Friday, June 12, 2015

AirBnB: Short Term Rentals, A Different Kind of Blight

Well, looks like the folks in San Francisco are upset with AirBnB and their City Council. The council voted to table a bill regarding home sharing, much to the chagrin of many residents who have in any case, decided to take matters into their own hands via referendum. In NYC landlord's are doing all they can to kick everyone in rent controlled apartments out using some pretty shabby methods.

Meanwhile, here in New Orleans things are seemingly out of control in terms of AirBnb and the loss of affordable housing, and it happened almost over night. I have friends in the Marigny who tell me our former local watering hole now has virtually no regulars anymore, or at least not ones I'd recognize. They've moved across the street and elsewhere. One friend said, “I don't have the right clothes and my (gauged) jewelry scares them.” I'm guessing there are fewer gossamer winged girls in green wigs and tall bikes parked on the corner of Franklin and Royal now too.

I lived two blocks from Esplanade in the Marigny for about three years, an area I loved. It was perfect proximity to every place I needed to be or wanted to go. The rent was high even then, the yard was huge and high maintenance but the block was pretty close knit. Everyone said hello, or helped with the feral cat trapping and releasing, or mourned when one of the old timers passed on. We weathered Gustav there, playing blackjack at Buffa's after the storm passed while all the food in their freezer and everyone else's was cooked and eaten. In 2009 a friend asked if we wanted to move into a house he had just inherited. It was much deeper in the Marigny, nearly to Bywater. “It's across Elysian Fields for crying out loud!” I said, and anyone who knows me well is nodding right now. It was smaller, had a less maintenance heavy yard, and it was nearly $400 cheaper per month. Well, sorta. We had to now pay a water bill, but whatever. I didn't want to move but move we did. I asked him why he was living in Da Parish instead of this cute little house? “Because there are too many black people here,” came the answer. I was frankly shocked but I wrote the check.

Once moved in it was tough for a while. I missed my neighbors. I missed my perfect central proximity. I missed hearing the Mac35 band practicing as I could at my old house, but learned to love the sound of the trains. I made friends with the place and the people on the block pretty quickly. Sure, it took ten more minutes to get to Lafayette Square for the Wednesday music, but not a real problem. My hips had a bit more cartilage then. We spent Hurricane Isaac there, getting word of a swim party a block up and cold beer at the Lost Love Lounge while we waited for Entergy. As a Krewe du Vieux member, the closeness to the Den was great if I had to stagger home after a fundraiser. My home bar changed from Buffa's to Mimi's, and although I felt underdressed and over-aged there at first, I met the regulars and became a known quantity—if I left my card they'd just add their tip and wait for me to show up because they knew I would. It became our sub-krewe's second home as the upstairs gave us privacy to act like idiots at the pre-parade party, munching pizza and chicken, drinking whatever crazy ass brew the manager who loved us made in gigantic quantities, and tossing glitter all over each other before we had to line up. Book signings, memorial services, celebrations, “haven't seen you in forEVER” gatherings, sad days, happy days, all the basic parts of life seemed to happen on our porch, inside Mimi's, on a wobbly chair at Flora Coffeehouse. Just sitting there for an hour would bring someone you knew to holler at, and more than likely they'd lock up their bike and sit down for a while to catch up. We showed pictures of our dogs to each other, bitched about the prices at the local store, passed on gossip, and gathered there at 8AM on Mardi Gras morning to roll out with St. Ann. The neighborhood was comfortable. It was home with a capital H.

Every year the rent rose, eventually coming only $50 bucks from the rent I'd been convinced to move there to escape. Homeowners taxes had gone up for sure. Insurance rates had been rising. Everyone I knew was hanging tight as their rents rose little by little. Then in January 2014 the friend who owned the house dropped a bombshell: His new girlfriend hated Da Parish, thought the Marigny was chic, and we had to go. He was in love and they were moving in. I missed the “love” part as I couldn't hear it through the white noise of panic and dread. The lease was technically up, and had reverted to month to month. Nothing could be done, so after the tears abated, the search began in earnest. The realities of a new deposit and first month's rent while paying rent at home was daunting. It couldn't have been done without a friend's help. Feelers were put out on Facebook, friends were asked to keep an eye out (and so very many of them did my email box was chock full of possible leads), “for rent” signs on houses were checked out. I scoured Craigslist while simultaneously packing. Mardi Gras came early that year, complicating the logistics. The sense of anger and betrayal seemed to hang like a fog over all of it. Of course he owned the place, of course he had the right, but the rent had always been paid on time, maintenance had been done so as not to bother him with little stuff, great landscapers were called after Isaac to save a tree paid for out of pocket because it was the right thing to do and it was home. Swallowing hard, the search for a new roof overhead was on. I actively avoided the sense of uprootedness. I'd deal with that later.

