Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Sin City-What Happens in Vegas . . . You know the rest

In the late 80's Vegas tried a more family friendly marketing plan. Many casinos set up areas like arcades for kids to play in while their parents hit the slots. As a long time visitor it was disconcerting to find ourselves on a casino floor watching cargo short wearing dads pushing oversized strollers through the banks of machines and blackjack tables.

When I was a kid there was a very definite line between adult activities and kids' presence. “Go outside and play. The adults are talking,” was a standard refrain in my house and my parents sure were't “swingers.” It was just very clear that some things were for grown ups only, and they were entitled to their space. Mom, Dad and their friends certainly weren't swinging from chandeliers, not that we had chandeliers, but their conversations whatever they were were things they didn't want to have to explain to us until we were “Older.” At least that was the explanation I was always given when I asked why all the secrecy.

Meanwhile around 2008 Las Vegas seems to have largely abandoned the push toward family friendly weekend stays and reverted back to showgirls and drinks at gaming tables. Their tourist bureau started using the “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” and it's been one of the most recognizable and apparently profitable marketing campaigns ever created. Why? Because Sin Sells. Even if Mom and Dad aren't availing themselves of the more outre offerings of Las Vegas, they can go, be adults with other adults and get a little naughty. She'll pack her black lacey teddy and they'll book a nice room. They might even get a little drunk one night and hit a show. He'll ogle the long legged beauties in the ten foot wing span headdresses, she'll look at him as the slightly faded Lothario he still thinks he is but he's HER Lothario. He got her after all, didn't he?

New Orleans has also been seen for a very long time as a “naughty city” our Tourism bureau make it look like out city is one continuous party and many of our tourists treat her as such. Then they go home having done some things here they'd never do at home and may never do again, but they will always get stars in their eyes when they remember their trip to New Orleans.

Sin Sells. Folks can sin for a week or two on their vacations then head home to their local churches and all will be well.

Our current raids on local strip clubs just ahead of Mardi Gras is in my view counter to our “Naughty City” marketing. No we're not Bangkok but a less enlightened Amsterdam might be a viable description. We'll never make the list of the Naughtiest Cities except by virtue of our bar hours. And kids can't get into the clubs or bars. No  ID. So no real problem.

I've always thought one of the dumbest things New Orleans ever did was accede to the Secretary of the Navy's prudishness and shutter and demolish Storyville while one of the smartest things was its creation in the first place.

This current war against the clubs on Bourbon is a job wrecker for a city whose population relies so heavily on service industry jobs. I know several dancers, all but one of them are either students in college working for tuition or single mothers. None of them are prostitutes. They're just dancers and all of them chose it, not one was forced into nor are any of them being held against their will. They dance because they're good at it and the money is great, “much more than I could ever make waiting tables.”

What are we doing New Orleans? I know the days of Evangeline the Oyster girl are long gone unfortunately. I would have loved to see some of the ladies from that era. We are visited because of our history architecture and Mardi Gras for sure but also because of our vaguely sinful reputation. Do we want to be Dayton Ohio? Nothing against Dayton but it's not particularly evocative is it?

I'm also a bit concerned about the tinge of “judgment” I'm seeing regarding the dancers and the clubs. We gonna slap a degenerate art banner over their doors after we shutter them? And what exactly would the city fathers prefer? More tshirt shops or do we just let the developers come in, get some boffo tax abatement, build some luxury timeshare condos who market themselves as the former strip club, counting on the “naughty” to sell units? I'm just not sure what's being accomplished by all this raiding other than to put a lot of folks out of a job. And the timing is terrible. Not that I'd think it a great idea at any other time but two weeks before Mardi Gras is really really dumb.

Our tourist bureau will I guess just come up with a tag line like “where you drank too much in New Orleans will stay in the cloud forever! We have cameras!” Yeah, that'll bring folks in. I'm also not saying that we should ignore folks who bring the family to our city but truth is there's not a hell of a lot of interest to most of today's 11 year olds unless they're serious history buffs. My grandson at that age was most impressed by the Lucky Dog carts. The WW2 museum was terrific for about an hour! Let's embrace our "adult entertainment" reputation. See the link below to see how really very tame we are.Places that make us look like relative Puritans

Ten Years. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Sin Sells!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

He Won't Actually DO That

He won't actually DO that, but Hillary . . .”

It's taken me two weeks to pull myself together to write this. The reasons for the procrastination run the gamut from feeling disloyal to too much rum. I also tried to make sense of it, going over it and over it, thinking perhaps I had missed something that would explain it. That was time wasted. My attempt was in vain.

Sometime in 1972-73, I went to dinner at a close family member's house. I even remember that she made a roast beef cooked with peppercorns and cranberry juice that was wonderful. We talked about the weather, maybe a few other things, then somehow wound up at Richard Nixon and Watergate. Yeah. I know. She was and remains a New Jersey Republican, which as Chris Christie illustrates, is a breed unto itself. After listening wide eyed to my outrage over Cambodian bombing missions and other Nixonian horrors, she put her fork down and said, “I think it's a shame and a sin that we ever found out about Watergate.”

I was speechless. I stared at her, no doubt in horror, for a few beats as I felt my face getting hotter and probably redder. I was choking on obscenities. Instead of vomiting them up, I somehow calmly put down my fork and said, “I'm sorry. Dinner was great but I have to leave.” From then until now we have talked about current events only rarely and then only when there's no way around it.

During the primaries she told me she really liked Ted Cruz, which surprised me as she's not a Christian fundamentalist. She hated Jeb Bush, she might've seen her way clear to Huckabee, she saw nothing in Kasich, Trump was ok. She wasn't passionate about him. I think she really thought Cruz/Rubio would be the ticket. I should have asked her. Once the primaries were over and Trump won, she was a Trump person all the way. I avoided conversations with her for almost the entirety of the campaign. It was chickenshit and I knew it but the energy it would have taken to either avoid the topic or discuss it was more than I felt I had. Although actually that's probably a cop out. I knew I'd be hitting a wall and I didn't want the bruises.

