Planning Commission endorses proposal to legalize most short-term rentals

A plan legalizing short-term rentals to visitors throughout the city but prohibiting residents from renting whole units in residential areas throughout the year gained the approval of the New Orleans City Planning Commission on Tuesday.

The commission voted 6-1 in favor of a set of rules that largely follow the recommendations of its staff.

Because the Planning Commission’s recommendations are not binding on the City Council, Tuesday’s vote represented simply one more step in the long-running debate over what place rentals through websites like AirBnB have in New Orleans.

After council members debate and approve their own version of the document, it will go back to the City Planning Commission for another vote. After getting that approval, it’ll head back to the council for final approval.

The Planning Commission diverged from the staff recommendations on only one issue, striking a provision that would allow whole homes to be rented out in residential neighborhoods.

The debate over short-term rentals has been going on in New Orleans for years. Some analyses suggest that between 2,400 and 4,000 people already are using sites like Airbnb and VRBO to rent out rooms or entire living units, mostly in violation of city ordinances that are rarely enforced.

The planning staff recommended legalizing several types of short-term rentals in the city. Residents would be able to rent out rooms in their own home, or half of a double house, with few restrictions as long as the owners were on the site or in the other side of a double.

The staff also suggested that whole homes could be rented up to four times per year, for a total of 30 days, under a plan aimed largely at visitors during major events. In districts not zoned residential, whole apartments or houses could be rented without those restrictions.

The provision that was struck by the commission would have allowed residents to rent out entire houses or apartments year-round, though those rentals would be subject to a more stringent permitting process and would be limited to no more than two to four per square block, depending on the neighborhood.

Analyses of current short-term rentals in New Orleans suggest that about 70 percent of the rentals available through Airbnb offer to rent an entire home. It’s not clear how many of those are in residential districts, though they appear to be concentrated in residential areas of the French Quarter, Marigny and Bywater.

The recommendations also include beefing up the number of inspectors and lobbying the state Legislature for a way to tax the rentals.

“I don’t want anyone to think we don’t think enforcement is key. Enforcement needs to be enhanced substantially, not just with bodies and boots on the ground but with policies and procedures,” Planning Commission Executive Director Robert Rivers said.

The commission stripped out the whole-unit rentals in residentially zoned areas by a 5-2 vote. An effort to ban whole-unit rentals outside of residential areas failed 1-6 before the commission approved the package of recommendations on a 6-1 vote.

Commissioner Kelly Brown, who argued against allowing whole home rentals in residential neighborhoods, said those rentals have a far greater impact on neighborhoods than the others, potentially hurting the quality of life of nearby property owners who unexpectedly find they are “living next to a commercial operation they never contemplated they’d have to deal with.”

Supporters of short-term rentals, including owners who rent out their properties and representatives of the organization Alliance for Neighborhood Prosperity, said they largely agreed with the staff’s recommendations. Attorneys for the organization said they wanted to see fewer restrictions for those who want to rent their own homes and a flat fee structure to aid the city in collecting revenue.

The recommendations came under fire from groups representing hotels and residents of the French Quarter and Irish Channel. Hotel groups argued the proposals would give short-term rentals an unfair advantage over traditional hotels, while neighborhood organizations argued for greater limits on rentals in residential areas and a total ban on them in the French Quarter.

Follow Jeff Adelson on Twitter, @jadelson.

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