UnfairBnB: What Unlicensed Short-Term Rentals Mean for New Orleans

shabby-chic-closeupMore and more people we know in New Orleans make money through Airbnb, a website that allows tourists to arrange short-term stays in private homes. “I wash towels for a living now,” says one friend, a working artist who from 2010 to 2013 derived the majority of her income from graphic design. “That’s what I do all day, towels and sheets.” She and a business partner rent a property in the Ninth Ward that they use as an Airbnb hostel. “It pays much better and it’s way less aggravating than doing people’s business cards and websites. No regrets.”

We asked Bonnie Rabe, president of the Professional Innkeepers Association of New Orleans, if Airbnb is costing traditional guest houses business. “Absolutely,” she said. “Am I struggling to make ends meet? No. There’s plenty of business to go around, plenty of tourists. Our biggest complaint about unlicensed short term renters is that they’re doing it illegally, while we still have to pay taxes and fees. But everyone knows the city is not enforcing its laws.”

Airbnb requires hosts to file a Form 1099 (the federal and state tax form for miscellaneous income), but its only nod towards municipal codes is in the host signup form, where you check a box promising you’ll abide by local laws. In New Orleans, if you’re renting other people living space for less than 30 days (60 in the French Quarter), the city requires you pay per-room taxes and hundreds in yearly licensing fees. None of the Airbnb hosts we talked to do so.

So it’s illegal. And in a city where poor black folks do decades for marijuana possession, where “permits” are used by the powerful as a pretext to shut down all sorts of shit, it’s pretty disgusting to see the smarmy Seattleites at Booty’s Street Food running an illegal B&B, especially just upstairs from the same Bitcoin bistro in which they host campaign events for Jackie Clarkson, a woman who spent her career using the law as a cudgel against our city’s most vulnerable. But unless you’re someone with a stake in the conventional hospitality industry, it can be hard to get too worked up about Airbnb’s overall illegality. It fits into a tradition of New Orleans residents surviving through informal side-hustles, from unlicensed in-home daycares and salons to using residential kitchens to turn out dinner plates and huckabucks. And in a place where government has only ever been a kleptocracy, what’s so great about paying taxes?

 

Real Compared to What

In Zachary Lamb’s 2011 study, Rethinking Authenticity in Tourist Experience, Lamb finds that participants in “person-to-person hospitality networks” such as Airbnb are driven largely by “authenticity-seeking,” among a list of motivations that also includes a desire for “social distinction.”

This is the key to success for another friend, a full-time Airbnb host who sublets a room of his rented house to Airbnb tourists. “Yuppies pay me $50 a night to be roommates,” he said. “I take them to the St. Roch, I party with them.” His reviewers are impressed, citing the exposure he offers to the “real, underground NOLA,” one describing it as “an authentic-to-unpleasant experience.”

As usual, reality trumps any attempt at satire. How much would you pay to sleep in a school bus parked lakeside of St. Claude? On Airbnb, it’s just $70 a night. For some, discomfort is a selling point, a mark of authenticity. “They love it,” says Chuck, a friend who Airbnbs one of the three rooms in his Ninth Ward shotgun. “I open the door, I’m a heavily tattooed punk, there’s broken down houses on either side of me, and they get to be like ‘I spent a night in the hood.’” Disaster tourism isn’t new; New Orleans’ decimated infrastructure has a thrilling outlaw appeal. The romanticization of poverty successfully markets to outsiders those same aspects of the city that are most frustrating and depressing to its residents.

instagramMany Airbnb hosts flatter and tantalize prospective guests’ typically tourist desire to see special or secret things, the real New Orleans other tourists don’t have access to. On safari deep in the urban jungle, the daring Airbnb super-tourist hunts social media bragging rights by bagging iPad footage of exotic scenery and wild local life. They want the special stuff, the magic those poor benighted hicks who settle for eating beignets at Café du Monde, enjoying live music in Jackson Square, or drinking a Pimm’s Cup at the Napoleon House are missing out on.