A little background: This is a woman who is very very smart and not overtly mean, nor is she overtly racist. She didn't grow up wealthy but was comfortable. After her first marriage, she remarried, and she remarried up. At 82 she is fairly comfortable, still has her own house with some acreage and usually some pitiful little rescue dog as she's got a penchant for the most damaged canines out there. If no one else will take them, she will. She still drives, is cosmopolitan, has traveled across Europe and in her 50's lived for over a decade in Ireland. She belongs to a group of women who get together once a year in a retreat type atmosphere with distinct pagan/goddess/earth mother overtones celebrating the “We are all One” spirit. Widowed now, her retired single brother lives with her, she has some investments, private health insurance in addition to her Medicare and is in pretty good health. This is a woman who's pretty secure.

How does that woman vote for Trump. She fit none of the “Trump voter” profiles. I really wanted to know. I wanted to understand. I was an idiot.

After the election I knew I couldn't put off calling any longer. We mostly communicate via text or Skype. I always forget that while I can see her, she can also see me. I have caught sight of myself slack jawed and/or seething in the little box on the Skype screen. This one I should have recorded.

Weather. Check. Dogs. Check. Health. Check. Daughter. Check. Grandson. Check. Adjust her webcam. Check. Half and hour went by and then, I'm not sure which of us brought it up. Probably me. My curiousity bites me in the ass every time. While of course I knew she was a lifelong Republican I really thought perhaps she would see the Fanta Fuhrer and be appalled at his crassness, as she is unfailingly polite, or maybe in her pragmatism, decide that Trump's utter lack of experience was a negative and vote for Clinton if only because Hillary knew what governing was. She'd hate it but do it, I thought.

I was wrong.

She said yes she had voted for Trump and she thought he'd be great for the country. She said it in her perfectly modulated voice with no gloating, not even a sparkle in her eye. I asked her where she got the majority of her news: Fox News for broadcast, Drudge first thing every morning, another conservative website I can't remember. I asked about Breitbart and she said sometimes but that she'd really liked it when Breitbart was alive (she did NOT say she now hated it with Bannon and boys in charge). She used to love Glenn Beck but has soured on him recently. She reads the Wall Street Journal pretty much daily.

(Editor's Note: I started this piece on 12.2.2016. I kept coming back to it and back to it and couldn't make headway, mostly because the news was stranger and stranger each day. Time to finish it.)

So yeah. As the conversation progressed, I sounded more and more like that kid in '72. I was screaming, only this time some of the profanities actually exited my lips, much to my surprise. I asked her about the Muslim registry idea. Her response was, “Oh, he's not going to actually DO that!” When asked about mass deportations, her response was, “Oh he's not going to actually DO that! He didn't mean THAT!” When asked about his views of women and women's health, her response was, “Oh for heaven's sake! He's a man! What he said he said years ago. As for the rest, he doesn't mean it. He won't actually DO that! He said it to get elected.”

Catching a glimpse of my face in the lower corner of the laptop screen, my mouth was agape, eyes wide and my disembodied head was shaking back and forth, my hands just to the sides of my head in a gigantic HUH expression. Seeing it I composed myself to go on.

We moved on to the Wall, the great big glorious peso funded Wall. Her response was, “Well you know ISIS is coming into this country and between them and the illegals, we have to do something. We need borders, but I don't think they'll let him actually do that.” I asked who were the “they” she was referencing. “Oh all the do nothing Congressmen.” She sounded genuinely scared, like she half expected to find an ISIS fighter hiding behind the gate of her goat pen, and if not that then quite possibly a Mexican rapist.

We went three or four rounds, with me bringing up something he said and her responding with the “he won't actually DO that mantra” at which point I asked, “Well, if you don't think he'll actually do any of this, why on earth would you vote for him?” She looked very serious and said, “This country is in trouble and he's not perfect but HILLARY is a criminal.” This was said with absolute sincerity and conviction. “She should be put in jail. He's right about that. Besides we just had OBAMA.” That line she nearly spat.

I then asked exactly how she herself had been negatively impacted by Obama's presidency. She said a few things about light bulbs (told me she had bought enough “regular” light bulbs to last years), and laughed. Then she thought for a minute and said, “Interest rates.”

I was truly speechless—for a moment, then I sputtered, “The only way you personally have been impacted by all the horrors (in your view) of the Obama presidency is interest rates? That's what tipped you into a vote for an insane man?” She explained that when one is her age and there are investments, interest rates are a big deal. I told her that I could understand that but couldn't understand at all how she could overlook the misogyny and racism, the xenophobia and talk of nukes and still vote for him. “Well he'll deregulate everything and the interest rates will go up.” Before I could stop myself I heard my voice say, “So THAT you think he'll actually do but all the rest, all the terrifying other stuff, you're banking on him NOT doing?”

Oh, he just said it to get elected. He's not perfect but Hillary . . .”, she said shaking her head. “That woman needs to be locked up!” I asked her what she felt Hillary had done to warrant that.



(Insert WTF Face emoji here-that's about what I looked like in the little screen square on the Skype screen. I'm still not sure if it was her answer or hearing myself yell bullshit at her that caused the face.)

We both calmed down. She told me an old friend of mine wasn't coming to the retreat this year, but she'll go. Amazingly she'll go and not see an iota of irony in her taking part in the We are all One rituals. I haven't had the courage to call her since then, much to my shame, although now I'm curious about what she thinks so far. Now that he is actually attempting to DO those things she said he'd never do, has she changed her mind? Does she think any of it cruel? Does she think he's unstable? Would she vote for him again? After all those Cold War years, does she feel any little shadow of concern over the Russian connections? Hell, even Nixon must be rolling in his grave at some of this.

And today, he talked of our country locking people out, booting people out, reprising torture and essentially tossing the UN to the curb. That's just today.

He won't actually DO that! But Hillary . . .”

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Monday May 9 City Hall Meeting re: Cabrini Park

Below was sent to me by a friend who's been working tirelessly on this issue. Please pass it on.

Monday May 9 at City Hall
8th floor conference room
5:00 pm

See below for details:

At the meeting the subcommittee is going to discuss whether to recommend an off-leash dog area and Cabrini and -- we hope -- vote to bring it to the full NORDC committee in July. it's important that we have plenty of people there who have an opinion on the matter so that the subcommittee can see how big an issue this is.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

AirBnb STR Regulation? Questions and Issues to Consider

I wrote a piece last month that ended with a declaration that I was working on a list of questions that needed to be answered and would have the list in the next couple days. I was overly optimistic. Each question seemed to add two more ancillary questions. After watching the CPC meeting, I started reading through the comments submitted to (they can be found at planning—the deadline to submit your own comments is November 30, 2015.). There I found a great deal more information and many questions posed that I hadn't thought of. After reading and reading, I have decided that I have a few thoughts on all this that don't really lend themselves to a list per se, just categories of concern. I'm sure everyone knows my stand as an opponent of short term rentals, but if they are to be permitted and regulated there are some things that must be considered.

