On “An Open Letter to the Tales of the Cocktail® Community”

I love this balanced letter linked at the end of this post from a true New Orleans visionary asking her event visitors to use conforming guest lodging. This is a very important letter to send out to as many folks as possible.
I do believe however, (and my unscientific poll of my neighbors seems to correspond with this) that there are two versions of unregulated STR scenarios and they need to be dealt with differently: those who offer extra rooms for rent while living there and the other of absentee owners kicking out long time residents and turning their hastily purchased properties into cash cows, not really caring who their users are and how they act while they are in town.

The second STR situation needs to be done away with and the only way it can be is through detailed regulations, fines levied because the neighbors are able to register real complaints that result in action and includes penalties that jeopardize homestead exemptions.The first type should have light regulations but high fines for  anyone skirting the rules of on-site owner STRs. Looks to me that small tweaks of existing STR rules in the city can be updated to add onsite single STRS, as long as they are maxed out at a certain number of days per year.

So, as usual my post is about how I want to urge that we stop lumping in all STRs in one no-no.

It is true that most STRS are currently illegal as they are not permitted. It is not criminal, but instead, a violation of city code or of zoning, just as the illegal use of a home for a pop up snowball stand or neighborhood tire repair or those side windows where folks sell poboys would be dealt with. I think this is important as some of the conversation has become slightly overwrought and angrily denounces the neighbor who offers a single room in their home.  A couple of other examples of illegal activity commonly seen in the city that few people know about: it was illegal for fishermen to sell seafood off their truck in Orleans Parish for many, many years. Every other parish allowed it (meaning they did not pass laws against it) but Orleans went through a time when seafood houses lobbied that they should be the ones selling seafood and shrimpers standing in the hot sun should not. This ordinance was passed for food safety reasons, but hurt occasional fishers and our ability to access really fresh shrimp and bycatch. It is also true that someone growing food under a few acres in New Orleans is not allowed to sell that produce on site. It is also true that farmers market vendors are not permitted by City Hall if they do not live in the parish. In most of these cases, the city has worked out some sort of agreement to allow it, but it is still non-conforming or illegal use.

And if it seems odd to think of some of that as not allowed, I like to think it will one day to seem odd that my neighbor or friend was not allowed to let her extra room out a few times per year.

Of course, when I bring up shrimpers selling off their truck, or poboy windows as examples of illegal behavior, there are those who go positively frothy at the mouth at the comparison. I do understand that there is a much larger danger in the unchecked nature of STRs that has never been equalled with shrimpers or cooler beer sales at a second line, but I think any of these ordinances can often have unintended consequences on entrepreneurial activity and so we need to consider all of it carefully as well as the ability of our city hall to enforce what is passed.

(I’d like to comment on the argument often heard that STRs don’t pay taxes when in fact they do receive a 1099 and must pay income tax. Of course, they also pay their property tax on their property as well, so let’s just not overstate that issue. It is true they don’t pay hotel tax, but the city website seems to indicate that many smaller b&bs don’t have to pay hotel privilege or sales tax if under a certain number of rooms or without private baths. Yes those b&bs pay many fees, taxes and have other costs, but collecting added taxes for a room or two over a few nights is a nonstarter of an argument in my book.)

Another topic that also makes some look at me as if I announced a ban on go cups and/or king cake: it is that I believe while we must examine STRs openly and critically, we should also look at the effect of hotel zones too and see if we can discourage the addition of more massive development of these and instead encourage more small hotels, b&bs and boarding houses across the city, owned by locals. I get that some people think this will become a giant loophole to drive STRs in to, but I believe that incentivizing small hotels and b&bs will have the opposite effect. The massive skyscraper hotels are detrimental to neighborhood life and offer very low numbers of good jobs. I myself worked in a few of those behemoths and was glad for the work, but to do so, I went to an area devoid of street life and locals and made a very low wage.  Let’s face it: most of these large places are owned by far-off corporations that take as many opportunities to reduce their costs as they can, including low pay and few taxes and offering less for their buck.
So one reason that many of these visitors are choosing STRs is because the hotel industry has not evolved to include the type of layout or amenities that visitors increasingly want. Whether it is for pleasure or for business, people travel differently than they did two decades ago and want to be able to avail themselves of more types of experiences. More people travel with their friends or extended family and need shared space for cooking or lounging that hotels do not yet provide. Or they would rather not be at the mercy of lowest denominator tourist traps or beholden to a small group of taxi services who, if you have ever tried to register a serious complain against one, often have little regard for their customers comfort.
My point is when we get rid of the majority of STRs, an action that I fully support, we also need to reconsider what hospitality means in the 21st century and how New Orleans can offer it without losing our neighborhoods. I want more locals making a little money off tourism as long as it is managed so as not to drive our residents away.

The rental market also needs incentives to reboot itself, such as one time tax credits for adding decent long term rentals, technical assistance to homeowners to become good landlords and fair sublet regulations for students and residents who travel for part of the year. The best kind of housing advocacy is being done by folks around town like Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative. This is the statement they added today:

JPNSI is concerned that thousands of housing units are being removed from residential use, particularly in our service area of Mid-City, which has seen a jump from 73 STRs in 2015 to 276 STRs in 2016- an increase of 278%. While we spoke out about how whole-house rentals are contributing to the housing crisis and displacement of residents, we also called for a strengthening of New Orleans’ notorious weak tenant laws that make it easy for landlords to evict tenants from housing, and recommend that a percentage of the monies generated by the permitting and regulation of STRs to be directed to the Neighborhood Housing Improvement Fund to support the development of affordable housing.

So I vigorously applaud the above and TOTC’s statement in favor of our gorgeous Monteleones, Roosevelts and Valentino-owned small Quarter hotels, but let’s try to get some balance and fair play to those neighbors who have the ability to offer a room or in wanting to legally add a small property for visitors along the Canal Streetcar line or out by the lakefront and legislate these uses for a small responsible number.

Source: An Open Letter to the Tales of the Cocktail® Community | Tales of the Cocktail

About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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