Category: City Hall

Privacy Concern With Arena Parking Plan

Construction for the Kings’ new arena, Golden 1 Center, is moving right along. As with all downtown arenas, ample parking will be an important factor in the success of the arena as a popular venue. One inevitable byproduct of a multitude of parking garages in a limited area is the potential for people to forget which one they parked in. Apparently this routinely happens in the open lots at Sleep Train Arena.

To help address this problem once Golden 1 opens, the city of Sacramento has come up with an idea: install license-plate recognition cameras in city-owned garages, and provide a phone service for people to use that will tell them where their car is.

In theory this idea sounds pretty innovative. But, I have yet to find (granted I haven’t asked the city yet) any policies on how this data will be protected. For example, I’ve written before about many police department’s lack of policies on retention and use of license plate tracking software and data. In this case I would also be very interested in hearing how the city plans to make sure that only owners or authorized users of the vehicle are able to access the system. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable to be concerned about how this system could be abused by stalkers, abusive spouses, etc.

So, while I applaud the idea and think it could be used effectively, I am also eager to see how the city plans to protect the data. Specifically, I would like to see four things included in an official policy:

  1. A limited amount of time that the city stores the data
  2. Access to the data limited to necessary city personnel
  3. Safeguards to limit accessibility to vehicle location while a vehicle is parked
  4. Limits on sharing the data with other departments, agencies or governments

Making parking in downtown garages easier and more convenient is definitely welcome, but even more important is safeguarding the privacy of people who choose to use those garages. Hopefully the city will take these concerns seriously.

A Man’s Home Is His Licensed, Regulated, and Taxed Castle

If you have ever rented out a room in your home for the weekend to earn a little extra cash and make a new friend, you may be a criminal.  If you have taken the effort to fix up an investment home and believe you can make a higher profit renting it to people on a short-term basis instead of in traditional, six month or year-long leases, you may be a criminal.

If you have ever left town for Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest to avoid the crowds and rented your house to someone for the festivities, you are a criminal.

While 84% of Americans disagree, that is the attitude of some hotel and bed and breakfast (B&B) owners and a few disgruntled neighbors of short-term rental properties in New Orleans.

On July 10, 2014, the New Orleans City Council voted to clarify the law making all residential rentals of less than 30 days (60 days in the French Quarter) illegal. This certainly isn’t the first time the City Council has found itself in the middle of a debate between supporters of newer, disruptive businesses and technologies that shake up the status quo, and those who argue that the newcomers are scofflaws who unfairly threaten the bottom line of existing businesses. In 2013 it was food trucks, earlier this summer Uber entered the conversation, and now it is short-term rentals like those found on websites Airbnb and VRBO.

This time around, prohibitionists are displeased that owners of these “illegal” short-term rentals are able to avoid inspections by the city and are not paying occupancy taxes on their rentals. Some neighbors complain that weekend renters make too much noise, litter, take up parking, and ruin the character of their neighborhoods.

This story should come as no surprise to regular readers of the Liberty in Action blog. San Francisco, “the city with the highest median rent rate” in the country, has banned short-term rentals despite having a problematic housing shortage. Issues have also come up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and New York City.

Nonetheless, in New Orleans, an outright ban is counterproductive and unnecessary to address the chief complaints because there are pre-existing legal mechanisms in place to handle problems perceived to arise from short-term rentals.

First, for those concerned with the safety of a property that isn’t subject to the same inspections as licensed hotels and B&Bs, the New Orleans Department of Code Enforcement is authorized to enforce code compliance on all buildings in the city. Second, neighbors worried about loud renters or litter can already use nuisance laws to address these issues through the District Attorney’s office.

Third, those worried about bed and breakfasts suffering from unfair competition because “illegal” property owners don’t pay taxes should remember that only larger businesses with three or more units pay occupancy taxes, not all licensed B&Bs. In any event, these properties are still subject to regular property taxes. Fourth, street parking on public streets is just that, public. Therefore, a permanent resident of the neighborhood has no more of a claim to a spot than anyone else does.

Finally, attempting to define the character of a neighborhood and debating whether short-term rentals negatively impact it are certainly not immune to significant subjectivity. What to some are transient outsiders, are to others an opportunity to make new friends and leave a good impression about the city to encourage future visits and spending in the community.