First and foremost, AirBnb's tactic has been to force municipalities to subpoena their listing data. New Orleans has to require that the data from all the various listing sites be turned over before any permits are issued. There is no other way to know the actual number of short term rentals, number of rooms, addresses, names of the people listing the rentals. Without that information, many of the other issues surrounding STR become difficult if not impossible to sort out. Along with the acquisition of that data, the City must insist that a license/permit number be required by the listing entity before a listing is accepted by their site. No permit/license, no listing. If a non-permitted listing is found, both the site and the person listing the property should be fined substantially. (That data will also help in the tax collection issues that everyone is concerned about and that most of the pro-short term rental folks say they're willing to pay.)

The ANP short term rental advocacy group wants blanket permission for all of the above categories of short term rentals. If permits are to be issued, the City should only allow Owner Occupied/Homestead Exemption properties to be permitted/licensed. That will eliminate absentee landlord problems and remove corporate listers completely. There are other issues that are troubling even with this scenario.

-Can an entire unit (like half a double) be listed or only an extra room in the owner occupied dwelling? There are currently too many “whole unit” short term rentals being listed (illegally).

-Some have suggested that the Homestead Exemption be pulled if an owner is short term renting, turning the property into a de facto commercial enterprise. I have to disagree with this approach as that will open the door for absentee and corporate entry into the market.

-Allowing only owner occupied/homestead exemption properties to be listed also removes the incentive for absentee/non-resident/corporate purchase of a property solely for its conversion to a short term rental property. (Absentee ownership should also apply to a person who lives in one house and STR's the house they bought next door. Owner occupied should be defined as living on the premises that is listed for STR.)

-A Homestead owner at least lives here and votes here. Yes. That matters to me.

-The Louisiana State Fire Marshall has come out against STR's as most are non-compliant with fire safety regulations. Installation of sprinklers and emergency exit markers should be required, as well as any other safety requirements that currently legal Bed and Breakfasts must comply with.

-Compliance with all Anti-Discrimination and Americans with Disabilities Act laws pertaining to commercial lodging businesses should also be part of the permit/license requirements. Any law pertaining to the above issues that a legal Bed and Breakfast already has to comply with should be applied to STR's.

-Will the STR be billed by Entergy or their insurance carrier at commercial or residential rates? If it's permitted/licensed as an STR, it is then a commercial entity and should be billed as such. (Currently LEGAL Bed and Breakfasts already pay these rates.)

-Standard Homeowners Insurance does not cover damage or injury that is a result of a commercial enterprise, I'm told. In order to get permit/license, proof of appropriate insurance should be provided and required, just as it is for car registration.

The lawyer for the ANP suggests that 20 rooms per block sounds reasonable to him. That is an enormous number of rooms. There are other problems connected with that suggestion.

-Permits/Licenses should be considered under the Conditional Use rules requiring notification of adjoining property owners. Doing it this way can potentially weed out bad actors up front as their neighbors will let you know if they have already had problems.

-Is an entire unit (like half of a double) or just an extra room in the owner occupied house being short term rented?

-Is the property listed as “suitable for special events?” (On AirBnb there is a box that can be clicked when listing the property for this. This allows the property to be rented for bachelor/bachelorette parties, etc.) If so that means other fire/safety/insurance issues have to be dealt with just as they would be for any venue rented for a special event. This could be a problem. For example, the Trash Palace can no longer be the venue for the KdV ball as the attendee numbers exceed their permitted limits. The same criteria should be used for any STR listed as "suitable for special events."

-How many rooms are being STR'd on the property?

-What is the maximum number of occupants allowed per room? (That has to be a consideration. There must be a limit not only on the number of rooms, but the number of occupants per room.)

-How many permit/licenses will be allowed per block? (BLOCK and BLOCK FACE must be discussed and the language clearly stated before a maximum number is determined.) Right now I know of one block face in the Marigny that has five STR's. That is too many per block face or even per block. As the neighborhood fabric is frayed and parking issues become rampant, which is already happening in some areas, this will be a very important limit.

-Stacy Head said she sees no problem with someone renting out their “back house.” On the Marigny block face mentioned above, one person erected a pre-fab large tool shed-like building that is being STR'd, and the person next door refurbished an ancient extant shed to STR. Will it suddenly be permissible for everyone to erect a structure in their backyard to STR? Will building permits be required? Can everyone on the block do it?

-Perhaps we should consider tying the number of permissible STR's to the number of long term affordable rentals in the same neighborhood, like a two to one ratio: two affordable long term rentals to one STR Homestead.

-Given the number of STR's already in existence, if we whittle it down to only owner occupied/homestead exempt dwellings, who gets the permit? The person who files the Conditional Use papers/insurance/fire inspection first? The person who has been doing it longest? A lottery (much like we do for artists at Jackson Square)? If there are already five on one block face, and it is limited to one per block face, who has to shut down their current operation? They've all been illegal up to this point. Whatever is decided on this has to be ironclad and tough.

-Permit/License should be granted for one year only with the ability to renew if they are in compliance with regulations and there have been no complaints filed.

-Just as there are only a certain number of CPNC's (what a taxi needs to be legal) or artist vendor licenses, there should be a limited number of STR licenses available city wide. There can be a waiting list for the following year. If someone loses their permit due to continued violations or complaints, the next person on the list can take his/her shot and go through the permitting/licensing process.

-Fees for the permit/license must be substantial. They must be large enough to be taken seriously.

-If an illegal STR is found, there should be substantial fines. Again, large enough to be taken seriously, limiting the number of violations that can be handled with a fine before more serious action is taken. We are able to stop construction on a a site (I've seen Stop Work orders on buildings in town). If we can do that we can do something similar to unpermitted/unlicensed STR's.

-Fees should be graduated scale: a whole unit would be highest fee, and two STR rooms in one house would be a higher fee than one.

