House committee kills fire-safety bill for short-term rentals

Posted on: April 26 2016

By Robert McClendon, | The Times-Picayune

New Orleans state Rep. Helena Moreno offered to water down her bill requiring short-term rentals to register with the state fire marshal, but it wasn'€™t enough to save the measure.

The House Commerce Committee discussed the issue for more than an hour before voting overwhelmingly to kill House Bill 952. The dissenting representatives, echoing concerns voiced by lobbyists for listing platforms like Airbnb, said the bill would put an undue burden on property owners.

The bill was supported by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu's administration, which expressed concern that the many short-term rentals in the city are not subject to any fire-safety requirements. 

In February, two guests at a short-term rental in Central City had to be rescued when the building caught fire. The house had been converted into a duplex and had only one route in and out of the rental unit. It was not equipped with smoke alarms.

Moreno said she had simplified the bill as much as possible to make it easy for short-term rental operators. The bill isn't about regulating the short-term rental industry, she said, "It's about basic life-safety issues." 

Lobbyists from Airbnb and the Travel Technology Association, a trade group representing listing services, said that the proposed regulations would serve to protect incumbent businesses models like hotels and bed-and-breakfast operations on inconvenience small-time renters without providing any tangible safety benefit. 

If it were really about safety, why aren't landlords required to register long-term rentals with the state, asked Danny Ford of the Technology Association.

Jim Nickel, representing Airbnb, said that many who list on Airbnb do so only occasionally, yet Moreno's bill would subject them to inspection by the state.

Moreno offered to change "inspection" to "verification," but her colleagues were unwilling to let the bill go any further.

Traditional inns, which are subject to safety inspections and whose owners are required to live on-site, have seen their business erode in recent years as landlords and investors have flocked to the short-term rental market. Such rentals are illegal in most New Orleans neighborhoods, but they have proliferated nonetheless.

Multiple short-term rental operators contacted her to oppose her original bill, Moreno said, but none of them opposed registration outright; they just wanted the rules to be easier to comply with. The only opposition to any registration requirement is coming from the "billion dollar" companies who list the rentals, she said.

Moreno's bill originally would have required short-term rental operators to file building plans with the Fire Marshal'€™s Office. After rental operators said that was too onerous, the New Orleans Democrat agreed to remove that provision. Instead, owners would be required to attest that they had certain basic safety equipment like smoke alarms and fire extinguishers. A $25 registration fee would have been good for five years.

The state fire marshal said his office could easily handle the registration program. After an initial investment in a software system, the program would generate revenue, he said.

Rep. Patrick Connick, a Jefferson Parish Republican, prodded representatives of the traditional innkeeping industry: "Is it really a safety issue," he said, "or is it a competition issue as well?"

There's nothing stopping a traditional bed and breakfast from listing on Airbnb, he said. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." 

He and others said that registration should be voluntary. Inns registered with the fire marshal could advertise that fact in their rental listings and let the market decide, they said. 

Brian Furness, the owner of a traditional bed and breakfast and a critic of Airbnb, said that he was reluctant to list his inn with a company that facilitated breaking the law so brazenly. 

The New Orleans City Council is considering a set of regulations that would legalize certain kinds of vacation rentals and could insert safety rules into an eventual regulatory regime.

Moreno said that inserting them into state law would allow for uniform life-safety requirements across jurisdictions.