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For the Record: Is Airbnb Helping or Hurting NOLA?

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We've seen the infamous Jazz Festival sign, but what are some of the real issues causing the controversy? Here's a quick roundup.

In a time when the mere mention of Airbnb evokes an air of controversy (see the infamous Jazz Festival Bywater sign, if you haven't somehow seen it), it begs the question whether short-term rentals like Airbnb (or HomeAway or Vacation Rentals by Owner (VRBO) for that matter) are helping or hurting New Orleans.

It seems that giving residents the opportunity to make extra money is a good thing, right? Travelers get a more authentic experience. The new Airbnb TV shows people who get to belong anywhere, getting to know the locals by becoming one of them through lifestyle. 'Don't go there. Live there.'

What could be the problem?

Certain activists have aimed to expose the Airbnb as providing safe harbor for the super wealthy property owners in a couple ways. First, by busting the 'spare room' myth, which states that homeowners make extra money to pay their mortgage by renting out their extra room--or even just an air mattress. This should make sense--more than one third of renters pay more than half of their income to rent. However, at the last count of the New Orleans Short Term Rental Report, 70 percent of 1335 Airbnb listings were entire homes or apartments. Those aren't people looking to make a side income--these are real estate investors with a more sophisticated sense of finances. Second, Airbnb withholds data on the number of units that belong to individual hosts.

Since short-term rentals for entire properties remove long-term options from the market, making available inventory even more scarce--and expensive, this doesn't bode well for the overall balance of pricing. Moreover, Airbnb has been accused of racial bias, and in a city that is 60 percent African American, this affliction is heartily felt.

NOLA laws make a lot of short-term rentals illegal--renting for less than 30 days is prohibited without a permit, and it's punishable by fine or possibly jail time. But the hard truth is that the resources to enforce this rule are slim, minimizing its expected bite.

Ultimately, it's unlikely that Airbnb--which has plenty of positive experiences and global reach--is going anywhere, but it may change some of its practices slightly to inform a more educated public. That includes you.