Doll Houses

By Benjamin Patterson

“There’s no longer New Orleans people, so now, you have people from New York that don’t know the culture, that don’t know about crawfish or jambalaya,” said Quintin “Quint” Walker as he weaved and swayed around in his cracked leather barber chair until he jerked to a stop. “But then they want to go and put hotdogs in the gumbo! It’s just the culture of this situation.” Then with a crooked side-eye, he asked, “Y’all put hotdogs in y’all’s gumbo?” Like a smoking gun, an uncomfortable pause lingered in the air after his question, giving him ample time to carefully scan the room for a bogus response that would eventually lead him to the outsider. Directly to the threat.

For the average Tremé resident, it’s getting more and more difficult to see a familiar face. Although this neighborhood’s pathways of gas lanterns and signature cast-iron porch vents may exhibit a culture that’s ripe with authenticity, Tremé appears more like a movie set rather than a tightly knit community. Like a roadside billboard or a theme park attraction, these colorful, historic homes paint an eerie and flat façade. There are no children playing in the parks, and there are no adults conversing about daily happenings under the shade of fine-detailed woodwork. These days, local residents expect to be greeted by people walking their suitcases instead of their dogs.

Since the late 2010s, AirBnB has played a pivotal role in reshaping the Tremé’s original demographic and shifting the neighborhood’s development in favor of outside investors looking to profit off its convenient location right outside the French Quarter. For the average tourist looking to rent out a space, special buzz words like “authentic creole home” or “traditional New Orleans shotgun” can be found in the description tab of AirBnB’s Tremé listings. Ironically, these descriptions and tags glamorize the very culture that has been inadvertently uprooted by AirBnB for about a decade. About 6.1% of all New Orleans AirBnB listings come from the Tremé/Lafitte area, which is one of the smallest New Orleans neighborhoods, holding only about 1.2% of the city’s total population.

“Neighborhood-wise, we had a Cuban restaurant, we had a sweet shop, you had breakfast, me, and a boutique, and all of them left due to either increases in rent or the storm,” Quint explains. “So, I’ve seen a lot come and a lot leave due to inflation of rent and everything else.”

Quint is the owner of a business called The Royal Flush Barbershop, which is situated on the upper side of the Tremé/Lafitte neighborhood, north of the rumbling I-10 among slanted shacks painted with graffiti and pierced by security bars of varying colors, dimensions, and angles.  Scattered about peeling and dissolving exteriors, plywood patches reveal a land untouched by the rest of the outside world. Although these streets may seem unaltered to most visitors, Quint mentioned that he’s already noticed major changes bubbling to the surface.

Quint’s Royal Flush Barbershop on the Left (Photo by Ben Patterson)

“It leaves a lot of abandoned homes,” Quint says. “In this area, a historic neighborhood, houses, like one down the street, are now being sold for $645,000, but if you walk outside my shop, you know that there aren’t any houses around here worth $645,000. It pushes out the older community because they can’t afford that price. A lot of the people here are old, elderly. They’re retired or had a home for so long, so they can’t really rock the higher rent and insurance rates.”

Along with hurricanes and storms, the increased cost of housing prices within Tremé tends to be the primary reason as to why residents move out of the neighborhood, leaving some of the most unique and historic creole homes in the city to grow mold and shed paint.

“This used to be an historic African American neighborhood, and it has been gentrified. I guess with me being in business, it helps, but at the same time, it doesn’t because I still lose some of the historic values of it [Tremé].”

Although most of Tremé’s abandoned homes are packed on I-10’s northern side, the start of the neighborhood’s rising house and insurance prices extends down to its border with the French Quarter, one of the central hotbeds for American tourism. Since the Quarter has been protected from homebuyers and short-term renters (pay by the month), AirBnB users turned to Tremé as the next best thing. It’s close to downtown, distinctly New Orleans, and perfectly separated from the quarter’s hectic, night-life personality. On average, an AirBnB listing within Tremé makes a little over $32,000 a year after being booked for only 133 nights. It’s a gold mine for short-term rental (STR), allowing minimal risk with a quick and guaranteed profit. The process is alarmingly convenient, and with AirBnB, it has become even more so. Quint walks past more of these abandoned shops and homes on his way to work each day because of the financial convenience and technological practicality that AirBnB provides. If people begin to buy, then prices start to soar. If the logic here fits, then there’s a simple solution: restrict the buying process.

