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Enact short-term-rental rules with care

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When it’s time to regulate new technology that can upend long-established practices, it’s best to take it slowly.

It’s easier to allow change in small steps than to try to tighten regulations later, undercutting people who have based investments on rules already in place.

The City Council was right this week to postpone until June 22 a final vote on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to regulate short-term rentals, such as those through Airbnb, a website that allows people to rent out rooms or entire living units. This is a decision that will have a big impact over the years on the quality of life throughout the city. The Council should ensure it doesn’t permit activities that city residents will later regret.

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Short-term rentals are a boon to travelers, who can go online find a lower-cost place to sleep, often in the very neighborhood where they want to spend their time. The online rentals also can be a financial shot in the arm for homeowners who can make a few extra bucks by renting out part or all of their living spaces. For someone who is struggling to get by, those extra dollars can make all the difference. Short-term rentals clearly have a place in the cities of the future.

But this part of the new sharing economy also can disrupt neighborhoods. The unit on the floor above you or the house next door suddenly can be home to an endless parade of here-today-gone-tomorrow revelers, extra traffic, trash and noise, all of which erode the very concept of living in a community. In Lincoln Park, Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) points to one block on Cedar Street that is home to three buildings, each with six to eight units, that provide short-term rental space for up to 64 people.

As for owners of traditional hotels, they understandably wonder why the new competition doesn’t have to pay the same business fees and taxes they do.

Emanuel wants a 4 percent surcharge on home-sharing bookings, a limit on rentals, a requirement that owners of single-family homes be present during rentals, and other measures.

Although a Council committee approved the regulations, the full Council vote was delayed due to last-minute changes. Aldermen now have time to carefully read the hastily revised regulations before voting.

In essence, the battle over short-term rentals is a new twist on the decades-old history of zoning fights, which also pitted competing interests against each other. Like zoning rules, it’s important to get this right.

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