PHOTOS COURTESY CAROLINE THOMAS
Over Memorial Day weekend, a Coney Island-style stand-in popped up on a porch on Royal Street in Bywater. The art piece featured two Bywater caricatures on a satirical billboard: "Welcome to the Bywater, where the vacation never ends!" Artist Caroline Thomas, who paints Mardi Gras floats for Royal Artists, created the piece and posted photos on Facebook. The spread went viral. Meanwhile, dozens of people — including many out-of-town visitors — posed for photos, gawked at and talked about the piece outside her home.
And her neighborhood is full of those visitors. Most of her block offers a room (or entire home) on Airbnb, she says. She counted 140 Airbnbs within her neighborhood, compared to just a handful of apartments for rent listed on sites like Craigslist.
"We noticed over the past six months a definite shift in the neighborhood," she says. "Big packs of tourists where you see 20 people going down the street with rolling suitcases and you’re like, ‘What’s happening?’ … We walk outside and people are taking constant photos of our house. At first it was charming, then you start to feel like an animal in a zoo."
"We would sit around after work and drink a beer and we noticed we were just complaining about it all the time," says Thomas' roommate Charlotte Horne-Hoonsan, who helped create the piece. "We both didn’t want to be overly negative. We wanted to do something that was kind of funny and wouldn’t make anyone feel bad but like, ‘Did you know this was happening?’ ... In designing it with the places you put your heads in, we want to attract tourists and not make them feel bad, be a photo op and take advantage of that — but also say, ‘Do you realize you’re staying on a block with a whole bunch of other people who are just visiting? This isn’t your authentic experience for paying double whatever you would’ve paid staying in the Garden District.'
"We had a problem to work out ethically. How do we really feel about this? What is actually wrong? We do want people to rent out their place for Jazz Fest. We’re all side hustle people here. I think (Airbnb’s) original idea was to be a step up from Couchsurfing. But when we realized how many people were renting out entirely rentable apartments…"
"While I don’t get paid directly by any kind of tourist, Mardi Gras is what it is for its tourism, and certainly the city wouldn’t be as tolerant and block off half the city for parades because of tourism," Thomas says. "I try to be an ambassador for the city. But when I’m wearing a costume — and I’m patient with taking pictures with people and making people go home saying ‘New Orleans does it best’ — I want to be able to take that off and go home and know my neighbors and have that space. ... If New Orleans wants to really support its creative arts — because that’s it’s biggest asset — this could be a gold mine they could conservatively mine for years and have it be an attraction that’s a golden example of New Orleans. Or we could strip it out in a couple years and have nothing left."
Thomas says her neighbors have largely enjoyed the art, which has generated a lot of in-person conversation about the state of the neighborhood's affordable housing and what to do about Airbnb's long-term creep into the city.
"I’ve had a lot of conversations with neighbors since putting it up, which has been great, just to have it out in the open," she says. "But then other ones are like, ‘I’m doing Airbnb because my property tax last year was $300 and now it’s $2,000.’ Or, ‘I want to stay in my house.’ I think a lot of people who are renters are doing the same thing. Their landlord may often be an absentee landlord, and the landlord raises the rent, and they’re like, ‘Well, my roommate moved out, I’ll just put that room on Airbnb so I can afford to stay here.’ Which just makes the problem worse in the long run by taking more property off the market. … I don’t know what’s going to happen in the summertime when nobody wants to visit here and we have all these empty houses. The crime has already gotten worse. Anytime there are a lot of tourists around, muggers just see targets."
Charlotte's car was stolen from in front of the house last year. She walked around the neighborhood with a New Orleans Police department officer asking people if they had any surveillance camera footage or saw anything suspicious — then realized her neighbors were only temporary and just there on vacation.
"There’s 140 (Airbnb) rentals in this neighborhood," Thomas says. "How would people feel if they got a notice on their door tomorrow that some hotel was planning to demolish perfectly good housing and put up a 140-room hotel? You’d be pretty upset about that. … But it’s hidden in plain sight, and it’s a beast with 1,000 heads. You shut down one and another one pops up."
"Perfectly good renters are being evicted because their landlords have realized how profitable it is for landlords to use Airbnb, and it’s a lot less wear and tear on their property," Charlotte says. "We’re not against ‘progress’ or ‘change’ — we understand those things happen, and we know we’re a part of the gentrification process. We don’t think the argument is really about that. When I moved from Port (Street) to here six years ago, this (neighborhood) was all people living here. Young people, old people, all types of people. … We got used to that. Then we noticed how far away from that we’ve gone. There still are people living on this block, and that’s great, but we’re so worried that they’re going to figure out how much their place is worth and they’re going to sell."
Thomas says New Orleans renters, which are on average paying 41 percent of their income on rent
, "are one abscessed tooth away from eviction."
"Everyone I know who’s trying to get an apartment, they’re all through Realtors, and you have to prove you make three times the rent — that means the majority of New Orleanians aren’t even eligible to apply," she adds. "On top of that, if you’re a busker or making most of your money in cash and tips, there’s no way you can even prove you make the money you make. It kind of becomes another way to push out the creative class."
Airbnb and renters' rights also were brought up in a discussion about gentrification in the city at The Big Issue forum last night at Tulane University. One person told the panel that she had been evicted to make room for Airbnb. District B City Councilmember LaToya Cantrell said she doesn't doubt that Airbnb is contributing to higher rental rates within the city, and her office is working with at-large councilmember Stacy Head on legislation to address Airbnb — though it's unclear whether that will strengthen enforcement or provide an infrastructure to legalize those rentals. Hotels, bed and breakfasts and neighborhood organizations, meanwhile, still are trying to get the city to enforce short-term rental laws
already on the books.
Thomas hopes the art piece was a first step in getting her neighbors engaged in talking about affordable housing.
"With all the conversations happening about this," she says, "it will make people at the very least who are renting out properties like this to have to think about it more and be more conscious. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this all the time. Maybe I should be more picky. Maybe I should get a renter in here.’"