“We introduced legislation to make it less desirable for the large companies to come into the city to purchase whole homes,” said District C councilmember Freddie King III. King has been a lifelong resident of New Orleans, specifically Algiers, where he developed a very personal relationship with his community. When he began his first job at the city council in 2014, he listened to the plights of normal citizens from the Tremé to the Bywater as a constituent and personally “put out the small fires”. His attitude remained unfazed when he was offered a seat at the council table in 2021. However, like most of the city’s residents, he didn’t know how badly STRs were affecting these communities until it was too late.

“Maybe I was just kind of naïve to the fact,” King admits. “I noticed the market pricing changed, the neighbors changed, maybe I just didn’t catch onto it back then. I noticed the change but didn’t really pinpoint it to the short-term rental issue.”

Short-term rental (STR) is a name used to classify homes that are rented out to others for a period of less than 30 days. Before STRs, leasing a space in New Orleans for less than 30 days was illegal. However, New Orleans desperately needed development, and due to the increased popularity of AirBnB and entire-home rentals, the city ultimately decided to allow homeowners to operate within shorter rental periods with a certified permit. These permits also came with their fair share of financial perks. With an STR, taxes were lower, insurance was lighter, and rental prices per night’s stay could be much higher. The only catch was that property care and maintenance needed to be thorough and consistent. Immediately after the STR legislation went into effect in 2015, homebuyers began sweeping the New Orleans housing markets for potential STRs, and they are still sweeping to this day.

Colorful rows of houses within the Tremé (Photo by Ben Patterson)

Owners began to buy up multiple homes. Others would rent out their units through AirBnB with zero intention of earning an STR operating license lawfully. Furthermore, most of the new homeowners wouldn’t even live on the properties that they had just bought, leaving them empty for dust bunnies to roam free and breed. The housing market became a free game with little regulation to hold homeowners accountable for the communities that they were gutting from the inside out. Consumer protection groups on social media, such as Illegal AirBnB’s of New Orleans, decided to act on their own by tracking and recording the slithery undertones of these new short-term landlords.

The housing market soon became the wild west. Renters came in and robbed the town without having to show their faces while bounty hunters reported and exposed them online. Soon, the letters STR rang like sinister chimes throughout New Orleans’s most treasured neighborhood. Yellow permit slips were flaunted under wall mounted mailboxes in locals’ faces. As houses were being bought up, Tremé grew a little quieter. Residents were then faced with the decision to stay in this new reality of higher taxes and cultural change or leave their beloved homes.

“They can’t make do because the community can’t support them anymore,” Quint explains.

Quint admitted that he’s had to turn a blind eye to his neighbors to support himself, his family, and his business during this period of high prices. With his head tilted up, he let out a regretful sigh and explained, “I’m in a flood zone. I’m in the middle of the Tremé. So, with that [costs] going up, now I have the choice to either charge more for my cuts or find other high-tech products for a cheaper price. I can’t support the local person that comes in and makes their own shampoo. I can’t support you [locals] now because I need to find a cheaper route to keep my prices down, so I can ultimately keep my clientele.”

The new legislation that King recently just proposed with his fellow council members is intended to tighten the cap on the requirements needed for obtaining and operating an STR. King states that the new amendment would “make it [buying homes] less lucrative to the big companies and really protect the neighborhoods.” However, this stringent process, according to King, needs a “safety valve” to ensure that small, “mom and pop” STR homeowners can still benefit from the permit system. Because of the safety valve, King has received a considerable amount of animosity from District C, or more specifically Tremé.

“I think that a lot of the pushback is from, not all of it, but a lot of it is from people not understanding what the release valve was intended to do, and a lot of people purposefully muddying the waters and spreading misinformation.”