-Fees and fines should be used solely for the enforcement of the regulations on STR's.

-I saw one comment suggesting seizure of the property of a violator. I'm not in favor of property seizures in general, but enforcement of regulations, enforcement with teeth, is critical. Something like the “blight” fines that accrued daily might be one way to go.

-Taxes must be exactly the same as they are for hotel/motel/B&B's.

-There must be safety and compliance inspections on a regular basis.

-There must be a system for neighbor complaints to be acknowledged, addressed and acted upon.

-There must be a posted sign with a contact number in case of complaints or other STR issue.

-It has to be made illegal to evict a long term tenant to convert a unit to STR. It happens. That can't be allowed to continue.

-Tenants who pose as actual renters, who then immediately list their new apartment as a STR should be subject to immediate lease termination. It happens a lot.

This problem comes from both ends of the rental question. People have been evicted by their landlords, with leases broken, as the landlord thinks he can make more turning the unit into an STR. I know at least half a dozen people in the last couple years that that has happened to. City wide the number must be pretty large if I know that many from just among my friends. I've also seen landlords who found out that that nice guy who rented Apartment B, listed it and turned it into an STR the afternoon he got the keys. There are several people in town who posed as long term tenants in multiple units, then listed those same units as Short Term Rentals turning themselves into professional STR providers. If a landlord knows that's what a tenant plans to do then they're both at fault, but often the landlord doesn't know. We need some discussions in this city about a more balanced approach regarding the rights of tenants and landlords as we are a city with a large number of renters whose rights and issues have been overlooked for a very long time.

Having spent the last month reading comments, I will not attempt to cover all the ground that so many others have gone over much better than I can. In comment section 1, p.95, a man named Jay Seastrunk has a lot of interesting comments regarding Master Plan specifics and safety/bldg issues. He mentions the possibility of a homeowner with a raised home, building multiple bedrooms under his raised home, each with its own exit door and wonders if something like that, which would be essentially a motel under the pilings, would be legal. That could happen even with the Owner occupy/Homestead regulation scenario.

I wish I'd written down all the page numbers of great comments. I didn't. I know Mr. and Mrs. James Morrison, Jr. are in that first comment section and their well reasoned and very detailed 5 pg comment has lots to say about zoning with regard to single family, two family, multi-family homes. I would urge you to find that one and read it.

Either comment section 1 or comment section 4, look for Dr. Emile Brinkmann, PhD. Dr. Brinkmann was the Chief Economist of the Mortgage Bankers Association, and is considered an expert on residential real estate issues. He feels that a unit removed from the rental market circumvents the Fair Housing Laws. He also talks about zoning issues, distortion of home prices and rental rates, and says that if the homeowner HAS a mortgage and decides to STR, he may be committing Mortgage Fraud unless he explicitly stated that he was going to operate a short term rental on the mortgaged property. It's a lengthy and very informative document, in depth with some recommendations. Again, I urge you to track it down and read it. It's worth it.

Also important are the comments from the Hotel folks and PIANO, the LEGAL Bed and Breakfast group. As PIANO points out, they had to dot all the i's and cross all the t's in order to open their business. If we're going to allow and regulate STR, we are in fact allowing the property owner to run a business in a residential area. They should at least have to play by the same rules, not just pay the same taxes and think it's a fair game.

After a month of reading all of this, I am more convinced than ever that IF we allow this into the city, the data from the listing corporations is crucial as is the limitation of permit/licensing to owner occupied dwellings. Otherwise we'll be overrun with STR's owned by people who don't vote here, use our city as a piggy bank, and who don't care about neighborhoods or displaced locals. I'd like to ban STR outright, but if we have to compromise on this, then at least let's make it tougher to do and of greater benefit to us.

For anyone who thinks this is only a downtown problem, one woman who commented at lives on Dominican Street. She says as of LAST summer, she had counted 18 AirB's, excluding VRBO/Homeaway/Craigslist, etc. She and her husband have lived in that house for a very long time. She feels surrounded, without neighbors, and says that two elementary schools in her area are also virtually surrounded. This isn't what we want for our neighborhoods, so let's really think about this. My questions are the tip of the iceberg.

Again, go read what much smarter people than me have written about this and watch out for the smoke and mirrors of the slick PR types putting out info for folks like ANP.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

STR/AirBnB: Pay No Attention to that Corporation Behind the Curtain

I've been reading reports, proposals and talking to people for and against short term rentals all week. I've been paying attention to this phenomenon for longer than that but our city had a hearing recently and I watched every minute: which by the way was about all the time they gave each citizen commenter to make a comment. I think the actual limit was 4 minutes. Definitely not enough for many to make a point pro or con.

I had a long conversation with someone I know and respect who is on the other side of this issue. I understood the issues and arguments which the friend presented clearly and fairly. I empathized, but still respectfully must disagree.

I went from that conversation into reading a report that had been mentioned a couple times during the meeting at City Hall. While this report was written to lay out the issues Los Angeles is having with the AirBnb/STR model, many of the issues they're having are pertinent to us here in New Orleans. I am putting this link in plain view so you don't have to guess which hyperlink takes you to it:

As I read reports and articles, I started putting together a list of questions I'd like answered before any kind of ordinance or compromise is reached. I'll be putting those questions in a post to follow this one so that this one doesn't get unwieldy. This post deals with the way in which AirBnb enters a market and subsequently deals with that market. Frankly it's brilliant strategy, albeit one with which I fundamentally disagree.

Entering a Market

There are a couple of STR companies out there. The quotes and strategy sections are aimed at AirBnB, but it appears that the others like VRBO or Homeaway, kind of come in on the coattails of AirB's entry strategy.

First we need to look at the AirB mythology: One of the founders was renting an apartment in San Francisco, there was a conference coming to town that some people he knew were going to attend, they couldn't find hotel rooms as the hotels were booked up, so he put an air mattress in his room and so the company, the concept and the myth were created. The myth of the airbed in a shared room, or even a spare room, is no longer the reality in most of the AirB listings, nor is it desirable from the company's point of view. It is, however, a nice bootstrap entrepreneurial story and it's the basis of the warm and fuzzy “everyman” corporate persona they cultivate. When they enter a market it isn't with bells and whistles. They enter it with your neighbors' faces.