The “looking” sucked. I don't have to tell any of you. You've all been there. Too late for this one, reject that one, oh my god this one has a hole in the floor and they want how much? No dogs? No cats? We're screwed?

Just then an old friend called, who had rented our earlier Marigny house to us. The one we had forsaken for cheaper rent. “Meet me in the Quarter at 8AM.” What? Morning drinking? “No. I have the perfect place for you.” He did. After skittering across town on frosty streets the day the city froze the key was turned in the gate and there it was. At $50 less than what we were now paying for the “cheaper place” we called home, the papers were signed on the spot. I thought I'd dreamed it. The nightmare that is moving ensued, the logistics of moving to the Quarter around Mardi Gras were surmounted, amazing friends pitched in at every turn. One day I walked out of the gate and a tourist asked if I lived here, I thought she meant New Orleans, she meant in the Quarter, I wasn't sure how to answer her. No one with any sense looks for a place in the Quarter, but here I was, a total long time Marigny dweller being looked at as a lucky bitch who came out that gorgeous gate. I couldn't deny it. I was lucky. Very very lucky.

It was an adjustment for sure, but here I am 15-16 months out while the neighbors on my old block are now knee deep in AirBnB's. (Or Homeaway/VRBO/Craigslist, whatever vacation rental sites there are out there for short term rentals.) A sea change on one block, actually one block of one street, in that short length of time.

I was slow on the uptake. When I first moved to the other side of the world, I mean, the Marigny, the neighbors had their niece staying in the small shed like building out back. It was in a lovely yard, the shed had been nicely furnished, and she said she had left her home elsewhere, moved here to her uncle's house and was doing some housekeeping for him and his partner til she found a job. We'd talk a little as I pulled the stubborn vines that had overgrown the fence for years, and she swept her uncle's stoop. We'd exchange pleasantries and comment on the weather, we'd yell at our respective dogs to quit barking at the mailman. After a few months she was gone. Last time I saw her she told me she had found that job and moved. After that I noticed a different car in the driveway, a different guy coming out of the back apartment. A little more building and tweaking of the backyard. A week later another guy, another terse “I'm a friend of ____ here on business” as he headed out the gate at a fast determined clip. One warm night, I had brought a beer home from Mimi's, plopped down on my stoop and a beautiful woman swathed in multi-colored scarves with an unidentifiable accent sort of floated by with a soft soprano hello as she disappeared toward the backyard. An SUV would suddenly appear in the front yard driveway overnight and disappear just as suddenly. It was months before I figured out what was going on. Mostly it was unobtrusive and the rest of our friends on the block were still hanging on their stoop, our stoop or watching the game with us in the living room, so nothing seemed really amiss. The neighbors with the merry go round friends coming to stay were amiable and cordial but aloof from the regular shenanigans of the rest of us.

On the upriver side of the street there were two renters, including us I think, but the other homes were owner occupied, although one was occupied only intermittently during Mardi Gras or a Fest. On the other side of the street there were more renters as the buildings were multi-unit dwellings. One of the largest of them had, however, been purchased and apparently had been in Architectural Digest or something. It was supposedly a large loft but most of what I knew was conjecture as that owner/occupant also wasn't swilling Jameson's in our living room yelling obscenities at referees during football season.

That one street, on one side of the block, now has 5 AirBnB's, three of them in a row, the entire middle part of that block, and two on the other side of the street. Five. That's only one side of one four sided block. According to the completely unreliable AirBnB maps (I'll explain about their unreliablility in a bit.) if you follow that block one block toward the river, there are three more, go one block toward the lake and there are at least 5 more (counting both up and downriver sides of the street). That gives that three block section of ONE street a total of 13 AirBnB's, and that's at a minimum. (In fact, rumor has it that the ratty old shed at our old home is now an “elegant renovated cottage”: renovated and listed within a year.)

