Spanish Town residents Cheryl McCormick and Derrell Cohoon recall the surly reputation the neighborhood had when they moved into their historic Fifth Street home some 20 years ago.
Today, the neighborhood is blooming with life. Seasonal flora line many of the neighborhood’s narrow streets and cars belonging to residents are packed tight along the curbs. Among those calling the more than 200-year-old neighborhood home are an assortment of creatives, lobbyists and government officials—most attracted to the neighborhood by its historic houses, and proximity to downtown and the State Capitol.
“One of the things we enjoy about Spanish Town is that it’s an eclectic neighborhood,” says Cohoon. “It’s not a subdivision, it’s a neighborhood. We’ve got some upscale folks, we’ve got artists, writers, LSU students. You have all types of people and we seem to be getting along quite well.”
But Spanish Town isn’t Baton Rouge’s little secret anymore. Redevelopment has also attracted tourists to the neighborhood, and with them short-term leased properties available through websites such as Airbnb, HomeAway and Vrbo.
The charm and quirkiness of the historic district as well as its location make short-term rentals an attractive option for visitors looking for an authentic Capital City experience as well as those in town for extended business trips. Moreover, such rentals tend to be a cheaper alternative to checking into one of downtown’s higher-priced hotel rooms.
But Spanish Town residents like McCormick and Cohoon are concerned that short-term rentals could have a detrimental effect on the neighborhood.
“We would hate to see it return to being mostly transient, which is exactly what short-term rental people are,” McCormick says. “They’re there for two, three, four days and then they’re gone. They don’t join the civic association. They don’t participate in any neighborhood functions. They’re here as tourists.”
Along with its alleged damage to the neighborhood’s culture, McCormick and Cohoon are also concerned about how short-term rental guests worsen the area’s already stressed infrastructure. As Baton Rouge’s oldest neighborhood, Spanish Town is notorious for its narrow, one-way roads where parking is mostly parallel on the street.
“When 11 cars show up to stay at an Airbnb, well that’s the whole block,” says Cohoon.
Further, there are concerns that short-term rentals could distort property values and hike long-term rental rates, like in New Orleans historic Treme neighborhood.
“It’s so lucrative for people to come in and buy up houses and use them for short-term rentals that it’s destroying the long-term lease ability for many people and many neighborhoods,” McCormick says, adding she’d like to see the properties regulated for all historic districts in Baton Rouge.
Jae Alexander, a Baton Rouge born-and-raised real estate investor, founded his investment company Pinnacle Homes & Properties in 2007 with the focus of redeveloping blighted properties. He currently owns a duplex in Spanish Town that he rents out through Airbnb and HomeAway.
“The property I bought in Spanish Town, it had been a distressed property for I don’t know how long,” Alexander says. “Personally, after I bought it, I had to get a homeless guy out who had been sneaking in the back window.”
Along with throwing out the homeless man, Alexander estimates he threw in some $80,000 towards renovating the property, ensuring it aligned with local standards for historic renovations. He says there was a need for short-term rental properties in the area and wanted to give visitors options beyond a hotel. His short-term properties are maintained each time a guest checks out, he says, and with a staff of six, the company can quickly address issues that may arise.
“The property is kept as if there’s a homeowner in there, as compared to a property owner who visits three times a year or whenever there’s a serious issue,” Alexander says, adding that he has a strict two-car limit for the Spanish Town property to be respectful of the neighborhood’s limited parking.
Regarding possible regulations of short-term rentals, Alexander says he’s willing to work with residents, but he also wants them to be considerate of him as an entrepreneur who has invested money into his properties.
Attempting to broker peace between residents, rental property owners and short-term renting companies is Metro Councilwoman Tara Wicker, who says she wants to address regulating the budding tourism sector sooner rather than later.
Optimistic there is a mutually beneficial solution for both residents and short-term rental property owners, Wicker is planning to propose regulations and an ordinance protecting historical districts to the Metro Council this summer.
“Millennials have set up a whole new way—from travel to lodging to transportation—they’ve set in place a whole new way of getting everything done,” Wicker says. “This is a unique opportunity to make sure Baton Rouge is being progressive, while maintaining a community that’s been here so many years.”