From the report: “This generally involves packing a room with dozens of hosts. Armed with compelling stories, these hosts detail the ways in which renting out their spare rooms has enriched their lives and saved them from economic ruin. The hosts seem motivated by a combination of financial self interest and a sincere belief that they compose a beleaguered community. This gives AirBnB a group of personal, heartfelt and therefore effective spokespeople that most corporations can only dream of.”

Stage one, our neighbors' faces, which is exactly what we saw at the City Hall meeting the other night. It's effective. That is followed by a second stage, which was also seen the other night when we saw a well organized and funded group, and a couple of attorneys connected with that group, ceding time to each other for comments. Even that group is part of the playbook, again from the report: “(Their) philosophy is evident in much of AirBnB’s marketing, from its founding myth about the air mattress to its use of hosts as spokespeople. To build up this base, AirBnB has hired political field operatives in addition to contracting with traditional PR firms. A simple LinkedIn search shows that AirBnB’s preference has been for hiring staffers with experience managing political campaigns.” (This whole philosophy stems from a book titled The Culting of Brands: How to Turn Customers into True Believers written by Doug Atkin, who is also AirB's “Global Head of Community”--another example of a warm and fuzzy corporate persona—sounds so much better than VP in Charge of Client Base Growth or something.)

So at City Hall we saw the playbook in action: some of our neighbors and friends, and a local STR professional PR campaign making comments at the mic. Our neighbors were impassioned and in some cases emotional. The organized PR group sounded pragmatic, and commented as though they were presenting “suggestions” about something that was already a done deal with mere details to be worked out down the road.

The brilliance of this model is that none of us wants to be seen as unfriendly or unfair. We're all struggling, so our thinking goes, and we don't want to lose friendships that matter to us. Those of us opposed to STR are seen as jealous or petty, unable or unwilling to understand the “real” issues. We're cast as some sort of socialist property taking mob who incessantly meddle, involving ourselves in their private business. It silences some of us.

Taking Advantage of Momentum in the New Market

That model also casts the “hosts” as a benevolent bunch who are just trying to make ends meet. It may be true for some, though not the majority. That is the fallacy. Behind every host, every short term “tenant”, is the corporation. A very large, very profitable corporation that comes to a market, encourages people to undertake an activity that is illegal in that market, leaves those people to be the face of it, while it rakes in eye popping profits taking a cut from both the host and the “tenant.” AirBnB's IPO in 2014 was analyzed in all major economic/business journals in terms of stock value and projected profits. They boasted 1.5 million listings in some of the reports, but we are fooled into looking at our neighbors, our market, our city coffers and limit our looking to those places, fight it out among ourselves ignoring the giant treasure chest in the corporate sky, profits that help none of the above mentioned groups, only the shareholders and the corporation who hides behind their “hosts” and “tenants.”

When all is said and done, the hosts are on their own. The markets they enter have to figure out how to deal with it as the housing market is affected, as neighborhoods become frayed, as jobs are lost in the legal hospitality sector. AirB and its ilk bear no responsibility for safety, insurance, disputes, thefts, destruction of property (except in very limited and hard to prove instances), or injury. Hosts are subcontractors, any cleaning crew the hosts might employ are subcontractors. The corporation pays no permitting fees, no licensing fees, no taxes, nor do they routinely comply with the laws regarding handicapped access. It's not their problem bro. Caveat emptor you hosts and travelers. Whatever you encounter is not our problem, besides we already got our cut off the top.

In the Los Angeles study it is noted that some of the negative impact of this STR model hasn't really been factored into the discussion: “UCLA Anderson School of Business study found that the high cost of housing has a generated a statistically significant drag on job creation in Los Angeles. Fewer rental units, a drag on job creation, a reduction in tax revenues and a qualitative assessment of AirBnB’s effects in neighborhoods are key elements that must be considered before a accurate judgment of the company’s impact can be rendered.”

Having that Market over a Barrel

That isn't really being done. Instead cities have been overrun and the STR problem becomes a crisis before any kind of in depth study or discussion is had. City Councils and zoning departments find themselves already behind the curve playing catch up or proposing some kind of patchwork “solution” or “compromise” that doesn't work or is unenforceable before the ink is even dry on the ordinance.

For its part, AirB waits for critical mass, then? From the report: “AirBnB often approaches cities with the promise of remitting a monthly fee equal to the TOT in exchange for the passage of regulations that legitimize their business model. The rationale behind this offer is that cities will be adding new revenue to municipal coffers. However, this revenue is mostly reallocated from hotels which would have remitted these taxes anyway.” (TOT is the Transient Occupancy Tax in Los Angeles. I'm sure New Orleans has something akin to it.)

At that point, the corporation sees that market as a done deal and if pushed to provide actual numbers of listings in the market area, or the number of hosts who are homesharing vs turning entire units into de facto hotels, they demure until a city forces the issue with subpoenas. They obfuscate, routinely offer numbers that are often half of the real numbers, and force a municipality to spend their dime to get the real data.

I urge you to read the report in the link above. I can't possibly toss all the numbers out for you, besides, why reinvent the wheel when so much of what's in that report is pertinent to us. It also does a great job explaining the safety issues, job displacement, housing crunches, rising rents, the tax dollars lost (then sort of found then spent on subpoenas and enforcement), and many things I hadn't considered but that need to be.

The AirBnB “business model” is cynical, effective and highly profitable for them. One doesn't see logo emblazoned tshirts and tote bags, nor are the hosts treated like franchise owners and supplied with AirB stationery and pens. The hosts are on their own. The travelers renting from them are on their own. The markets they enter are on their own. The neighborhoods they fracture are on their own. Neighbors and friends, City Councils and zoning commissions, will get no help from them in terms of dealing with their model.

A local tour guide told me he'd been doing an impromptu survey: after asking where the tourist is from he asks them where they're staying. If they are staying in an STR, they look down and almost whisper. Many hosts try hard to do the same. One I know told her guests to tell anyone who asked that they were old friends from college.

Whisper. Pay no attention to the corporation behind the curtain, pulling levers and forcing municipalities to deal with them on their terms only and after the fact. They have nothing to do with all this. It's on you, whether you like it or not. Just look at those faces. They are your neighbors.

(I'm still compiling my list of questions that I think need to be answered or at the very least addressed. I'll have that posted in the next day or two.)