Nevertheless, the City Council seems to be open to future legalization and regulation measures. To that end, a group of property owners who rent property on a short-term basis have organized to draft an ordinance and have commissioned a study by the University of New Orleans to analyze the economic impact of short-term rentals. This is a better approach.

Leaving arguments aside as to what additional regulations, if any, are necessary, legalization of short-term rentals is the best decision for three reasons. Short-term rentals help fill properties that may otherwise sit empty, providing an additional incentive for property owners to renovate their property and return it to the housing stock, and lessening opportunities for crime carried out against or within vacant homes. Entrepreneurs are able to create an additional stream of income whenever they need it by renting out rooms in their home. And an additional option is made available for visitors to New Orleans who prefer arrangements that aren’t provided by hotels and traditional B&Bs.

As shown above, the law already provides solutions to safety issues and unruly renters. Instead of a blanket ban to appease a vocal minority, New Orleans should legalize short-term rentals and allow residents and visitors alike to reap the many benefits while focusing enforcement efforts on the few bad apples by using already existing nuisance laws.

By taking this approach, instead of uniformly branding entrepreneurs as criminals, negatively impacted neighbors can have potential problems addressed while still allowing entrepreneurial New Orleanians the ability to create a more robust housing market. Who wouldn’t enjoy more housing options, fewer vacant and blighted properties, and an additional income stream whenever you need it?

You can show your support for legalization by visiting this petition.

*This post originally appeared at the Institute for Justice, Liberty in Action blog.

Council President Head Reminds Us of Signage Woes

New Orleans City Council President Stacy Head sent out an email this afternoon reminding the community that all it takes is a simple phone call to 311 to report missing or damaged street signs. The text of the email is below.

New Orleans, LA…. Councilmember Head frequently hears from residents that street name and traffic signs are missing in neighborhoods throughout the city. Fortunately, the City’s Sign Shop (Department of Public Works) is hard at work replacing missing traffic and street name signs and in many cases, can replace a reported missing sign within days.

Residents are encouraged to report missing and/or damaged street signs by calling 311 with the exact location and type of sign needed.

 

Upon receiving this email, I remembered that I dug into the operations of the New Orleans Sign Shop back in 2012. A brief summary of my thoughts is that the city should privatize the shop. While privatization certainly wouldn’t generate a huge windfall for the city budget, it would certainly create an easy source of savings for the future. Hopefully one day this common sense idea can gain some traction in a City Hall serious about cutting costs.

Uber v. Taxis

I decline to choose a winner. The people of New Orleans should be allowed to choose who wins by either using Uber or not  using Uber. Unfortunately, this is not the typical city approach to new companies disrupting the status quo. This is especially true when the threatened party is the deeply connected New Orleans taxi industry.

The Transportation Committee of the New Orleans City Council is set to debate rules changes to some city ordinances on Tuesday, June 24, 2014. Since I will not be able to attend that meeting, my thoughts (non-exhaustive) on the situation continue below.

Assuming that opposition to Uber stems from a concern for public safety, there are some common misconceptions out there that simply aren’t true. These include lack of insurance coverage, unsafe vehicles, random people as drivers, and the affordability of rides. First, Uber now provides significant insurance coverage for all Uber drivers that should certainly be adequate in the event of an accident. Second, the average age of an Uber vehicle is 6 years, and none are older than 10 years. Third, Uber conducts extensive background checks on its drivers before allowing them to hit the streets.

Further, before getting into an Uber car the customer sees a picture of the driver, the driver’s license plate number, and the driver’s name, and then after the ride is over, the customer can rate the experience they had with the driver. This process allows other customers to know who they are getting and the quality of the driver. Uber also is able to keep tabs on its drivers through this system.

Finally, while Uber does have a minimum fare structure to account for insurance and the background checks it runs on drivers (certainly worthwhile fees for a rider to pay for), the customer at least gets an estimate on the cost of the trip before getting into the vehicle. That way, if the cost is too high, they know to seek other options.