I am only using AirBnB's map for these numbers. Some of the short term rentals are listed on multiple sites, like VRBO, Homeaway (which I believe is some sort of offshoot of VRBO), vacationhomerentals.com, and Craigslist along with listing it on AirBnB, although I'm sure that that isn't a complete list of short term rental sites. Another trick I've noticed is some people (people I know are definitely short term renting) obfuscate their actual street location to keep neighbors from finding their listings. Once you click on a listing, you might get a street name, and a vague circle on the map in terms of general location, but most of them keep their actual street address off any public listings. Some would be pretty easy to find if they show an exterior shot of the house, others only show the interior of the space to be rented, and some are converted sheds or add ons that wouldn't necessarily be seen from the street. For all of these reasons, the AirBnB home map is unreliable as a definitive tool for counting the number of these rentals per block. The numbers are most certainly greater than what can be found on AirBnB's site alone.

Back to my old block, there are five confirmed on a one block section of one street. (These are confirmed by neighbors still in the neighborhood if not on that block.) If we start multiplying that by all four sides of a block, the numbers are certainly much higher than I would have thought. After seeing that, I decided to go look at the area of our first Marigny rental which was about two blocks off of Esplanade.

Again, understanding that some of these are listed so as to obfuscate their actual locations, my old block seems to only have two, although if you headed toward the river and turned right or left, you'd find two more in short order, one in each direction. Go down further into the Marigny Triangle and you'll see a sea of red placards with prices on them, the deeper you go the more they proliferate. Here's a shot of 16 of them between Esplanade and Touro, just barely above Burgundy and just below Dauphine. The further toward the river you go, the denser it gets, then start heading toward Elysian Fields. They appear like poppies in the field on the way to Oz.


Are all these short term rental people homeowners? Possibly, but probably not. For some folks it's a business. I learned that when I moved into the Quarter.

When I walked through that iron gate on that cold day in February 2014 there were actually two places for rent in this building: one inside the building and one detached way back in the courtyard. I live in the detached building. The one inside the building was smaller, but gorgeous and definitely still in the realm of affordable (not pre-K affordable but post-K affordable, all things being relative.) My idea of affordable housing is “can my bartender afford it?” If the answer is yes, even if it's with a room mate, it falls into the affordable category. I'd prefer the no room mate scenario, but I am a realist. After moving in, I was out one night checking out the local watering hole. On my way back home I noticed a young woman, excited eyes, map in hand, suitcase on wheels, peering up at the building's gated front door and row of doorbells. I helpfully asked her if she needed directions, she suddenly looked wary and said she was “staying with a friend” in the building. I said ok and went in the side gate. Minutes later I heard her walk through the front door of the building (it echoes) and she disappeared inside the first apartment.

As time went on, this happened more frequently: some person or persons would appear outside the building, look bemused and confused, sometimes making a call, having a short conversation, then entering the building. One day the communal trash was overflowing with hand grenade containers and other party down stuff. Another day the trash had a chair sitting in front of it that clearly had had a difficult evening. One afternoon a young man, sitting in the courtyard with four other young folks, all nice kids, was overheard saying to one of his companions, “I'm not sure when she's coming with the other key.” I went down and asked them who they were. They told me they were “______'s friends from college.” Well I'd met _____ and it had probably been a while since she'd been in college. The kids were all staying there for spring break and had been told to tell anyone that asked the college friend story. This went on for months, not every week, not every weekend, but a lot. The building is keyed so that one key opens both gates. Are they returning these keys, I wondered? Are they out there floating around?

Then came the locked in Ecuadorian housekeepers. At least I think that's where they said they were from. One was inside the building and the apartment with enough supplies to clean a hospital ward, while the other was locked outside on the sidewalk. Neither had a key to the gate, the interior door, or the door to the apartment itself. I asked how they had gotten in. One answered in broken English that the “Mister ____” had let them in and was supposed to be coming back at some point. I asked if they knew where Mister ____ was and they pointed vaguely in the direction of the bar. (As far as I knew, there WAS no “Mister” living there.) I went over and asked the barkeep if he knew who I was talking about as the bartender knows me. No he didn't. The two women would have been locked up, one in one out, until someone happened along to spring them, in this case I did.