Monday, October 05, 2015

Unsolicited Advice to the Northeast in the Aftermath--Now Relevant to South Carolina's Flood Victims

It was suggested I re-post this for those of you struggling in the aftermath of the horrendous flooding in South Carolina. I can barely look at the news photos. Too gut wrenching, but I am thinking about you, and all you'll be dealing with going forward. This post was originally written to the Hurricane Sandy folks, who by the way, are still very much struggling in many areas. Although the Springsteen lyrics aren't geographically tied to you in South Carolina, the sentiments below them do. Please know that those of us here in New Orleans understand, and we hope that our experience can help you as you make your way through this tragic time.

“Tonight I'm gonna take that ride
Across the river to the jersey side
Take my baby to the carnival
And I'll take her on all the rides

`cause down the shore everything's all right”
Song by Tom Waits
Heard in the head of a Jersey Girl in the voice of
Bruce Springsteen,  Jersey Girl

No. It's not all right and you probably can't get across the river right now anyway.

My high school years in Bergen County are peppered with memories not of classrooms and despotic Vice Principals, but of subway rides into Manhattan, afternoon rides on the Staten Island Ferry (cheap fun for a truant), and hustling rides ten to a car down the Garden State Parkway to Asbury Park and Seaside Heights, which were never called by name, only referred to as “The Shore.” I picked splinters out of my feet after walking the now destroyed boardwalk in barefeet like an idiot. I was kissed sweetly in the sand that has now buried cars and shifted houses off their foundations. I rode the rollercoaster that now sits in the Atlantic. At least I think that's the one I rode after being dared.

My last decade has been shaped by the Federal Flood, otherwise known as Hurricane Katrina. The landscape around me has changed since then in both good and bad ways. My interior landscape is forever changed by that experience.

I heard Seaside Heights' Mayor Bill Akers on CNN this morning. He said that when he hears what's going on in other areas his heart goes out to them. His voice broke when he said he was trying to keep emotion out of it. For now. I was on my dry couch in New Orleans in tears.

We here in New Orleans watched the NASA shots of Sandy headed your way. She was huge, well organized, aimed at you and we knew how that felt. She was perfect, as Katrina was, actually beautiful when viewed from the safety of a distant satellite lens. We saw the targets on your backs and understood, possibly as no other group of people can.

Initially there was some bitter grousing about our having had to defend our City's right to exist and be rebuilt, something you might not have to do. We weathered the nasty comments about our being idiots living below sea level, and even nastier comments about tax payer money being wasted on morons and ingrates and freeloaders. These comments were ubiquitous after Katrina, but we wouldn't wish what you're dealing with on anyone because we've been there.

We endured extreme heat, while you folks have to deal with unbelievable cold, as the power went out and stayed out. We are also a city in which some people don't have cars, so we understand the New Yorkers who are utterly stranded as the Subway tunnels have turned into something better navigated by gondolas than train cars. We know as we see aerial views of Asbury Park, Seaside Heights, Atlantic City, and all the coastal towns that what we're seeing in no way shows us the length and breadth and depth of the devastation. We know you aren't overstating it when you say it looks like a war zone. We understand the loss of everything you own. We know the tears you'll shed as your kids' yearbooks and baby pictures are gone forever. We understand your toughness, your determination to rebuild, your compassion for your neighbors and your statements about your family being fine and your losses were “only stuff.”

We get it.

Now for the unsolicited advice:

Expect unexpected consequences. One or more of your leaders will let you down. Right now the adrenalin is flowing and you're all in shock, as are your leaders, who really seem to be doing a great job. It's down the road when the issue becomes money and contractors and the actual rebuilding that you'll be let down by someone. Be prepared to deal with the anger.

Have patience. Your power will come on when it comes on, and all the ranting and raving in the world cannot change that, nor can you expect a timetable from your utility companies. Just two months ago we went through Isaac and the utility issues were exasperating. I say this to you as someone who sat on the porch waiting for bucket trucks, or at least information, in the aftermath of several hurricanes now. Don't waste your energy (no pun intended) calling them or expecting one of them to say Thursday at 9AM. It won't happen. Cuddle up and keep each other warm. Oh, and expect your utility rates to jump as the utility companies go to your local civic leaders and ask who's going to pay for all this repair. It will never come out of the utility company's profits, it will come out of your wallet. That I can guarantee.

Try not to slug your Insurance Adjuster. As I watched the storm coming in the other night, there was footage of a building in Chelsea. The entire facade had fallen down, and this was before Sandy's actual landfall. What I heard, in terms of reasons for the facade falling, was familiar: coulda been rain, coulda been shoddy workmanship, coulda been wind, coulda been anything: and so the parsing began. What happened here, and what will no doubt happen there, is that whatever you're covered for, it will be the OTHER reason that caused the damage. If you're covered for wind, it will be deemed water damage or vice versa. Don't count on your insurance carrier to be compassionate. They won't be. In fact you may find your rates hiked, your policy canceled, your payout to be a pittance that wouldn't even cover one month's car payment. Expect that coverage in your area will be curtailed with some companies refusing to write a policy at all. No amount of righteous outrage about the premiums you've paid for years will alter any of this. Your carrier will go on the news, make statements about wanting to help, tell you that you're in good hands, then send you a letter saying they're dropping you at the same time that they issue their quarterly report on profits. Expect it.

Advocate for your Area. Don't let the officials make all the decisions as the rebuilding process gets started. Get involved, start neighborhood associations, make yourself heard, fight for your little spot on this planet. If you don't, monied interests who view disaster as a profit making opportunity, will show up and barrel some ordinance through your City Council; you'll be really upset after the fact. Get in front of this. You've got a little time. First you have to clean up, but remember what I'm saying as the process moves forward. Without your voice, your advocacy, some things will be proposed and moved into your reality so fast your heads will swim, and they won't always be things you would like to have happen. Governor Christie said today that for a guy his age, the iconic parts of the Shore will never be the same. They're gone. He's right. Just don't let people, especially people who aren't from there, determine what will be put in place, no matter what city, town or borough you live in. Ask us about the “iconic” French Market some time when you get a chance, and that's just one little thing. Your sense of community is what will see you through. Without it you'll be steamrolled by developers with wads of cash and connections. Carpetbaggers don't just come to the South.