The idea that, by sticking tourists in some part of town with fewer taxis, Airbnb offers them a more “real” New Orleans is of course just misleading marketing; the French Quarter—even the neon-lit panic attack that is Bourbon Street—is real New Orleans. It is not fake. Whatever you call that unfunny Portlandia joke metastasizing past Press Street, it’s absolutely rife with Airbnb rentals, and the French Quarter is arguably more authentically New Orleans than an area which, as seen in its new businesses, is aesthetically and experientially indistinguishable from trendy neighborhoods in many other cities.

New Orleans’ secrets are still not for sale. By trying aggressively to buy your way into a more authentic experience, you only guarantee yourself something commodified. Tourists who reject the museumified French Quarter instead contribute to the hollowing-out and museumification of other neighborhoods.

 

Denying the Hustle

It might sound creepy for a stranger to buy space in your home. To help you accept a reality in which your financial precarity obliges you to make “private” things like your home or your car extralegally available to the whims of better-off strangers, the tech industry has coined the term Sharing Economy. In a nutshell, the Sharing Economy means you get contacted by someone with money. You then “share” something you have with that person, for money. This is done via the internet, making it hard for under-resourced local law enforcement to regulate or prevent. Technology is neutral and agnostic, so whether the transaction’s an Uber rental or child sex tourism, the Sharing Economy cares only about facilitating brisker commerce with less government interference. In a city as fucked-up as New Orleans, the result is an exploding market with no oversight whatsoever, and Airbnb pockets commission off each transaction.

Like many Sharing Economy businesses, Airbnb likes to emphasize its customers’ experiences of camaraderie. This can be seen in host review sections, which closely resemble the review function of an earlier website, Couchsurfing.org. Couchsurfing, from its 2004 founding to about 2012, was a website where strangers offered other strangers free accommodation. It took a form of travel that punks and weirdos have engaged in forever and made it accessible to a wider audience; it was a utopian project. Airbnb took that project and made it about money, while maintaining both Couchsurfing’s aesthetic and utopian language.

In a press release posted on Airbnb’s website in reaction to New York City enforcing its laws on short-term rentals, David Hantman, Airbnb’s Head of Global Public Policy, passionately defends his employer. “These are not illegal hotels. These are amazing stories within a core community of hosts and travelers adding to the diverse fabric of New York.”

The Sharing Economy’s hippie-dippie language co-opts free culture while denying anything’s being changed by the injection of a profit motive. Potlucks, to which you could at least in theory invite your neighbors, become speakeasies or pop-up restaurants where you only interact with whoever can afford what you’re selling. Houseguests become Airbnb guests. Every meeting is mediated by money— but you’re not working, you’re “sharing.” You’re doing what you love, meeting new people, creating amazing stories.

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As our economy becomes almost entirely tourism-based, it’s a rare New Orleanian who isn’t at some level involved in hustle. We flirt, we charm, we smile to survive. Hustling is a dance that both parties, deep down, know they are engaging in, even when the interaction is based on a temporary suspension of disbelief. Money itself isn’t inauthentic; it’s real, and the hustles we engage in to make money aren’t inherently inauthentic either. But a conversation in which a business talks about itself as if it weren’t about money is bullshit.

Denying the hustle obscures your role as a worker, a concept that, though less and less popular, has historically allowed people to explicitly separate what they do for love and what they do for money. It’s particularly insidious in a time when steady employment, let alone a unionized workplace or real medical coverage, seems a pipe dream.

Miya Tokumitsu’s essay “In the Name of Love,” in the January 2014 issue of Jacobin Magazine addresses this mindset at length. She writes, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life! Before succumbing to the intoxicating warmth of that promise, it’s critical to ask, ‘Who, exactly, benefits from making work feel like nonwork?’ ‘Why should workers feel as if they aren’t working when they are?’…It hides the fact that if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.”

