One Woman Against AirBnb is a Hollow Victory in New Orleans

New Orleans   I wanted to share what I hoped was a simple story of one woman’s persistence prevailing over a giant, rogue company and the ineffectual enforcement by a city of its regulations governing the company.

That story had as its activist, community hero a woman named Ada Phleger, a young attorney in the Federal Public Defender’s office in New Orleans.  Phleger had lived in the St. Claude neighborhood, where Fair Grinds Coffeehouse second location sits on the border.  She had lived in the area for eight years and moved into her current house recently.  When she moved there recently there were two whole-home short-term rentals on the block.  Then there were three.  She drew a line to fight when the fourth emerged, so began to try to beat the permit before there were guests.

The company is both on AirBnb and managed by Boston outfit, called Heirloom or Stayloom, owned by Frank and Dan Glaser, for some owners and on its own account.  They claim 100 properties in New Orleans, Boston, and New York according to research by The Lens, the local on-line news service.  Sixty-seven of the properties are in New Orleans.  The Lens, following up on Phleger’s fight, found the addresses on 34 with 19 having either no permits or expired permits.

Phleger’s fight was Biblical.  She kept reporting them to the city for violations and then having to get videos when photos of guests were not enough, the months drug on, and guests piled in with no enforcement action.  Finally, in frustration she used her mother’s AirBnb account and hosted a dinner party there for a family birthday party to prove it was being rented and to photograph the inside, establishing that no owner lived there.  Finally, the city canceled their permit since none of the requirements were being met.  There were stories in the local papers and on television one woman’s victory over corporate and governmental ineptness.  She was interviewed by NPR.

All good, but…

Reading more deeply in the stories and the Lens reporting, there’s no question that Phleger was a freedom fighter here.  That piece of the puzzle remains in place.   Some of the other pieces though don’t fit as well.

The city was not as inept and unresponsive as it seemed.  The initial regulations appear to have been Swiss cheese with as many gaping holes and, even worse, they were written so vaguely that the information AirBnb and other operators were supposed to provide was opaque and didn’t allow real enforcement.

AirBnb had touted the deal with the former administration of Mayor Mitch Landrieu as a pacesetter in the industry, attempting to establish that they could work with a city and play by the rules.  They did eliminate 3000 listings, but after that it seems they drove a truck through the holes in the regulations, which also allowed outfits like Stayloom doing mass-rentals to exploit the language as well.  All of which made the city look like chumps, re-enforcing the conservative narrative of ineffectual local government, when a closer look tells the old story about the devil being in the details, regardless of the headlines.

The local councilwoman claims that regulations close some of the loopholes.  Now, the question might be whether or not New Orleans – or any city really – can keep up with a floating crap game, supported by visiting consumers and some homeowners trying to make their own mortgages, and exploited by rapacious companies with money to gain and little to lose.

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Google Sidewalk Project is Still Too Sketchy and Undemocratic

Sidewalk Labs

New Orleans    Maybe I should shut-up about the Sidewalk development project being proposed by Google in Toronto on 800-acres.  ACORN and some of our allies went after them from the day they won the bid to submit proposals on the issue of the lack of affordable housing in a city that is caught in an affordable housing crisis.  The more than 1000-page proposal they submitted this week actually makes concessions to our demands.  Of the 35,000 housing units now proposed, they claim that 40% would be affordable.  That’s a win, but is that enough to make us stomach the role of Google, the fakery of the consultative process up to this point, and, frankly, the neoliberal corporate control and privatization of public process, regulations, and responsibilities.

I’m not going to pretend that Google isn’t a tech wonder even as it has become a world power.  It’s not as creepy as Facebook, but it’s unaccountable with a business model that pimps out all of us who use their services.  I have a google address for some personal business.  I use Google Maps to navigate my way around the world.  ACORN has a YouTube channel.  When PalmPilot went under, I had to switch to Google calendar.  I’m not a hater.

ACORN Canada even uses Google to host their email system, despite the fact that Google is crystal clear that they never destroy anything.  The depth of their data mining operation is unlimited and unfathomable.  They want to make the Sidewalk project a data motherload for Google as well.  The company’s proposal claims that they will turn everything over to an independent data trust, sanctioned by the government, so that they, and others, can access the data.  Privacy experts are not so easily assuaged.  Neither am I.  Isn’t such citizen experience with public goods something that should remain purely the responsibility of government accountable to citizens, rather than accessible to a private business like Google or other private concerns?  If the city of Toronto or any other city announced that it was collecting data on its citizens and was then going to sell it, people there and anywhere else would be up in arms.

Google, as a private company, simply doesn’t get the fact that there are boundaries.  They are part of the “apologize later, never ask for permission” crowd.  Their proposal ignores existing Toronto zoning laws for example, and I couldn’t read any piece of this without feeling they were usurping the authority of government and the people.  That’s what neoliberalism is, the transfer of public rights and authority to private concerns.  If Google was hired to be a designer and developer, why would they believe that allows them to own the show and run it forever.  A developer, for good or evil, usually sells their “castles in the sky” and then gets their money and runs.  Google seems to think they should own this project forever.  Google needs to taught about limits.

The New York Times quotes Jim Balsille, who was the co-chairmen and co-chief executive of BlackBerry, once the ubiquitous smartphone of the business set, headquartered in Ontario in the Waterloo-Kitchener area, saying,

“I am keen to see the end of this faux consultation charade, an ugly 18-month, psychological public relations game….Google has deliberately weaponized ambiguity, subverted democratic process, obfuscated key elements of concern such as data governance and revealed information to the public only when smoked out by aggressive criticism or through a media leak.”

This just doesn’t seem like it’s going to end well.

ACORN Canada will continue to hold any and all feet to the fire on affordable housing, but perhaps all of us just need to thank Google for whatever good we see in the plan, ignore their attempt to buy support with their own investment masked as infrastructure spending, but recovered through selling data, and retake control of any development and hire contractors to provide whatever services public entities can’t provide.

Public entities have to be able to trust their partners, and Google is not a trustworthy partner at this point.  Google can bid like anyone else, but should not run or own anything.  Haven’t we learned that lesson from Silicon Valley by now?

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