Allow yourself time to cry. And cry. Then cry some more. You'll be crying unexpectedly for a long time. Ask us. We still cry over the Flood seven years ago, and are crying as we see your devastation because those pictures dredge up visions burned into our souls that we manage not to notice on good days and can't escape on bad days. You'll find yourselves three years from now looking for something familiar, something you know you had, then get slugged in the solar plexus as you remember that it was in a box in your basement when Sandy slammed through. Give yourself permission to grieve the loss of the little things that marked your journey through life. While they don't matter much in the overall scheme of things, they do matter to you, a great deal. Don't minimize their importance in your determination to stay strong. That last picture of your Dad will haunt you if you don't allow yourself to mourn it's simple paper loss.

Don't be afraid to ask for help, you'll need it. The mental health issues related to this will not show up in force for a couple of months. Some won't show themselves until well after the rebuilding has begun. You are in for months and months of stress, and being a hearty lot, you'll manage. You'll cope. Then you'll find yourselves as we did, with a group of friends, and every 15 minutes one or the other of you will burst into tears. Don't berate yourselves over this. Help the other guy through the sobbing until it's your turn and they'll help you and understand and won't call you a pussy.

Watch your elderly family members. They will quietly weather this, but many of them will internalize it. The deaths of elderly people after Katrina skyrocketed. I am not trying to scare you. I'm just telling you what we experienced and it was not something we expected. Many of us didn't notice that the old man down the street was struggling because everything he ever knew was gone, never to return. We didn't always notice when the old lady around the way gave up, and gave in to her broken heart. It was sobering and scary and we carried guilt for being so concerned about rebuilding that we missed signs. These are the things your leaders or the media won't necessarily tell you. We've lived it. We're hoping you can avoid some of it by knowing ahead of time.

Your little ones will be scared, deeply and for a long time. They'll need a lot of help and attention. Your usually mellow child might suddenly bolt under the bed at the sound of the wind. As scary as this was and is for you, for them it's as though a big malevolent foot stomped their sandcastle of security. They're too young to understand, too young to process some of it, too young sometimes to vocalize their fears, and they'll try to be strong for you as you are trying to be for them. Make sure that your schools have some kind of program in place to deal with the trauma. If they don't have one, demand it.

Retain your sense of humor. Gallows humor will get you through a lot of things. Of course, here in New Orleans, gallows humor is our stock in trade, but I know you've got a pretty good streak in you too. Use it. You'll need it and will find it very helpful as you dig out.

Accept what people give you. Don't let your pride get in the way. We learned that very quickly as packages with cash tucked into them came to us from friends and strangers all over the country. For some of you the cash will be important as your paychecks won't be coming for a while, if your job still exists. Our initial response was, yup, pride. We don't need that, we're fine, we thought. We learned humility fast and we learned to simply say thank you and accept the help. The folks who sent it wanted to help, really wanted to help. They didn't want to give to an organization, they wanted to help us hand to hand, and they knew that if we knew of a place or person nearby who needed the help they sent more than we did, which was often the case, that we'd make sure it got to those people. You will be touched and humbled by the generosity of people and that's something else you can lean on during this trying period.

Be prepared for assholes. There will be those who make outrageous assertions about your character or your home from behind a screen as they sit comfortably a thousand miles away. They will say it's God's wrath for having gay people among you. They will say you're idiots for living at sea level. They'll make all manner of racist comments. They'll say that rebuilding boardwalks and homes on the shore or the barrier islands is wasteful folly. They'll call you freeloaders, opportunists, and worse. For every bit of great kindness you receive, there will be an equal amount of venomous hatred. Ignore them if you can or defend if you must. Understand that idiots will come out of the woodwork as fast as the volunteers who show up to help you. They are hateful cowards. Say what you must to them, unless ignoring them is easier on your psyche.

As Thanksgiving is just around the corner, I am reminded of the first Thanksgiving after Katrina. A small group of us got together for dinner at one of the few open restaurants. (Power, by the way, still wasn't on in many areas of the city.) One of our number asked quietly if we'd mind if he read something. We all said no, of course we didn't mind. He had searched for days for this passage from “Ulysses” by Tennyson:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Our hearts are with you, and our tears are tears of understanding and memory. I am in hopes that the writing of this will arm you for the battle ahead as what we learned has to have some positive use. I cannot accept that it was all for naught.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Sold Out: More AirBnB Concerns

Many years ago, a friend and I stood forlornly outside Madison Square Garden as David Bowie went on stage inside. We had been unable to find anyone with extra tickets. The show was sold out. That was too bad for us. Many years later, I remember considering a visit to New Orleans for Mardi Gras only to be told by someone in the know that I'd have to make hotel reservations a year ahead of time if I really wanted to do that. The hotel rooms would be sold out. Too bad for me. As a result I didn't make it to Mardi Gras until New Orleans became my home. My (affordable) rental lease guaranteed that reservation for any damn day I wanted.

Fast forward and it seems that many locals are standing forlornly outside rentable units being told it's too bad for them, they're sold out, the keys having gone to anyone BUT a local long term working renter. One article I saw last week quoted a local resident saying that come Monday morning her neighborhood was a ghost town: no one walking, no one on a stoop, no one around on her way down the block although it had been full of folks over the weekend. Many New Orleanians are watching their neighborhoods turn to short term rental havens (oh SO authentic!) filled with de facto hotels, no actual neighbors, ever rising rents and ever shorter supply and they're sick of it.

The folks in Barcelona and Copenhagen seem to be in the same boat but they're fighting back. Barcelona statistics seem to show that about 60% of the tourist lodgings in that city are now short term AirBnb/VRBO, etc as opposed to what most reasonable folks think of when they think of the word “hotel.” In parts of Barcelona the same issues are arising: rising rents, impossible to raise a family with the rising prices, too many tourists looking for authenticity, rogue hotels all over the place with local residents quickly being displaced. Last year many Barcelona citizens took to the streets over this issue. Copenhagen has had it with tourists taking over their city as well, and the Danes have sensibly forbidden the sale of seacoast vacation cottages to foreigners. Both cities feel like their residents are being over run and run out by tourists. In one article on Barcelona someone being interviewed spoke of the “theme park” atmosphere, a statement that can be heard on any stoop in New Orleans (or for that matter, seen as a Krewe du Vieux theme).