 

The Color of Money

“If somebody is struggling with paying their rent, in any home in any neighborhood in New Orleans, they can help supplement their rent with Airbnb if they wanted to,” said one Airbnb host we spoke with. The idea that anyone can benefit is a common sentiment within the Sharing Economy, but while the internet may have potential as a democratizing force, it has in common with democracy that it does not serve all its constituents equally.

“Subscribers to high-speed Internet services in New Orleans are generally white and in the higher income brackets,” says a study cited in a March 2012 piece by Matt Davis on The Lens website. It’s the same old story of race, class, and media access. Browsing through downtown New Orleans’ Airbnb listings, more than 90% of hosts are white. Airbnb as a service to hosts is not reaching New Orleans’ black majority in any significant way. There are a lot of people in New Orleans who lack the space to put up Airbnb guests, the investment capital to create such a space, or the time for the work required.

Whatever your sense is of who’s been hit hardest by the insane rent spikes of recent years, downtown New Orleans’ prospective Airbnb hoteliers likely don’t match that demographic. Lounging on funky couches or grinning from within elaborate Mardi Gras costumes, their blithely unselfconscious bios border on parody. “I’ve lived in New Orleans now for nearly three years. Once upon a time, I traveled across the country in a Honda Civic Hybrid from Portland, OR…”

A lady in Holy Cross who offers the neighborhood specialties of fresh oysters and zydeco dancing promises potential customers that “It is a joy to see neighbors rebuilding homes that suffered through the post Katrina floods.” This sentence on its own would be nice, but here it is part of an advertisement. Instead of the banal architecture of the French Quarter, tourists are offered as scenery the struggles of those displaced by the failure of the Federal levees.

In the bios, one word in particular surfaces repeatedly. “Your hosts are all artists.” “Foodie. Traveler. Artist.” In bio after bio the word tolls like a bell, shrieks like a whistle, insistent and inescapable. “[A]n artist from New Jersey.” “We are artists with two homes.” Why do so many profiting off Airbnb identify as artists? The listings blur personal ad and business transaction. Customer reviews are reviews of the hosts themselves, their personalities and likeability. “A great guy! Such a talented musician!” What downtown’s Airbnb rentiers have in common, beyond their lifestyle affectations, is that they’re overwhelmingly, almost without exception white and from elsewhere. That is who’s making money off Airbnb.

cash-machineBut even if more New Orleanians of color used Airbnb, that doesn’t mean they’d be able to make money off it the way whites are. In a 2014 study for Harvard Business School titled Digital Discrimination: The Case of Airbnb.com, authors Benjamin Edelman and Michael Luca find that racism strongly affects how much Airbnb hosts are able earn. The “raw data show that non-black and black hosts receive strikingly different rents.” There is, the study concludes, a “significant penalty faced by a black host trying to conduct business on Airbnb.”

Much of what’s considered “cool” about New Orleans, most of the “cultural economy” Mayor Landrieu and his hospitality-industry cronies are pimping to outsiders, is working-class African-American or Creolized Afro-Caribbean in origin. But as usual, the hand collecting your fare to this fairyland is white and uncalloused. The culture of the historically oppressed is monetized by the historical oppressor.

 

King Tourist

A September 2013 Good Morning America piece by Alan Farnham about communities cracking down on illegal Airbnb rentals quotes Molly Turner, Airbnb’s Director of Public Policy, who posits Airbnb as ameliorating the cruelties of gentrification. “We’re helping the middle class to be able to afford to stay in San Francisco and in their homes by providing additional income,” Turner says.  Airbnb guests, Turner says, “Patronize the local café, the neighborhood restaurant.”

Farnham agrees. “Thanks to Airbnb, neighborhoods and small businesses that have never before benefitted from tourist spending now do.” But what does it mean when the distinction between what’s for tourists and what isn’t gets erased?