Although District C loathes his decision to cut yet another loophole into the housing system for outsiders to exploit and pick at, King still believes that his amendment benefits the little guy.

“A lot of people like that reached out to me saying, ‘You know, we appreciate you all [city council] for making sure big companies don’t take advantage of STRs, but what about me?’ A lot of folks felt like renters were being protected. They [the neighbors] say, ‘I’m a homeowner, and nobody is protecting me.’”

Not only does the amendment compensate for the small, one-home renters, but it also allows the community to take part in administering the STR permits alongside the council and the City Planning Commission (CPC). But even with all these sights trained on catching the “bad actors” of STRs, King still believes that enforcing the new policy is impossible without making all STRs illegal again.

“It’s also important to note that, provided enforcement, we could make them all illegal, like you mentioned. They’re illegal in the French Quarter but they’re still very prevalent there, so enforcement doesn’t really matter. Speeding is illegal, but you still see people speed every day. So, you have to have the right enforcement.”

The primary housing issue demoralizing King today is that he can’t help everyone benefit equally and develop together. No matter what he does, someone is going to be hurt or negatively impacted by his policies, whether it was his intention or not. King explains, “In turn, if you rely on this [STR] to live and you now have to sell your house, aren’t you now becoming displaced and adding to the hollowing out of the neighborhood as well?” No matter what happens, innocent residents will get displaced.

Abandoned sweet shop mural (Photo by Ben Patterson)

In most circumstances, development and progress have both positive and negative effects on communities. When a location transforms to benefit its own future, the people from the past are left behind. Tremé is ground zero for observing these harsh results of neighborhood development. However, according to King, development doesn’t have to be the catalyst that erases communities entirely – not if there’s balance.

“You got to strike that balance where you can keep the people [neighbors], as much as you can. Unfortunately, the damage has been done, but you gotta try to keep as many people who are barely hanging on there.”

In many cases, people like Quint, who fight to preserve their spot in Tremé, are already feeling displaced. They’re the ones who are “barely hanging on”. His neighbors don’t talk to him, and his clients always have a different accent when they pop into his shop. One would think that Quint, as a barber, would have close relationships with his clientele and be a dominant social figure on his block, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“I have more tourists than locals. Usually, my clientele is very consistent. Just new people coming out.”

Homes are only “authentic” when they have real people living in them. Without faces to match, the houses lose their flavor and turn into hollowed out, decorative pieces of wood for people to gaze at and admire. New Orleans was never built to withstand the modern and practical efficiency that AirBnB advertises. The colorful houses, the prime location, and the night-life glamor are all just material benefits that trickle down from a more potent source. The Tremé’s culture, while vibrant and unique, is fragile on its own. Without the people who originally built it, the culture eventually dwindles. Decorative houses become abandoned and rot from the inside out, music gets dumbed down to a simple gust of wind, and house paint begins to fade and chip. Soon, short term visitors will grow bored of its contents, and eventually move onto the next spectacle, leaving behind yet another beautiful home to collect dust and fill up space.

Closed shutters. Many of the STR houses in the Tremé have closed shutters for security and privacy (Photo by Ben Patterson)

Quint views the recent development in Tremé as a cultural battle more than a financial one. He sees new people having lavender spiced coffee on the terrace of a newly opened café where customers plan their three-day adventure within the Quarter. He’s greeted with rows of closed shutters even when it’s hot and sunny. For Quint, observing the Tremé from the outside is just as lonely as living on the inside. To avoid this feeling, he tries to immerse himself in New Orleans’s black culture whenever and wherever he can, which has gotten him affiliated with historic black organizations such as the Freemasons and Zulu. With his community involvement, Quint hopes the resilience he gained from planting his feet in Tremé can inspire the younger generation that suffers from this displacement.

“I’m staying here. I am planting my flag, and I have touched enough other communities that I want to stay, and I have a thing with the younger men and women that I want to see their worth in the historic instead of leaving. As soon as they get out of high school, they want to move to Texas or Atlanta … stay at home! Enjoy your culture!”


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