Thursday, March 12, 2015

Nobody actually lives here

This is from Tuesday's Advocate. It's a blurb explaining the result of a visitor survey produced by UNO upon the commission of two of the state boards who spend public money doing market research for New Orleans hoteliers.

But the study goes beyond mere hotel occupancy in order to count tourists.
The results of the New Orleans Area Visitor Profile are obtained by using hotel occupancy figures, calls to a sampling of local residents to ask whether they had friends or relatives stay with them, and an estimate of the number of people who did not stay in hotels when they visited. The latter is generated by surveying visitors at Louis Armstrong International Airport, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and other destinations.
Notably, this week's Gambit refers to this same aspect of this same survey when introducing a series of personal vignettes on Airbnb.

City Council is currently considering a new regulatory framework that could permit short term rentals turning them into a more reliable source of tax revenue, yes, but also turning more of the housing stock over to the hotel business. Thus driving up the cost of housing for the few of us who manage to still actually live here.

From the point of view of the landlords pushing this policy change, tourism rentals are potentially more lucrative and less of a headache than regular tenants.  This is especially true for well-capitalized landlords who own multiple properties in New Orleans.   If the recent real estate listings are any indication, there is no shortage of this kind of speculative investment going on around town right now.

From the city's point of view, well maintained and revenue generating properties that nobody actually lives in are a win win.  Money is coming in. "Blight" is reduced. Plus there aren't as many actual residents hanging around complaining about how they need stuff like schools and police and public transit that doesn't just move conventioneers around downtown. The city is currently holding an adjudicated property sale you might have read about which figures to place more residential property in "historic neighborhoods" into the hands of vacation rental companies.

The Gambit articles are pretty terrible. Each in its own way looks to validate the triumph of the forced side-hustle desperation we have come to euphemize as the "sharing economy" by reducing the issue to irrelevant little anecdotes about how Gambit writers feel about things.

Anna Gaca lives next to a short-term rental. She sums up Gambit's know-nothing attitude toward it pretty well
Despite many reasons it could bother me, the constant stream of visitors doesn't. It's a little odd to have strangers around all the time, but I can relate to young travelers. Potential issues of regulation and tax evasion seem more like my neighbor's problem than mine. As New Orleans apartment hardships go, I prefer tourists to roaches, leaky ceilings and Cox installation.

Would I feel differently if I owned my home, rather than renting? Probably. And there are drawbacks, most obviously the impossibility of securing a shared backyard to which guests need 24-hour access. If I had allergies or small children, I wouldn't be so unfazed about opening my back door and seeing strangers playing with their dog. When visitors park cars stuffed with road trip gear on the street, I worry the block could become a easy target for theft.

Gambit is a schizophrenic publication.  Despite the fact that it's under constant pressure to be a glorified boutique ad sheet, it still does style itself an "alternative" newspaper with an interest in public affairs.  As such, maybe they should aspire to better than "not my problem!" Instead, we have a deliberate appeal to lifestyle sensibilities.  "I guess this might bug you if you were like, old or something," this reporter says, in essence. Besides, having tourists around all the time is fun. It's almost like living in a dorm room.  Better than Cox-roaches, anyway, amirite?  

Alex Woodward uses Airbnb when he goes to Brooklyn. To hear him tell it, Airbnb, is a great social leveler.
There's a certain kind of privilege in travel. It's the first thing you don't do when budgets are tight. If you can afford it, you want absolute control — over how much you spend and where. Hotels are one option, friends' couches are another and Airbnb opens a third. Airbnb believes itself to be the community-building, connection-making answer to the burgeoning sharing economy, in which we travel to meet new people, make and tell stories and connect on some vaguely humanitarian level. Airbnb "connects people to unique travel experiences," and, in bold capital letters, tells you to "BELONG ANYWHERE."

You could get cynical about that mantra — but then your eyes glaze over as you peruse the beautiful listings in faraway places on your to-do list. Airbnb's biggest selling point is that it's everywhere you want to be. Hilton Hotels advertised its properties as a familiar place in every vacationland you could imagine; Airbnb actually is that.
"You could be cynical" about a company valued at $10 billion   built on the subversion of consumer and labor protections through clever regulatory arbitrage selling itself as "community-building" humanitarianism.   But that would just be your "privilege" showing.  Better to let your eyes glaze over and be a more self-absorbed consumer. But, you know, in that smug "connection-making" way that people like now.

Jeanie Riess makes some connections she would probably rather not have. Although, something tells me the two New Orleans Airbnb rentals she samples were chosen specifically for their creep factor.
I make it inside and enter my bedroom through the kitchen. The bed is huge and has two polyester comforters and a set of thin, fake silk sheets that smell like Febreze.

I really do not want to sleep here. Everything around me tells me that I should not, from the dark and stormy night to the crusty spoon to the fact that I'm a single female sharing a house with an older man I don't know.
At least she was uncomfortable enough that she didn't have to be too embarrassed about "privilege."  On the other hand, it cost $140 per night so who even knows what that means anymore? I think in the post-modern usage employed for the benefit of Gambit readers, "privilege" is the original sin you didn't spend enough money buying the "authenticity" required to cover up.

Finally, Missy Wilkinson lets out her own home via Airbnb. She says it's easy money, this moonlighting in the (don't call it) tourism business that she does.
I live in Bywater a few blocks from the Mississippi River. The neighborhood is in demand among Airbnb travelers (always travelers, never tourists) — it's close enough to the French Quarter to be convenient, far away enough to be "authentic."

Like the Mississippi with its life-giving sediment, travelers flow through my home and leave it a little richer. There's the Dutch professor who gave me an impromptu art lesson. The Israeli graphic designer who gifted me with her art, which now hangs in the master bedroom.
The image of visitors travelers leaving "sediment" (perhaps in the bathtub) is difficult to shake. Maybe someday we can use it to replenish our wetlands. In any case, the impression of Airbnb conveyed from the isolated ant's eye level is simply that it's honest work. It pays the bills and "leaves the home a little richer" in a figurative sense as well.  And good for Missy that she's comfortable taking that on for the extra money.

I would suggest, though, that these entrepreneurial personal enrichment experiences aren't representative of what Airbnb's eventual impact is going to be in the aggregate
Although the company refuses to release numbers, a data analysis commissioned by The Chronicle found almost 5,000 San Francisco homes, apartments, and private or shared rooms for rent via Airbnb. Two-thirds were entire houses or apartments, showing how far Airbnb has come from its couch-surfer origins, and contradicting its portrayal as a service for people who rent out a spare room and interact with guests.

And 160 entire homes or apartments seem to be rented full time, giving weight to arguments that the service is allowing landlords to flout strict rental laws.
The real story here is about how 21st Century capitalism is enabling a speculative real estate industry, with the blessing of political leadership, to create boutique neighborhoods of part-time occupants where nobody actually lives.  Maybe Gambit will get around to telling that story eventually. But they have not done so this week.

1 comment:

Nolaresident said...

I suggest Clancy provide his readers with some first-hand experience and rent out a room or two. Then he could tell us about it in his commentary on WWL Teevee.

I cannot imagine renting out a room or two to strangers. If I had to depend on that to "help out with the mortgage" that would be an indication to me that perhaps I bought more house than I could comfortably afford.