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Missy Luce is photographed at her Airbnb unit on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2016, in Chattanooga. Converted from an attached garage at her family's house, the rental unit includes a kitchen, bathroom, seating area and a bed.

Missy Luce is worried the city wants to take some of the magic out of her life.

Luce is a host on Airbnb, an Internet-based short-term vacation rental site that lets local residents connect with travelers to rent out space in their homes. She has 118 impeccable reviews and a five-star rating for what she advertises as a "dreamy studio in the woods" on 16 acres at the foot of Lookout Mountain.

For Luce, taking care of travelers is a passion, not merely a business.

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Converted from an attached garage at her family's Chattanooga house, Missy Luce's rental unit includes a kitchen, bathroom, seating area and a bed.
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Converted from an attached garage at her family's Chattanooga house, Missy Luce's rental unit includes a kitchen, bathroom, seating area and a bed.
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Converted from an attached garage at her family's Chattanooga house, Missy Luce's rental unit includes a kitchen, bathroom, seating area and a bed.

"I come home at night and see that a guest is settled and that just sparks in me, to see that people are taken care of," she said. "I like to take care of people."

Her guests seem to agree.

"She welcomed us as we arrived with some pumpkin pie and a smile," one wrote.

"Missy is a great communicator and I loved the apt.," added another. "When I got there she had fresh baked cookies and roasted pumpkin seeds waiting for me."

Luce's is among nearly 400 properties now listed for rent in the metro area on Airbnb and its two main competitors, VRBO (Vacation Rental By Owner) and Flipkey. And now the companies face possible new regulations by the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission. Among those regulations are site plans, inspections, business licenses and other restrictions.

The rental spaces cover a wide range of local real estate, including mountain cabins, downtown riverfront apartments and individual rooms. Rates range from $28 to $310 a night (for a space that sleeps 16).

But not everyone is a fan of short-term rentals.

At a recent meeting to consider possible regulations, a group of condo owners complained about how one of their owners is now renting a unit to travelers.

Luce, who was at the meeting, said she understands their concern.

"I would be hopping mad if I paid to live in a nice condo and someone was giving short-term rentals," she said.

Other people are worried that allowing short-term rentals in their neighborhood would open the door to apartment complexes.

"Your neighbors might not object to you renting out a room in your house," said John Bridger, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Regional Planning Commission, which is drafting an ordinance to regulate short-term rentals. "But they don't want to give you a zoning exception to allow apartments to come in."

The ordinance is still in draft form and subject to revision, Bridger emphasized, but it is already raising alarms among some short-term rental hosts.

"It is already borderline as a business," contended one Airbnb host, who asked that his name not be used. "They can regulate people right out of wanting to come here and spend money."

To some users, the appeal of sites such as Airbnb is they allow total strangers, often on opposite sides of the globe, to arrange a rental that gives travelers a more personal connection to the place they would be visiting.

"If they're staying a longer period of time, I will invite guests over to dinner," Luce said. "Having people from different countries sit around our table and chat with our kids — it's been a great experience for all of us."

The rental sites use the Internet and social media to allow both hosts and renters to verify their identity and trustworthiness.

Airbnb, for example, requires potential renters to post their photos, phone numbers and details about who they are, such as a link to a LinkedIn or Facebook page, while renters rate hosts and post feedback on the quality of the rental space.

"You have to be good with hospitality," Luce said. "You live and die from reviews. If you are just trying to make a quick buck, you are not going to do well."

By renting a room in a local resident's home, travelers get the benefit of their knowledge about sights to see or places to eat or shop that traditional tourists might miss.

But city officials say what began as an informal, off-the-books way to meet local hosts has grown into a major player in the tourism industry.

There are some short-term rental hosts in Chattanooga who are running businesses full time, Bridger said, renting multiple rooms and multiple houses. And that means they should be paying sales taxes on their earnings and meeting some basic safety standards, he said.

Current city regulations date back about 15 years, when the city adopted an ordinance allowing short-term rentals in areas already zoned for apartments or offices.

The planning commission could have decided to create zoning exceptions for short-term rentals, Bridger said, but worried it would create a bad precedent. If an exception was made to allow homeowners to rent out rooms or their entire houses, then apartment owners might be able to argue in court they should be allowed to build in areas zoned R-1 (single-family residential), as well.

Instead, the planning commission decided to require permits, that only apply to the current owner.

A potential host would need a business license and then would need to apply to the city's Board of Zoning Appeals for a special exception permit. An application fee of $125 would be required, plus a site plan showing the potential rental space. A letter would be sent to any resident within 300 feet of the host's home giving them the opportunity to object, the city would inspect the property for safety issues and code violations, and the fire marshal's office would check to be sure smoke detectors were installed and working.

There would be limits on the number of guests, on where they could park and rules for disposing of garbage.

In addition, the host would pay the city and county room, occupancy and sales taxes, which total about 17.25 percent.

Several hosts said they asked Bridger if the planning commission could make a distinction between larger and smaller operations.

"I think they should make a distinction between mom-and-pop operators and bigger operators," said one suburban Chattanooga host who rents out a room in her home.

The planning commission is still tweaking the current draft ordinance, Bridger said, before submitting it to the City Council for review. There would then be another round of public hearings for comment and after that, the ordinance will probably be revised again before going to the planning commission for its recommendation and then back to the city council for approval.

Luce is worried.

"There's a little bit of magic with Airbnb," she said. "I feel like the tax will put a big dent in our magic."

But another Airbnb host, who has used income from her rentals to cover her expenses while she is between jobs, said she will continue doing it, even if the ordinance passes in its current form.

"Once I find some employment, I'm still planning on doing this," she said. "It is so much fun."

Contact staff writer Steve Johnson at sjohnson@timesfree press.com, 423-757-6673, on Twitter at stevejohnsonTFP, and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/ noogahealth.

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