Thursday, August 08, 2019

Municipocalypse 2019: The final STR shitshow

Well it is early August now and the first thing I gotta say is it looks like we may have picked the wrong week to stop taking kratom.  There's so much going on all of a sudden! For those of us accustomed to a long summer's nap this is very jarring. Seriously, how is it football season again already? We haven't even gotten to see the Commissioner's deposition over the NFC Championship debacle and somehow we're already doing the 2019 fake games and everything.

That is to say we will be doing that  Friday if we first survive what could be the most intense City Council meeting of the year on Thursday. Expect a full day shout-a-thon. Public commenters may, in fact, be lining up even as I type this. The reason for that, in a word, is gentrification.
Property values across New Orleans jumped by more than 18% in the last four years, an increase that is expected to result in a sharp rise in property taxes for many residents, according to preliminary estimates from the city's assessor.

The jump is far larger than has been seen in years in New Orleans as the spread of gentrification has caused prices to rise both in the already expensive historic core of the city and in more outlying areas that had remained relatively affordable until recently.
Mayor Cantrell took care this month to make sure nobody blames her for the rise in assessments. For example, during this video session, Cantrell urged us to complain to assessor Erroll Williams's office and not hers.  "It’s not us doing something to you,” she says. But that isn't really true.  In fact, her office is expected to ask City Council to for a millage roll forward in order to maximize revenue windfalls from the new assessments. That is apparently on top of a proposed new tax of 3 mils.
Chief Administration Office Gilbert Montaño has suggested the city would be looking to roll its property tax rates forward, arguing that New Orleans’ budget is about $100 million short of what it should be to meet the city’s needs.

In addition, the mayor’s office and council are currently sparring over a 3-mill tax proposed by the administration. Council members, in part responding to complaints from residents who have already received their notices of higher assessments, have sought restrictions on how that money could be spent, arguing that they could not ask residents to pay even more unless the money was specifically dedicated to infrastructure.

Administration officials argue they need to have flexibility to deal with unforeseen future needs.
Now before we get too far with this, we should probably emphasize that we here at the Yellow Blog are sufficiently orthodox in our socialism to understand the importance of funding essential government services. We also recognize the relatively progressive approach of a property tax as compared to, say, fines and fees generated by hyper-aggressive policing.  But the tax burden in New Orleans still falls disproportionately on poor and working class people and jacking up the millage is not going to repair that discrepancy.  The higher assessments combined with higher tax rates are almost certain to push poorer homeowners to cash out and move likely leading to further concentration of wealth in the city overall. Renters are also likely to suffer as higher taxes are passed on to them by landlords and fewer rental properties are available at affordable prices. This is what the mayor's 3 mil tax is doing to you.

Meanwhile, the mayor isn't exactly doing anything  for you either. LaToya swears assessments are "not her job." But she does consider it her job to push for millions of dollars in tax breaks and "incentives" to hand out to wealthy real estate developers who build more nice things for rich people.  All of which ultimately leads, again, to higher assessments, higher rents, higher taxes. The cycle (vicious or virtuous depending on which side of the wealth divide you find yourself on) keeps driving property values higher until you've got block after block of attractive speculative assets where nobody actually lives.
NEW ORLEANS — Tandra Smith has been living in her Fairgrounds neighborhood home since 2008.

"A lot of my neighbors have been here longer than I have," Smith said. She said she likes the area, mainly for its affordability, but after seeing her recent property assessment skyrocket she fears she won't be able to live here much longer.

She said her assessment last year valued her property and home at $167,000, which she said was reasonable because she purchased her home at $135,000. This year's assessment, which by law has to happen at least once every four years, put her house value at $416,000.

“I wanted to cry,” Smith said. do  
There are several factors pumping gas into this speculative bubble. But the one thing New Orleanians have been most loudly asking their elected representatives to do that could take some of the air out is get a handle on the explosive growth of short term rentals.
Robinson says it's something that's effected everyone on her street.

“So last year I paid one rate, and this year it’s a full 100% higher," she said. "The remaining six neighbors on this block, yes, there are only six of us left, theirs have gone up 300-450% higher.”

Ask her why, and she has one answer

"I believe 45% of the homes here in Treme are AirBnBs or Short Term Houses," she said. “That’s a business, but technically that’s a residence. So now we’re comparing their property taxes to my property taxes.”
City Council is planning to take up the short term rental ordinances this Thursday.  As a courtesy to all of us who enjoy a long and rancorous meeting, they have also wisely punted the property millage question that very same date. Expect a total shitshow of confused rhetoric. No doubt there will be landlords arguing in favor of more STRs in order to compensate for the rising taxes.  Also expect to hear that we need to hold the property taxes down specifically so that we can impose more fees on STRs. But these are false choices. Councilmembers can choose to protect people from rising housing costs without playing the drivers of those costs off against one another.  It's not at all clear that they understand this, unfortunately.

