Short-term rentals, like Airbnb and Vrbo, have existed in legal limbo in Lafayette for years, but a recent pledge by the City Council to take action has owners concerned it might go too far, while neighbors worry it won’t go far enough.
Councilmembers repeatedly told stakeholders at the Feb. 17 meeting that action is coming on short-term rentals, which don’t fit neatly into Lafayette’s Development Code, leaving them able to operate across the city without registering with Lafayette Consolidated Government or abiding by any specific rules.
Repeated attempts to codify regulations that reach middle ground between operators and unhappy neighbors have fallen short in the past few years, leading to lawsuits against the city and among neighbors.
But as the council again attempts to quell neighbors’ concerns without squeezing local businesses, compromise seems to be on the table, at least for the near term.
At the minimum, short-term rentals will have to register with the city to receive and renew occupancy permits in order to operate, City Councilwoman Nanette Cook says.
Without a formal registration process, council members are in the dark about how many rentals are operating in the city, where they are located and who is responsible for them, though estimates suggest at least a few hundred properties in the city are used for short-term rentals.
That’s small change compared to New Orleans, where the city has licensed nearly 2,500 short-term rentals, denied almost 7,500 other applications and published each operation’s address, owner and guest capacity for greater public accountability.
“That’s where I really want to start,” Cook says. “We need you to register. We need to permit you, and every two years, you can reapply for it. But within that two-year frame, if there’s a lot of complaints or you’re not doing a good job, we can pull your permit. To me, that’s an opportunity to regulate to some extent without shutting them down.”
That step, at least, is something operators can live with.
“We are willing and in favor of having some kind of registration process,” says short-term rental operator Giselle Menard, who was one of roughly a dozen people to unsuccessfully urge the council to pass a similar ordinance in 2020. “Those of us who are following [Airbnb rules and local best practices] have no problem with people knowing where we are. We’re not trying to hide anything. But we also do want to be allowed to operate just like any other landlord who has a rental,” she adds.
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Beyond a short-term rental registration requirement, council members are looking into a handful of options to address what has become the central issue of Lafayette’s short-term rental debate: whether and to what extent they should be regulated in residential areas?
Registering with LCG is just a start, says Stephanie Dugan, who has pushed the council to give neighbors more power to limit or altogether ban short-term rentals in single-family residential areas.
“If somebody in the neighborhood doesn’t have a problem, then they should be allowed to operate an Airbnb, but you should ask your neighbors,” Dugan says. “If that’s what you’re going to do, you should ask your neighbors, ‘Can we do this?’ And there should be a way that the neighborhood can speak up … and say, ‘This is an impairment to my home life, and I don’t want it.’”
That is an option council members are considering in a plan that would require short-term rental operators to get a conditional use permit from LCG, which would put each short-term rental operation to a vote of the city’s Zoning Commission at a public meeting.
But rental operators aren’t on board for what could become a substantial hurdle to continuing their existing operations, says short-term rental owner Mike Bass, who started the Lafayette Tourism and Lodging Association to promote best practices among STRs locally.
“That is something that no group that has ever looked into this has ever recommended in Lafayette,” Bass says, adding that Baton Rouge shelved plans for conditional permitting last year. “Have we identified what issues we are trying to fix or what issues are out there? Or is this just sort of this general concern?”
But for Gordon Schoeffler, who lives behind Bass’s home and his short-term rental, conditional use permits represent a compromise between the existing situation and a total ban in single-family residential areas, which Schoeffler said he would prefer.
“I just think that there’s a real problem in the single-family zoned areas. If it was my preference, there’d be none in single family areas,” Schoeffler says. “But if I have to eat some bit of a compromise, I’d at least request the right for, just like any other thing, a variance or conditional use process where neighbors within 200 feet are all given notice and an opportunity to be heard.”
Given the division over conditional use permits, the City Council is also looking into other options, like a moratorium on new short-term rentals and a grandfather clause for existing operations.
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But an all-out ban on short-term rentals in single-family residential areas, which operators strongly oppose, isn’t off the table, according to City Councilman Andy Naquin, whose district covers Lafayette’s Saint Streets neighborhood where many rentals operate.
“My options are open. I just know, we’re going to have to have some sort of regulations, and some identification, at least at the minimum,” Naquin says. “Where it goes from there, I’m not sure. I can tell you I’ve had many more constituents who live in residential single-family [neighborhoods] that are against it than are for it. The disruption in their lives in these residential single-family districts is very great.”
Ultimately, the council’s latest attempt to address short-term rentals may falter in the same way that its previous attempts have. Cook said last week that any potential changes will have to first go before the city’s Zoning Commission, which has been a stumbling block in the past.
And any proposal will of course have to have support from at least three of the council’s five members, which could mean much more discussion is needed before the council takes action.
“I don’t know what’s coming forward, and I have no idea what the other four council members would agree to at this point,” says Naquin. “It’s a work in progress still, obviously. And it’s going to take some discussion amongst the council to figure out what we think is best as a body.”