In a conversation last week someone visiting, and thoroughly enjoying themselves glad to say, said they'd LOVE to buy a place down here “for when they come to visit.” It was a shame because I'd enjoyed our conversation until that point, then out of my mouth came, “Well, we've got a lot of that here. Empty units that are only actually lived in 6 weeks out of the year tops.” Sensing that my mood had darkened a bit, she said, “I'd rent it out when I wasn't here so it wouldn't be EMPTY” <---said very defensively. “To a local who needs a place to live? So what, you'd cable ahead and let them know when you were going to grace us with a visit and they could go, I dunno, camping til you leave?” (Yeah. I know. Rude. Further, she didn't pick up on my use of the arcane “cable” as apparently she hadn't seen enough old movies filled with wealthy folks who cable. Whatever. I was sort of sorry. Until . . .) “No. Of course not. I'd short term rent it so I could guarantee that it would be vacant when I came to visit. I'd NEVER put a local out of a place to live!” <---This said still defensively but brightly as though I was accusing her of being a horridly insensitive landlord, which naturally she wouldn't be. “I see,” I said, “so you'd just permanently put the local out of a place to live.” She stared at me like I had three heads. It had clearly never occurred to her that this was the actual reality. I bought her a drink to smooth the waters but later realized I had only fed the beast with my charm, manners and a change of topic. (“So, how about that Trump!???!”) I thought later that maybe we need to become ruder. A friend, knowing I carry on about this a lot, sent me a link. (This LINK)I followed her directions about clicking and unclicking and was shocked but a tad vindicated. I put in the zipcode box 70117, then moved the map so that most of the French Quarter, Marigny, St. Roch, Bywater and the Lower 9 neighborhoods were visible. I was especially looking in the three areas I'd previously lived. I clicked “Sublets” and unclicked the others. Took a screenshot.

I then reversed it, leaving the zipcode field the same, I clicked “Full Lease” and unclicked the others. Took another screenshot. Then heard a loud OH MY GOD come out of my mouth. Take a look.

I counted from the mid-point of the Quarter (ignoring the extra sublets that showed up in the Upper Quarter) both times, using the same starting points. Including only those areas that were riverside of I-10 downtown. You can see for yourself. Full Lease count was 12. Sublet count was 35. Nearly 3-1. That should scare the pants off of us.

Councilperson Stacy Head has some suggestions. She'd legalize short term if the owner lived on the premises with some provisos. She seems unaware (benefit of the doubt) that a number of people listing these short term rentals are doing it as a job: posing as a “renter”, signing the lease, promptly turning it into a short term rental with some of these folks having half a dozen of them. (I heard today from someone who deals with rentals a lot that he had rented out a place, the guy looked great on paper and in person, he showed up the next day with an extra key and the place was already tricked out for a bachelorette party scheduled the next day!) Another part of her proposal that baffles me is this:

Should her initial proposal get approved, Head said, she is looking into the more complex issue of whether short-term rentals could be used as a tool to get investors to clean up blighted properties and bring them back into commerce.

One solution to the 10,000 blighted properties in the city could involve allowing people who purchase them and fix them up to fully rent them out to short-term tenants for several years, giving the neighborhoods they are in a chance to stabilize to the point where longer-term rentals are possible, Head said.
And that, in turn, could lead to a situation where it might be less of an issue to ease the restrictions on short-term rentals elsewhere in the city.

“There are so many blighted properties that if all of our efforts to get them into commerce were successful, it’s possible there would be a place for non-owner-occupied short-term rentals,” she said.

I'm trying to wrap my head around this. Let's let people buy blighted properties, fix them up, run them as short term rentals for “several years” (How many years? License them as hotels? Pay hotel taxes? YEARS??) and claims that somehow a zillion people coming and going in that neighborhood for “several years” will “stabilize” the neighborhood. Huh? She follows that up with “that, in turn, could lead to a situation” whereby the city could “ease the restrictions” elsewhere in the city? Sounds like she wants the entire place to be full on the weekends and empty during the week while we all get forced out to Metairie or, I dunno, Dubuque. None of the above makes sense to me, but it would make governance easier with none of us pesky local residents bringing our complaints about the cost of solar trash cans, parking issues, zoning, music or crime to the door of the Council or Mayor's office.

This week there were a couple of interesting pieces about who was left behind after the Federal Flood, how the demolition of public housing impacted the local citizenry, and the problems with Section 8 housing (not the least being there isn't enough). Why not flip that blight scenario on its head. Let those 10K blighted buildings get purchased for a song, get SBA or someone on board to help with the rehab of the house, then require that it be rented as a Section 8 unit for “several years” and require absolute compliance with the strictest interpretation of the Fair Housing laws. Or maybe consider what some other cities are doing using community land trusts (great article in the Atlantic about that) in which low income folks buy the houses but the land stays in the hands of a non-profit. (It has worked well in Albquerque in a section of town that is wedged between Old Town and very high end homes.) Get some lenders on board because evidently one the hardest issues facing this model is banks unable to figure out how to structure the mortgages.

We can't give away our city's housing to short term rental advocates. We also can't turn back the clock on tourism completely, but is there really a problem with saying, “Hey, we've gone beyond our capacity to put roofs over all the tourists heads this weekend. Our ACTUAL, licensed, insured hotels are booked up. Sorry we're sold out. Come next week instead.” Don't like that idea? Prefer to sell out to the short term rental folks? Okay. But you won't like it when your waitresses, bartenders, maids and valets join the rest of us in the streets with signs and bullhorns protesting our inability to find affordable rental housing. That will really harsh the buzz of the tourists upon whose wallets we depend.

What can't happen is the continuation of the status quo where every neighborhood is a an unlicensed hospitality zone and too many of the local workers have no affordable housing options. We know we need tourism dollars, but you folks on the Council need us, and not just to work. A friend sent me a photo this week. A photo of all of you with the caption: Tourists don't vote in Orleans Parish. Out of town landlords also don't vote in Orleans Parish. The CEO's of AirBnb and the others, also don't vote in Orleans Parish. We do. Us. Down here. The ones paying more than half our salaries in rent year in and year out as opposed to one weekend a year every other year. We're scared. We're pissed. And we know how to make signs and use a bullhorn.