Finally I started searching. Was this really what I thought or was I wrong? If it was being used as a short term rental, what should I do about it? First I had to prove to myself that I wasn't going to be upsetting a person's life based on conjecture, not to mention when you live in close quarters, folks need to get along so I wasn't going to start accusing anyone of anything.

I started with the address. No dice. The obfuscation I mentioned happening in the Marigny was happening here. I did find tons of AirBnB listings within a two block area of my house. One of the biggest eye openers was that in my search for confirmation of what was going on in my building, I found a few people who had multiple listings. One guy has four “entire house/apt” listings in a six block area. What I learned is that these folks go in as prospective tenants, rent the unit, sign the lease, pay the deposits, then trick them out and promptly list them on AirBnb. Another guy I found had six units he was listing. (BTW these are NOT your standard apartment management companies, these are individuals posing as renters, taking stock off the market.) There was an incredibly expensive place for rent in the huge building next door, and the woman who manages that one told me that even with the rent for the unit at $2000 (how much you say?), someone asked to rent it telling her up front that he meant to turn it into a short term rental. She said absolutely not and was frankly flabbergasted, but then I told her about some of the folks I'd found with multiple units. She's been managing buildings in the Quarter for years and had no idea people were signing multiple leases in order to turn a profit on the units. She, of course, knew about AirBnB and the issues around that, but she was as astonished as I was that people were making a career out of it.

So I keep looking. I find it. Yep. She's doing AirBnB. She's a nice young woman. She's talented. She has a young kid and a dog. She's creative. I find that she has two listings, one in the most unexpected place, somewhere out in the Carrollton area, but inside, not on Carrollton but close to the streetcar line (something she pointed out in her listing). On a “General” Somebody street. (That listing has lately disappeared so I don't know if she's living in that one or gave that one up.) So clearly she's doing this as an income generator. I get it. We're so not rich. We go from week to week, Entergy bill to Entergy bill, like everyone else. I'm not interested in screwing someone over. However, this is my security at issue. This is the other tenants' security at issue. This is a NEIGHBOR issue. Who the hell is your neighbor? The person you think it is or the person your neighbor is renting to—for two or four days?

I grew up in the late 60's early 70's. I don't “narc” on someone. I have issues with ratting someone out. If you grew up with J. Edgar Hoover as the guy who kept the files, you are careful about possibly screwing up someone's life. You have no idea how deep this reluctance is if you haven't grown up with it. But I found the damn listing, in our building, keys being sent out via mail, great reviews, people are having a great time, doing laundry on the landlord's dime since he pays the water bill. The rest of us live in what is a pretty secure place, without these strangers coming in and out of the building. I was angry, and I resented being put in this position. I tend toward live and let live. Others in the building were concerned too, but the concern was whispered.

I took a screenshot of the listing. Our neighbors have lived here for 30 years. (When we moved in there was a woman who'd lived here 17 years. THAT is security!) They had been concerned as we were. I took the print out of the listing to them for confirmation. What was interesting was their/our response. Do we tell the landlord because it sucks and we're not comfortable? What if something happens over there? She's got it listed as great for a “special event.” So what? Her AirBnB “verified” person throws a party that turns into an orgy and next thing we know we got cops swarming the place looking for Fatty Arbuckle? My neighbor says don't say anything, he might raise our rent. His partner says what if something happens there and the owner decides that after he, his insurance and the tenant are sued, it's not worth it for him to keep the place and we all get moved out when he sells it to eliminate the problem or pay the costs? Won't his homeowner's be hit in the lawsuit? Could be and that might be a reason to just bail. Want a vodka and cran asks the neighbor? Yes please? We drink our drinks slowly, clink our ice cubes and stare at the table. Silence. Finally one of us starts the cycle over again: So what do we do? Tell the landlord? Repeat above issues. Not tell the landlord? What if he says “Why the hell didn't you TELL me?” Well the why is that we aren't sure how he'd respond, and that worries us. One landlord in NYC was blown out of court over this very issue.