How many of the properties on the block where you live would you want to see converted from long-term rentals or owner-occupancies into Airbnbs?

For one thing, it puts renters in New Orleans into direct competition for space with an endless churn of visitors able to pay $50 to $200 a night. For another, it subjects residential neighborhoods to wave after wave of super-short-term outsiders, a potent disruptive and destabilizing force in areas still fighting their way back to some semblance of stability. Tourists have no understanding of the neighborhoods they’re invading, and unlike longer-term residents, they have no incentive to get along with or respect those who live in the neighborhood. They’re here to party and enjoy themselves, and it’s in the Airbnb host’s economic interest to ensure they’re able to do so. On a NOLA.com article about the city’s ongoing failure to enforce the laws against illegal short-term rentals, one commenter said his experience of living next door to an illegal guesthouse was like “living next to a frat house.”

Once, the timber industry ruled Louisiana. Rail lines and housing were built to facilitate clearcutting. After all the logs were sent downriver, the apparatus of industry moved on, leaving behind despoiled countryside and communities with no income. Then came the oil industry, which cut canals through our most delicate wetlands, digging and destroying. Like the timber industry before it, the oil industry seized the highest land, closest to the river. Whole neighborhoods, communities like Diamond in Norco, disappeared entirely, subsumed into the Blade Runner-like refinery infrastructure.

Here in New Orleans, tourism is king. Like the timber and oil industries, its needs and agenda reshape not just government policy but the lives of those who live in or around the resources it values, and if every neighborhood becomes a tourist destination, every neighborhood must be tourist-compliant. A few weeks back, a friend enjoying a post-breakfast cigarette at his table outside Cake Cafe was told he couldn’t smoke. No matter your feelings on cigarettes, it wasn’t so many years ago that you could find employees smoking behind the counters of our city’s post offices and delis. Where does this change of culture originate? It is the normalization of New Orleans, and like most changes, it is driven by money. Things uncomfortable or unfamiliar to tourists are forced into cultural conformity. King Tourist must be accommodated.

 

The Spatial Logic of Airbnb

Part of what Airbnb does, functionally, is introduce a specifically touristic whiteness into neighborhoods where it hasn’t previously been. Although it’s wearying to trot out the tropes, the standard model of gentrification might be compared to chess—most vividly in New Orleans neighborhoods that, since white flight, have been the homes of poor people of color.

In this chess model, white “pawns”—punks, artists, other categories of white folks who lack health insurance—are the front lines. Largely renters, these low-budget whites are driven into formerly non-white neighborhoods by a need for affordable housing. They, or those just after them, begin to demand changes, like more aggressive policing to protect their conceptually ambitious bicycles. The appearance of whiteness in the neighborhood draws the interest of new whites who have the means to buy and fix up houses—as distinct from the neighborhood’s pre-existent Slidell-dwelling landlords, for whom the notion anyone would pay $1100 a month to live in the Ninth Ward is a hilarious windfall.

Notwithstanding the black/white dichotomy is an ahistorical oversimplification in a downtown which has never been homogeneous, this 20th century version of new whites taking space in previously nonwhite neighborhoods, seen from above, is a two-dimensional line of scrimmage. The white teapot swells, the non-gentry “other” recedes. Waves of more affluent whites force the poor ones further out.  Eventually, places like the Marigny, hellaciously dangerous not so long ago, become Clean Zones fit for King Tourist. When more whites arrive, the perimeter of whiteness expands.

Airbnb isn’t chess; it’s three-dimensional. It’s more like Go, the ancient Eastern game in which pieces can be added to the board anywhere. It is the spatial logic of infection, contagion, a thousand small sky-dropped seeds, only a few of which need to survive to then overgrow. It’s problematic, in both these models, to grant whiteness all the agency, but let’s be real: money is agency. Money is choices, and vacations, and getting to decide where you want to be. Those without money, like the first-wave white “pawns,” don’t get to make choices; they must react to emergent necessities.

