage shed; learning about the characteristics of the soil, such as contaminant-presence, in order to figure out the most healthy approach to growing food; learning about nonprofit organization creation; finding project leaders for such things as a compost project, film projections, a community garden, mural art, a free cafe/store/library, and a bike repair project; and more. In the four months of my ownership to date, the land has been much improved in these directions with a total expenditure of just $6.49 after the initial purchase (on rooting hormone for plant cuttings). An important part of this project since the beginning has been sharing the space and my lifestyle with others who are interested via a mutually beneficial arrangement: providing them with a base while in the city in exchange for help with projects on the property. I plan on this project being an educational asset for the larger community, as a demonstration and event space, but currently, please remember; it is in its infancy.

Regarding myself, I call this land home, am there every day, have camped there the entire time, and my personal expenses are less than $1,000 per year. I prefer to live this way and would rather be 'houseless' than rent or buy the means of a conventional lifestyle. When I want something, I prefer to integrate myself with the process of creating them, rather than going into debt to have them immediately. This is the first time I have owned property and I am trying to be informed about regulations and city ordinances while creatively determining the potential of this land that will be most beneficial.

On Wednesday, June 10, news was made about the means by which I was attempting to afford to pay the property tax and subsequently, planned improvements, on land I bought: compensated camping facilitated by the Airbnb website. In total, I have hosted people on 12 occasions by this means, have grossed only about $700, have received all positive reviews, and in the same period of time have hosted other people freely, with no monetary exchange, many more times than through Airbnb. Through money-free websites such as couchsurfing and WWOOFing, people message me everyday expressing their interest in visiting. I used to believe that Airbnb could play just a minor role, allowing people to contribute with money for absolutely necessary expenses rather than with manpower, but I now recognize that that was a mistake.

I had no previous knowledge that using Airbnb could be illegal here in New Orleans (though I admit, I could have kept myself more informed), and in fact, am still unclear as the regulations about short-term rentals specifically address rooms, not camping, and when I have searched the code of ordinances for regulations concerning camping in the city, the few results have not seemed relevant to my situation. I admit that it was not precautious to advertise myself on Airbnb while I am still figuring out how to navigate zoning and code rules, before I clarified legal details, and because of the way people have recently perceived my property. Being an Airbnb host has been a very minor part of my property, but has been the topic of all the press.

Legality issues aside, other concerns were voiced on the news article's comments and Facebook comment threads. Based upon the comments I could view, it seems to me that the reactions are mainly about two issues: the safety of this activity on my property and the relationship of this activity to the tragic fire of several years ago.

I will offer my viewpoint on these concerns below. I have already posted on the news article webpage and the accessible Facebook comment threads that I am open to discussion with anyone. I invited everyone and anyone to meeting times at my property June 10 and 11, but there was neither response nor attendance, except for a few people with whom I have already established dialogue.

The way I'll address the safety concerns is by speaking largely from my own experience. I have never been healthier. Such lifestyle choices as drinking rainwater (collected after the sky and metal roof have been washed for at least 30 minutes), living mostly outside, and acting in accordance with the truth that the immune system needs moderate exercise to be healthy (like we know the mind and muscles need) have enabled this for me. I know it is possible to live robustly mainly outside, or similar to camping, without utilities. I am doing it, and so do many people throughout the world, and even within and outside of this city. People who have come to my property have done so willingly, having been provided in advance with many caveats of the unconventional nature of living here. There is no expectation of conforming, or pressure to conform, and people have integrated themselves with the land to whatever degree they feel comfortable. All of my documented references on Airbnb (3 total), Couchsurfing (41 total), and hand-written have been positive. All of the current garden beds are raised with soil from off-site and, currently, I am proceeding with soil-testing.

Addressing the concerns of how the perceived current use of my property relates to the former, tragic history of the site, where eight people lost their lives in a fire, I hope I can clear up much misunderstanding. I have known about this history since before the purchase and, since owning the land, have maintained the memorial sign, cleaned up all of the trash on the entire property, made no attempt to bar anyone from entering the property boundary to be near the memorial, and answered any questions that any visitor asked. In fact, I met the older brother of one of the deceased about a week or two ago and after speaking with each other, as he left, he waved, said thank you to me, and seemed to me to be more at ease than when he arrived. No one has brought up any concerns until the news article that apparently led some people to believe that I am capitalizing off of a tragic history. At no point have I used the tragic history as a selling point or as something to ignore. And, as stated above, as my only source of income, the money I have acquired through renting campsites has not even afforded me to pay property tax for the upcoming year. I welcome anyone with a connection to the tragedy to not only visit, but also, to modify the memorial how they see fit. I have been receptive to this from the beginning.

I welcome any comments and questions.


Tom Mosakowski


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