For example, here is Jay Banks saying some troubling things to WWLTV just a couple weeks ago. Talking about STRs, in particular, Banks says they "allow regular people to participate in this tourism economy."  By regular people, we have to assume he means individual landlords holding single properties.  But that is a gross misapprehension of the STR landscape in New Orleans. A report published by Jane Place last year showed that the bulk of the business is controlled by a handful of international corporations.
JPNSI found that 18 percent of all operators control roughly half of all STRs in New Orleans. Gambit’s recent review of licenses issued by the city found the top 10 operators - including Sonder, Hosteeva and Stay Alfred - hold more than 400 licenses, with several operators holding several listings per license; JPNSI says those top 10 operators have 568 listings.
Since then, that situation has almost certainly gotten worse. More to the point, though, there's no way Jay Banks wouldn't have been made aware of the data by now. But here he is pretending otherwise and saying defeatist things like, "we can't put this genie back in the bottle" and  "we've got to come to a happy median somewhere." Uh oh.

Similarly confused, or at least saying similarly confusing things is Mayor Cantrell. It's been difficult to pin her down on the specific ordinances being considered this week. But the comments she has made lead us to suspect she's not especially sympathetic. Just last Tuesday, councilmembers expressed frustration with the mayor's lack of commitment to enforcement. Even under the current overly liberal rules, there are an estimated 5,000 or so STRs operating illegally. But the mayor's staff are reluctant to do anything about that because of a circular argument I'm not even sure they understand.
The mayor’s representatives, however, said they could not bring on new staff until they figure out how stricter rules on Airbnb and HomeAway rentals would affect the amount the city now brings in from taxes on short-term rentals, whether they’re operating legally or not.

“We have to be careful about what we’re greenlighting to see how the market reacts to these issues,” said Gilbert Montaño, Cantrell’s chief administrative officer. He said uncertainty about how much will be brought in once short-term rentals are curtailed makes it “vitally prudent to hold off on hiring $2 million” worth of new staffers.
I think what  Montaño is saying is they are waiting for "the market" to decide what the law actually is. So that's encouraging.

That same day, LaToya was interviewed by Norman Robinson for a WLAE show called "Housing Matters"  primarily to promote the city's having landed $28 million in new grants and tax credits with which to "incentivize" the creation of new housing.  Cantrell doesn't always do a great job of explaining things. She mentions various applications for the grant money; soft second mortgage programs, home repair grants (probably distributed via non-profit partners) and, of course developer incentives. To the extent that money trickling down through those infamously sticky pipes is helpful, it's still mostly about chipping away at the symptoms of the housing crisis without really getting at the causes. Of course, there's only so much $28 million can do.  But for the sake of perspective, it's estimated that at best we're talking about 620-640 added "affordable units."  Currently the Greater New Orleans Housing Alliance estimates we need upwards of 30,000 to adequately address the need.

Norman also asked Cantrell to speak about East New Orleans in particular which led to some more confusing double talk.  The mayor was naturally eager to show that she wants the often neglected East to benefit from the new pile of money. But her choice of phrase, "New Orleans East is somewhere we want to push people towards" with regard to housing is ominous.

Generally speaking, the mayor's philosophy with regard to housing policy is neoliberal in the extreme.She even ducks a question about the demolition of the Big Four housing projects after Katrina choosing instead to fixate on a right wing policy paper about the 2008 financial collapse which she connects to a drying up of the state and federal "incentive" pipeline she prefers to just about any other possible solution.  What's worse, Cantrell is not at all convinced that STRs are a serious problem.  She sort of admits that they "don't help," but continually brings the conversation back to the need to find "balance" with the tourism industry in light of the fact that New Orleans is "a destination city."

So LaToya doesn't want to talk about it. But we should probably take a moment to explain what the City Council will actually be debating at this meeting.  We'll try to keep it simple.

Kristin Palmer has introduced a set of ordinances based on the most recent round of Planning Commission recommendations which would create two basic sets of rules. In residential zones STRs will be restricted only to properties whose owner also claims a homestead exemption there. The intent is to effectively outlaw the so-called "whole home" short term rental on any residentially zoned property.  In commercial or mixed-use zones, the ordinance would limit owners of large apartment buildings to convert only 25 percent of available units to STR while also requiring a 1-1 affordable unit match.