In the Go model, tourists who would formerly be limited to tourist neighborhoods are parachuted into New Orleans willy-nilly. These tourists, who bring with them expectations and culture from elsewhere in America, are moving along lines not of physical geography but of technology and culture. Picking a place to stay in an area they know nothing about, they are reassured by the smiling faces of others who resemble them on the Airbnb website. “These hosts look like nice people. Look, this couple who wear the same brands of clothing as us recommended them. Oh honey, shall we? Let’s get a taste of the real New Orleans.”

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The visual dissonance this creates, the experience of seeing visibly affluent white couples on matching bicycles toodling around the bombed-out reaches of St. Roch, is an example of the digital age’s vaunted techie “disruption.” It’s the sudden and apparently anomalous arrival of things that have no bearing on what came before, new things not rooted in any recognizable local context. An entity that made sense in an older shared conception of the neighborhood—a family home, an ironworks, a church or corner store—is replaced with something bizarre: a studio offering a bodywork discipline no one who lived there pre-Katrina has heard of, a rarely-open gallery of off-putting art, or a restaurant serving contrived and regionally unfamiliar foods.

But these goods and services aren’t unfamiliar to their intended market. These strange new businesses in old buildings are toeholds for an emerging stratum whose “community” and tastes are built trans-geographically, through a version of “culture” that exists largely online.

To be clear, this fracturing of historical and cultural continuity is a tendency that operates in both the two- and three-dimensional models of takeover. Whereas North Claiborne, even before the interstate, was a line of culture, a continuous region of black New Orleans, Esplanade Avenue in 2007 was united merely by architecture. Some of Esplanade’s stately homes were full of poor people renting month-to-month or even by the week. But with the addition of a bike lane, a line of white movement is imposed along Esplanade, fracturing the continuity of Claiborne.

Within the relentlessly accelerating pressure of capitalism, anything not actively generating money for the right people, including pockets of culture, must be smashed into gravel, atomized and scrapped for potentially profitable parts. Anything large enough to have its own interiority must be punctured—and what better pin than King Tourist, that most normalizing and decontexualized force, one with no stake in a community’s future and no attachment to its past?

 

Uncomfortable Conversations

In most ways, Airbnb is no worse than other things we do for money. While making us all tour guides in our own homes commodifies our experiences of our city, it also provides friends, many of whom are worthy souls, with income they’d otherwise have to derive from washing dishes, selling commercial art, or supplying the New Orleans tourist economy another kind of service it demands.

City ordinances allow no more than one B&B per block, to prevent residential neighborhoods being hollowed out by tourism. Especially (but not only) for those who make money through Airbnb, the question is this: How many of the properties on the block where you live would you want to see converted from long-term rentals or owner-occupancies into Airbnbs? If your answer isn’t “all of them,” what will prevent that happening? We all have a stake in the outcome.

It’s hard to argue against people’s short-term economic self-interest, but when it comes to Airbnb, a useful distinction might be drawn based on host occupancy. Those who Airbnb a piece of the property where they reside at least live in the neighborhood they’re affecting. Non-residents, those who rent out entire apartments or houses, or who travel most of the year and sublet, are profiteering.

Since, as with so much it’s supposed to do, our city government can’t or won’t regulate Airbnb, we New Orleanians must do it ourselves. There is a spectrum of reaction that begins—and ideally, ends—with conversation, speaking with or otherwise contacting directly those who are operating Airbnbs in places they don’t live, or using Airbnb to run empires of whole-house hotels.

Perhaps it’s time the neighborhood associations stepped up. Rather than rely on government to hold us accountable, we must hold ourselves accountable for the ways our actions affect our neighbors, and our neighbors should be likewise accountable to us. Our shared future depends on it. Uncomfortable as these conversations might sound, they’re a better way forward than abdicating our responsibilities to a disinterested and useless city government… or the bottomless rapacity of the market.