Fight brewing at City Hall over how to regulate Airbnb

The Internet calls them "vacation rentals.” They are apartments and condos leased a few nights at a time, hotel style.

With as many as 5,000 rooms available, it may be the fastest-growing segment of Chicago's real estate market.

Now, the city's biggest hotels complain commercial landlords are horning in on the action, exploiting online platforms such as Airbnb to operate what amounts to "illegal hotels." They want City Hall to impose the same taxes and regulations that apply to other hotels.

Airbnb disputes some of the study's conclusions. Big money may, indeed, be moving into this overnight lodging business. But Airbnb insists its typical "host" runs something closer to a traditional bed and breakfast.

Oliver Aguilar will play his living room piano for guests who go through Airbnb to rent the spare bedroom in his Uptown apartment. He charges as little as $55 a night when things are slow, and up to $150 bucks a night when its busy and a renter wants the entire two-bedroom unit.

“I really wanted to just have enough money to start up a new company, which Airbnb has allowed me to do,” Aguilar said.

Even Airbnb's most outspoken critics say they do not want to interfere with Aguilar or others who rent out spare space in a home they themselves occupy.

“In this community, 70 percent of the vacation rentals here are not owner occupied,” said Alderman Michele Smith.

Ald. Smith says her Lincoln Park neighbors complain that too many "vacation renters" loudly come and go at all hours and party through the night. The city's biggest hotels complain that since last winter, they've noticed the growing competition.

“But this first quarter has been a disaster. And we are down. Hotels are hurting. And obviously having more and more options like Airbnb is one of the factors that's hurting our hotels,” said Mark Gordon.

“It's given a lot of opportunities for a lot of people that may not have been able to travel because of the high cost of a hotel to come to Chicago!” Aguilar said.

Chicago's not alone. Big cities from Berlin to Barcelona are clamping down on so-called "vacation rentals."

The Chicago City Council will hold hearings this month on a proposal backed by Mayor Emanuel. Lincoln Park's Ald. Smith wants it rewritten to be stricter.