But that was before a consultant's report came back at the end of July and argued against the affordable match and 25 percent cap.  Essentially, their recommendation was for no restrictions on commercial STRs whatsoever. That seemed pretty shocking at first. But after The Lens pointed out the consulting firm, HR&A had some pretty glaring conflicts of interest, it started to make more sense.
The real estate consulting company that wrote the report, HR&A Associates, has worked for Airbnb at least four times since 2012, producing glowing reports about its local economic benefits and job creation bonafides. Most recently in 2017, the company produced “Sharing for a Stronger New York” on behalf of Airbnb.
HR&A responded a few days later but even if we take their argument in good faith, it doesn't add up. The problem begins with the treatment of the commercial and mixed use zoned properties as though it occurs in a wholly separate universe what happens in "residential areas."

HR&A says the scope of their report was to focus on the commercial zones only. But this is really a warping of perspective.  In practice, commercially zoned properties are a necessary component of any residential area. The corner grocery, the neighborhood bar, the hardware store, the gas station, laundromat, etc. these are all part of what makes a neighborhood a neighborhood. Here is the city's land use map.  If you look around at the zoning, you can see commercial properties running through the city along transit corridors or highly trafficked areas, or just occasionally on a corner lot maybe. So allowing unlimited STRs  to proliferate in commercial or "mixed use" zones doesn't protect these neighborhoods at all. It aggressively disrupts them.

We could see every affordable housing unit along a major transit line turned into an STR. This, in turn, will cause businesses along these commercial corridors; Magazine Street, St. Bernard Ave., Oretha Castle Haley, etc., to cater primarily to visitors rather than residents with further negative ramifications for the surrounding areas. Land use policy is supposed to be about managing an interdependent urban system. HR&A is structuring an argument that treats the different zones as if they exist as completely independent municipalities.   It's a deliberate obfuscation to tell us a tale of two cities where in fact there is only one.

The second thing HR&A wants to tell us is that we need to maximize STR proliferation in the commercial zones because that will, through a series of bank shots and hypothetical fees and plans that do not exist yet, generate money for "affordable housing" at some point.
But Phillip Kash, the lead author on the study, said the study’s recommendation to promote affordable housing primarily by imposing fees on such commercial short-term rentals would give the city the most bang for the buck.

“We came at it with the (idea) that the goal was to generate the most subsidized units or the most money for affordable housing,” Kash said this week. “We thought there was consensus on that point; now I hear there is less consensus on that point.”

But what that means in practice is sacrificing every commercial and mixed use corridor to tourist hosting and services. It means we are leaving the entire "historic" or "high ground" portions of the city (and then some) vulnerable to accelerated gentrification.

Meanwhile, the affordable housing hasn't been built yet. Remember, LaToya wants to filter the funds HR&A says we're going to generate back down through a series of developer incentives and bank loans in order to build a number of housing units woefully insufficient to meet the city's need.  Plus, once that even happens, because we have willingly failed to protect our core neighborhoods, whatever newly affordable housing we create will inevitably be cited in further flung and lower elevated neighborhoods. In other words, residents are displaced to less desirable areas. Perhaps New Orleans East where the mayor has already said she wants to "push people."

Unfortunately the study, flawed and corrupt as it may be, appears to have had some impact on the policy direction. On Wednesday evening even Palmer appeared to have given up on the one-to-one affordable match for commercial properties.  And the 25% cap also could be in serious trouble if Jason Williams decides to move on it.
Gisleson Palmer’s team said there will likely be several amendments, mostly technical updates, but they don’t expect a lot of push back. Except for one: A proposal to remove the 25 percent cap on short-term rentals in large scale commercial buildings in the CBD.

“That basically means you could take an entire apartment complex building and turn it into a short-term rental, a de facto hotel, which would basically kill the residential life within the CBD,” Gisleson Palmer said.

Council members said Jason Williams is the main author behind the amendment, but his staff told FOX 8 he’s still debating on whether to propose it.
He very well may do it. Remember Jason already has a handshake agreement with Sonder and Mike Motwani to convert a building near the foot of Canal Street into a de-facto STR hotel.  Because God forbid our tourist facing downtown corridor ever go "under-retailed." Not when Pottery Barn is right there waiting.
Peter Bowen, Sonder New Orleans’ general manager, said he hopes to have the three projects up and operating within three years.

On Monday, City Council President Jason Williams expressed optimism that Sonder’s approach would help efforts to bring more big-box retailers, such as an Apple store or Pottery Barn, to Canal.

“New Orleans is significantly under-retailed, but it’s not because we don’t have people with resources who want to spend money,” he said. “It’s because of our lack of investment over a period of time.”
On the other hand, maybe he will back down. If so, the result might not be too bad.  The match can be revisited later and the cap is a good enough imperfect place to start.  One thing is for sure. There will be a lot of yelling and speechifying between now and the time that we arrive at that place.

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