But we're not NYC and we're not San Francisco. Both have rent control and tenant's rights guardians. Louisiana is very much a landlord preferred system. Well in that case it should bode well for this person to be evicted for breach of lease (although we all said we'd feel lousy putting a single mom on the streets, that sentiment was shortly quashed by noting that she's not living there actually, she's renting it out whenever she wants so she must have another place to be). On the other hand, is the landlord okay with her doing this because, hey, he gets his rent every month with no issues? We're all paying our rent with no issues and NOT short term leasing our place.

So now we start discussing multiple issues related to AirBnb/short term rentals generally.

1. You own the damn place and can do with it what you want.
That said, you should have to register it, pay taxes on the short term/hotel level and keep a homeowner's policy at a certain level to cover any problems that could arise. (Meth dealer cooks in your place, prostitutes decide to use your place as the assignation venue, etc. Yeah, it's all already happened in NYC.) Nevermind you don't seem to care about the fabric of your neighborhood. Rent that place to a waitress who needs a place to be!
2. If you're a renter, you have a lease. In NYC a judge basically said that the lease didn't matter so the landlord couldn't evict. It was a bit more complicated that that statement makes it sound, as the link shows, but still the landlord was out of luck. (I think the judge was wrong, and my guess is that LA judges wouldn't see it that way, however, if they did, what precedent does that set?) In San Francisco I think it was, one landlord tried to get an “AirBnB host” tenant's short term lessee out of the apartment because he wouldn't leave. That landlord lost because the law was that if someone rented a place, (even if not FROM the landlord) for 30 days, a de facto month to month lease was considered in force.
3. One AirBnB court case involved a woman who owned a co-op and her roommates were renting it out if she went out of town for business. Something went awry. It was decided by AirBnB that no issue arising from a third party mattered one whit. You read that right, the owner of the co-op whose name was on the paperwork was deemed a third party. Seriously???

The HUGE concern in our courtyard discussion is that the landlord is rich enough to not give damn about any of this. That if it becomes too much of a burden he'll just sell the building or sell it off as condo's. Most, if not all of us, living here could not afford to buy our units.

Another scenario regarding the issue of Homeowner's Insurance: Our “we'll save $400 a month” landlord had his taxes and homeowner's raised. I checked the Assessor's Office. He was right and our rent raise was totally fair. But what happens if something happens inside an AirBnB property? Something sinister? Something bloody, illegal or just plain out to lunch-spray painting anarchy signs on the walls? Let's talk worst case scenario. Woman gets killed at AirBnB rental. Someone is arrested and charged and we watch it on TV. Family sues. Who do they sue? They shotgun it. They sue AirBnB, the “host”, the owner of the building, the homeowner's insurance carrier, and anyone else they can find. Someone will pay off. What's that gonna do for the rest of you homeowners? Raise your rates? Possible.

One guy in NYC, decided to AirBnB his place. They trashed it. Now he's “blacklisted” as a tenant. What exactly are your rights as a “host” or an owner of a place being rented out via AirBnb? Where do you go for recompense? (AirBnB is notoriously unhelpful in such situations. Some of the other listing sites might be better in this regard but I doubt it.) Who's paying the bill for the spray painted graffiti and broken toilet and the whatever happened to your property? Condo associations and Co-op Councils are regularly scanning AirBnb, etc. listings to see if someone in their building is short terming. AirBnB “encourages” their hosts to carry their own insurance for damages done to their “property”--which of course is a very loose term if they don't own the unit they're renting, or damage is done to a common area like a lobby.

Another issue: What about taxes? All of us have palmed a tip and not declared it. The enormous number of AirBnB's (and whatever other listing they're under) are not paying the insurance necessary, they're certainly not paying taxes for the most part (if the folks bragging to me about how much they've made doing this are to be believed). If they're going to act as hoteliers willing to put up with Led Zeppelin level destruction, then they need to be paying insurance and taxes. This entire neo-liberal, disruption idea is crazy right wing stuff minus the Bible thumping. What they really want is NO restrictions, no regulations. Disruption means nothing but let me make money and screw the rest of you. What's amazing to me is that a lot of the folks touting this “disruption” model are seen as liberals. They're not. They are Reaganites. They are neo-liberals: no regulation, complete privatization, utter free trade folks. By the way, they'd mostly deny this.

In my opinion, what has to happen is some kind of regulation.

