Big Easy Airbnbs Mushroom, Sparking Debate Over City's Soul

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — For years, tourists in New Orleans mostly stayed in the French Quarter. They did their drinking there, gawked at raunchy shows on Bourbon Street and gorged themselves at exquisite restaurants.

         But that's changing, partly thanks to a mushrooming of short-term rentals through websites like Airbnb. Now tourists — some of whom come to party — are found in neighborhoods around the city, and locals are divided about whether that's a good thing.

         Some say the rentals help residents — including artists and young entrepreneurs — bolster income in a city where many still struggle 10 years after Hurricane Katrina. Others say the spread of tourism to residential areas hurts the quality of life.

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         Anti-Airbnb signs declaring "neighbors, not tourists" are common. Meetings on the topic are passionate. Complaints against the rentals have doubled. Hotel and bed-and-breakfast owners have joined neighborhood groups to press for restrictions. The state is looking to tax them like motels.

         Brittanie Bryant is so fed up with bachelor parties at the townhouse-turned-hotel next door that she and her husband are considering moving.

         "Guests vomit on our cars, pee on our cars, throw up in our yard, throw trash in our yard, rip out our flowers," said Bryant, who lives on Esplanade Avenue, a charming street outside the French Quarter with gabled and balconied 19th-century Creole townhouses and sprawling live oaks hung with Spanish moss.

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         Across the city, in predominantly black Pontchartrain Park, Baba Ken Amen says he makes ends meet renting his art-filled, solar-powered home on Airbnb. "This is how we can afford to pay the taxes," said Amen, an artist and vegan caterer. "I'm not getting rich off this."

         For $165 a night, guests can get a "down-home experience" in what he advertises as "Pontchartrain Park Paradise," with its jazz collection, books and African masks. Amen says his guests help the area: "They support our local grocery stores … they're trying things in the neighborhood."

         Airbnb and other sites like HomeAway offer up to 4,000 private properties for rent nightly around New Orleans: from former slave quarters and artists' lofts, to Cotton Kingdom-era mansions, sunny Creole cottages and brightly painted "shotgun" houses — narrow homes with rooms connected like railroad cars.

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         Technically, most of these rentals are illegal. The City Council expects to adopt new rules this year to legalize the practice while regulating it and balancing neighborhood needs. In January, city planners suggested limiting the rentals in some historic neighborhoods and revoking licenses of bad operators while requiring insurance, property managers and guest logs.

         Nationally the issue isn't new. Portland, Oregon, legalized short-term rentals in 2014. San Francisco, where Airbnb is headquartered, legalized them last year. In New York City, renting out an extra room or couch is fine, but it's illegal to rent most apartments for fewer than 30 days. New York's state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in 2014 that three-fourths of New York City Airbnb listings were illegal. The company said it removed many of those listings, but some New Yorkers blame Airbnb for helping to drive rents up.

         In New Orleans, many also blame the rentals for exacerbating post-Katrina housing shortages, skyrocketing rents and the exodus of less wealthy residents from the city center.

         "The full-time residents aren't as plentiful as they used to be," griped Louis Matassa, a white-haired grocer at a French Quarter grocery store that opened in 1924. "The staples: They don't sell. The animal food, the milk, the cartons of eggs."

         The store harks back to an era when the quarter was populated by artists and musicians crammed into dilapidated apartments. "My business has fallen off and for the first time in almost a century, the future is uncertain," he wrote to the city. "The community is my customer base, and the community is dying."

         But supporters say Airbnb enhances one of the city's biggest industries: tourism.

         "The economics are very clear that we need to embrace tourists, and wherever they want to stay, we let them," said Christian Galvin, who rents out several properties nightly and serves on the Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, a pro-Airbnb group. "Short-term renters use the post office; they use dry cleaners; they use the grocery stores; they don't go in just for cigarettes."

         Airbnb says its rentals contributed $140 million to New Orleans' economy in a year and disputes the claim that short-term rentals drive up housing costs. Airbnb spokeswoman Alison Schumer also said in a statement that Airbnb supports the "city's ongoing efforts" at regulation.

         Whether or not Airbnb is the cause, locals say neighborhoods are changing. Rick Mathieu, a longtime resident of Treme, said his neighborhood is nearly empty of families. Pointing to a house, he said a woman who lives in San Francisco "bought it and made it into a money-making thing." But he defended her right, as a property owner, "to do anything you want."

         Jamie Ruth, who sells art and runs a tattoo parlor on St. Claude Avenue, a rundown corridor that's become a hipster hangout since Katrina, says Airbnb is good for business, but can hurt neighborhoods.

         "I get a lot of walk-ins staying in Airbnbs," she said. But she called it "obnoxious" for people to buy homes and turn them into tourist rentals. "It really messes with the neighborhood," she said, "and also drives up the rent for people who actually live here."

         – by AP Reporter Cain Burdeau



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