Now, comparing Uber with New Orleans’ recent updates to taxi regulations, at least on these four points there aren’t appreciable differences that weigh against Uber. Going beyond these points, Uber is far superior. First, introducing a new player into the market will provide additional transportation options for New Orleans riders. Anyone who’s continually heard a busy tone while trying to call a cab or seen a constant parade of full cabs heading uptown late at night knows that additional drivers are needed. Second, having the ability to rate your driver, and for your driver to rate you, sets up an incentive for drivers to not only be trustworthy and efficient (i.e. not take the long way), but for both driver and rider to just be nice to each other. This is a welcome addition.

Third, Uber technology requires drivers to use GPS. What does this mean? No more having to tell the lost driver that you are PAYING how to get to where you’re going! Fourth, it is far preferable (to me) to be able to pull up a ride on a phone app instead of standing out on a curb waving like a maniac or constantly calling dispatch and waiting for a car to pull up and honk. Further, the app allows you to see the progress of your driver on his way to pick you up.

Fifth, no more cash! Not only do you just hop out of the vehicle at the end of your trip without having to complete a transaction, but the app takes care of tipping for you. This process is preferable for rider and driver for 4 main reasons: 1) not having to give your card to the driver prevents drivers from engaging in swapping out your card with someone elses and then running up charges before the theft is discovered (I dealt with this multiple times in a previous life as a banker at Chase); 2) riders not having cash is also faster and safer (for obvious reasons); 3) no more having to make sure a driver’s credit card machine is working or that they aren’t flouting the city regulations requiring them to accept them; 4) it’s safer for drivers, too, since they don’t have to carry cash on them.

Of course it is true that not everyone has smart phones. This is why Uber will not destroy the taxi industry. There is still room for taxis. Regardless of whether you simply don’t own a smartphone (or haven’t updated your phone’s software to allow you to use it at the moment), or choose not to pay for the service at times of peak-pricing, or just happen to see a cab and hop in instead of pulling out your phone, there are still many customers and situations that will support taxis. Also, there is no reason that existing cab companies can’t adopt similar technology as Uber uses unless they have no incentive to. Unfortunately, due to the current lack of real competition on this front, taxi companies don’t really have an incentive to adopt better technology (not to mention it may not even be affordable at the moment due to the added expenses resulting from recent ordinance changes).

The point is that competition is good. Keeping a competing company out of a market for arbitrary reasons is not good. After reading the above and considering other possible public safety rationales for limiting Uber, I can’t help but think that keeping Uber out must be based on other motivations. Just because taxi companies have been granted a monopoly by the city doesn’t mean they are entitled to enjoy it forever. Plus, as soon as it is honestly acknowledged that what is really going on is simple economic protectionism, at least New Orleanians will know that it isn’t public safety that is being secured. Instead, it is profits of the well connected taxi industry paid for by the public. If the city of New Orleans truly cares about protecting the public and making sure there are safe, dependable, and plentiful rides for people choosing or needing to not drive themselves, then it will amend current regulations to allow for robust competition in the New Orleans taxi market.

Our Policy Is We Have No Policy

Those are the words reported to me this week by NOPD relayed through the New Orleans City Attorney’s office in response to my public records request from July. Yes, July. Never mind that the Louisiana public records law requires documents to be produced in 3 days. That’s not the big issue here though.

In case you missed it this summer, there was a story about a burglary suspect who was caught as a result of an NOPD vehicle that is able to scan license plates and run them through a computer while driving.

According to Uptown Messenger’s reporting:

“The reader, affixed to a normal patrol car, automatically scans the license plates it passes and checks to make sure they aren’t on stolen cars, but it also maintains a geographical database of the tags it passes.”

Overall I have no issue with the technology. But it’s that last line that got my attention because of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, United States v. Jones. As a result of that decision I seriously wonder if NOPD could have some major 4th Amendment problems with their use and/or storage of the license plate data they collect.

So, I requested the full NOPD policy regarding the use and storage of data associated with any and all departmental vehicle license plate scanners. The city attorney’s response:

“Please be advised that the Police Department has informed our office that no such record exists.”

This terse, 4 1/5 month late response will certainly not be the end of this. All I want to know is exactly what NOPD uses this data for and how long they keep it. I don’t think that’s asking too much.