If you own the place, well, I'm not happy about your screwing that waitress out of an affordable place to live, but I get it. You're greedy. You own the damn place and can do with it what you want. Okay. I might be willing to buy that IF, and only if, you are okay with registering with the City, paying the hotel taxes, and dealing with the insurance/lawsuits that may come. Good on you. Make that money. (Although I gotta tell ya one conversation I've had more than once starts with “If they can't afford the rising rents, too bad, they have to move” followed by “Do you know how high property taxes and insurance are these days? If I didn't do AirBnB I couldn't afford to keep my house!” This is said with no cognizance of the irony of those statements following one another.)

If you don't own the place, then in my opinion, you have NO right at all to flout your lease and ignore your neighbors' issues on this. Screwing your neighbors and your city shouldn't be a viable career path but apparently these days it is.

Landlords with renters doing this: I am not sure at all what your rights are. I am not a property owner in this state. I know that LA tends to lean toward your rights vs. my rights as a tenant. (That is an entirely different issue and one I'd like to discuss one day, as I am a firm believer in some sort of Tenant's Rights agreement.). But if your tenants are afraid to come to you regarding this AirBnB issue, that should tell you something: wow, they're scared of what I might do that might displace them.

The entire destruction of a neighborhood fabric is something that should be considered, but I doubt it will be. A neighborhood implies “neighbors.” Those are the people who know your car, know your dog, maybe take care of the cat or the plants for a weekend. The folks down the block who worry if they don't see you for a week. An ever changing populace of short term renters do not qualify as neighbors, and if the neighborhood becomes one giant “authentic” tourist destination, it's no longer a neighborhood nor is it authentic.

If the Mayor and the City Council have any gumption at all, they'll take this bull by the horns before there's a scandalous court case that makes national news, and look toward the well being and best interests of the working folks who are serving the tourists their drinks, turning down their sheets, driving them to and fro and generally making this place a place that is still inviting the tourist dollars we depend on. I hope they don't let the short term rental “hosts” cede our neighborhoods to those tourists. The City needs to take a stand against the taking of viable housing stock off the market for a quick buck while the people who live and work in this city find it more and more difficult to find an affordable place to live.

6 comments:

longpatterned said...

Well said. I posted an email earlier today to the mayor and council, with a couple of press reporters thrown in for effect, detailing the collective pressure of Air BnB vs. Small business employees when it comes to finding affordable housing. You are right, something will have to happen to stop the group balking we currently live with..

Sara Jacobelli said...

Thank you Sam for telling it like it is. We are all struggling trying to figure out how to stay in the city we love. Sleep under the overpass? That may be next, all my friends will be there with me.

Dean Davis said...

Thank you for being so coherently concerned about this. I don't live in New Orleans anymore (not that Lafitte is New Orleans) but it's a place that deserves so much better than to be hollowed out by the sharing economy. We're seeing private business steal away our basic privileges - safety and shelter - and then do it using the innocent and energetic hands of our neighbors. It's a sick, sad world. To everyone out there resisting this sick, sad development: good luck.

Anonymous said...

As a homeowner living in a double, I state in the lease that only the person named on the lease can occupy the space. Violating this results in eviction (although I've only had to tell people to move and have never evicted). But I'm small potatoes. There's a house across the street that is now an upscale VRBO illegal hotel -- during Buku a BUS pulled up and close to 20 people filed out and got into it. When I started investigating the websites I was appalled to find how many people living in other cities are buying property in NO and immediately short-terming them from afar. Your description of the professional multi renters is chilling - but within a landlord's ability to control if their lease is written correctly and they're on the case. As a landlord I'd want to know - but you raise some good points about how precarious the whistle blower's position is. Regarding insurance, a guy from the state dept. of insurance just told the Marigny meeting recently that if an owner makes an insurance claim for damages and the insurer finds out it was an illegal rental, they would disallow the claim. Insurers have the money to employ investigators and they look for any reason not to pay. That may help you if you want to hip your landlord to the danger under his roof.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be pretty easy to use social media to accurately map where all these places really exist. and provide links to the advertisements. On my block, which only has 11 houses (both sides of the street) there are currently 32 guest slots available across 3 structures. If all were booked continuously for 30 days, that would constitute a combined income of $41,470 for one month.

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