Emanuel wants to let precincts opt out of Airbnb

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposes to let people who live in areas dominated by single-family homes be able to vote their precinct off-limits to Airbnb like they can vote it dry. | Getty Images

Four months ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s City Council floor leader proposed that Airbnb and other home-sharing services be off-limits in Chicago neighborhoods dominated by single-family homes to prevent people from “opening a motel on the same block every weekend.”

Now Emanuel is tweaking his home-sharing ordinance one more time to accommodate Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), although not exactly as his chief lieutenant intended.

The mayor is proposing a precinct-based process patterned after the process used to let Chicagoans vote their precincts dry.

Under the plan, residents of districts zoned R-1, R-2 and R-3 — all dominated by single-family homes — would be free to ban home-sharing outright or impose restrictions more rigid than the citywide ordinance.

To do so, residents within those zoning districts would be required to gather valid signatures from 25 percent of their precinct’s registered voters within a 90-day period. The clock would start running when the resident obtains the petition.

Opponents would then have a 30-day window to challenge those signatures. If the challenge fails, the local alderman would introduce an ordinance implementing the ban or restrictions and those rules would remain in effect for four years.

But the four-year period would not be ironclad. If residents of that precinct believe the ban or restrictions are not working well, they could circulate a new petition to undo those rules and the process would start over.

Read more about efforts to regulate Airbnb in Chicago

O’Connor said he’s satisfied even though it falls far short of the outright ban he originally sought.

“Single-family homes, unlike condo associations, cannot simply hold a homeowners meeting to opt out unless they are part of a planned development,” O’Connor wrote in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“This albeit somewhat cumbersome process puts single-family homeowners in a position to maintain their neighborhoods in a similar way as condo owners….While not an outright ban, it allows R-3 neighborhoods to participate, which were not in my original.”

Airbnb spokesman Christopher Nulty said the latest draft of the mayor’s ordinance has “several onerous restrictions that could deal a body blow to middle-class Chicagoans who are sharing their primary residences to make ends meet.”

“We will continue to work with the mayor’s office and aldermen on an ordinance that supports economic opportunity, protects quality of life and works for all Chicagoans in all 50 wards, but this proposal misses the mark,” Nulty wrote in an email.

Sources said the company has grave concerns about setting up a mechanism that would allow individual aldermen to “adjust the ordinance to ban home-sharing” in portions of their wards. The company is equally concerned about what it calls a “definition that could ban home-sharing in bungalows.”

Lincoln Park Ald. Michele Smith (43rd), who already has 500 Airbnb listings in her ward, also was upset – but for far different reasons.

“Perhaps it’s an oversight, but the net result of the opt-out provision is that Lincoln Park homeowners are being denied the same protections offered to every other homeowner in the city,” Smith said.

“Only three of the approximately 640 blocks in my ward are allowed to use this opt-out protection because they’re R-1, R-2 or R-3 even though they’re blocks with lots of single-family homes and two- flats. Now, homeowners are asking why and I don’t have an answer.”

Last week, Emanuel backed off his threat to hold Airbnb responsible for policing its home-sharing hosts to avoid the threat of a federal lawsuit.

Instead Emanuel wants to impose a $60-per-unit fee to generate more than $200,000 a year for enforcement of the regulations. That’s in addition to a 4 percent surcharge on Airbnb and other home-sharing bookings and a $10,000 annual license for each of the web-based companies.

He also wants bi-weekly registration reports to the city, a 24-hour hotline and a requirement that Airbnb develop a plan to address “quality-of-life concerns” that includes “removal of problem units” from the company’s home-sharing platform.

None of those changes were enough to satisfy Smith, whose constituents have had it with “investors who push out tenants in favor of tourists” and the fraternity party rowdyism that those temporary visitors sometimes bring. She accused the mayor of cowering to the demands of a “$25 billion bully.”

O’Connor defended the mayor’s decision to soften the ordinance to avoid what could have been a protracted legal battle in federal court.

“They just thought it would be easier than jeopardizing the whole thing. . . . You’re just trying to have the good trump perfect because if you hold out for perfect, you could end up really screwing yourself up,” O’Connor said.

“That type of litigation would cost us millions and perhaps delay the effective date of the ordinance itself. So why take that burden on? That’s really what it came down to. It’s just a common sense approach to conserving city funds and getting most of what we’re looking for out of the ordinance.”

At the time, O’Connor said Emanuel was through negotiating. Now the mayor has made one more change just for him.

As for Smith, O’Connor seemed resigned to her “no” vote.

“If you work with people and get a majority of what you ask for, do you vote in favor of the product even though it might not be the perfect product or do you still hold out for the perfect after you’ve gotten most of what you’ve asked for? It’s really her call,” O’Connor said then.

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