Olivia Karavatakis' Highland Park home is one of many houses in Chattanooga, Tenn., that are being rented out on Airbnb and other short-term vacation rental sites. Karavatakis sees herself as an ambassador for the city when she hosts people in her home.
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First-aid items are left out for Airbnb guests Thursday, May 25, 2017, at Olivia Karavatakis' Highland Park home in Chattanooga, Tenn. Guests are allowed to use all of Karavatakis' house except her room and bathroom.

On Lookout Mountain and in the valley, at almost the exact same time Tuesday afternoon, a couple of residents raised the same concerns to city officials about Airbnb guests.

How do we know who those people are?

"I'm not interested in getting in the way of free enterprise in this regard," Autumn Graves, head of Girls Preparatory School, said during the Chattanooga City Council's agenda session. "But I am very, very interested in us being extremely thoughtful about how we go about putting this kind of ordinance in place — particularly because it's about the well-being of children."

"I don't want to go to worst case," James Cline said around the same time, during a Lookout Mountain, Ga., city planning meeting. "But we're talking about possibly pedophiles walking around our streets, next to our children."

In Chattanooga, the city council planned to vote Tuesday on an ordinance to regulate short-term vacation rentals, which are most commonly done through Airbnb. Instead, the council pushed the issue back to a June 27 meeting, asking Graves and representatives from St. Nicholas School and St. Peter's Episcopal School to first hash out their concerns with the director of the Chattanooga Regional Planning Agency.

For example, Graves suggested adding a section to the ordinance to ban any short-term vacation rentals within 1,000 feet of a school.

In Lookout Mountain, meanwhile, the city's planning commission listened to critics and supporters of an ordinance to regulate the use of Airbnb. The commission will write a report about the issue and make a recommendation. City Attorney Bill Pickering said the ordinance probably won't go to a vote until July.


Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga are like many municipalities and state legislatures around the country trying to figure out how to properly regulate short-term vacation rentals. Officials in both Signal Mountain and Dade County, Ga., told the Times Free Press on Tuesday their elected leaders will have to take up the issue, eventually.

In both Lookout Mountain and Chattanooga, supporters pushed back against the notion that Airbnb ushers in child molesters or other dangerous criminals. On the website, homeowners review renters like they would a restaurant or an Uber driver, helping other Airbnb users understand what kind of people they're likely hosting.

"If they're staying in my home, they're not going out and roaming the neighborhood," said Mark Wardell, who rented out rooms in his Lookout Mountain house until he learned last year it was a zoning violation. "They're going hiking. They're going to Point Park. They're going downtown. Or they're going to a wedding. They're not here to destroy our lovely city; they're here because we have a lovely city."

Chattanooga City Councilman Chip Henderson, the sponsor of the local ordinance, compared a short-term vacation rental to a hotel.

"I know of some schools myself that are within 1,000 feet of a hotel right now," Henderson said. "So my question would be, are you concerned about hotels around any educational facility?"

Graves said a hotel staffs the front desk with employees trained to identify any concerning behavior.

In Chattanooga, homeowners are only allowed to put their homes on Airbnb if the city has zoned them R-3 or R-4, a designation that would otherwise allow them to use the property as an office or apartment. Under the proposed ordinance, however, the property's zone would not be the deciding factor.

Instead, you could only apply to host a short-term vacation rental unit if you lived in the city's urban overlay: Missionary Ridge in the east, Lookout Mountain in the west, and from the Georgia state line in the south up through some parts of North Shore. This would exclude areas like Bonny Oaks, Brainerd, East Brainerd, Hixson and Tyner.

If living in the right zone, homeowners would apply for short-term vacation rental status with Chattanooga's Land Development Office. If you live in a home and plan to rent out some rooms, the application fee is $75. If you own a home but don't live there, the application fee is $125.

If you don't live at the house you want to rent, an employee at the city's Regional Planning Agency will write letters to all of your neighbors within 300 feet, telling them your plan. The neighbors have 30 days to file any objections or simply raise concerns.

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Olivia Karavatakis points to the coffee station and labels she's placed around her kitchen to make guests feel more at home Thursday, May 25, 2017, at her Highland Park home in Chattanooga, Tenn. Guests are allowed to use all of Karavatakis' house except her room and bathroom.

If some of your neighbors do, in fact, raise concerns, the city council will hold a hearing and make the final call. Anyone registered as a short-term vacation rental property owner would also have to pay an 8 percent hotel-motel tax under the ordinance, which they don't have to do now.

Like in Chattanooga, the Lookout Mountain ordinance would require homeowners to apply for a permit with city officials. But otherwise, the Lookout Mountain ordinance has more restrictions. It bans property owners from renting homes where they don't live. It also restricts a host from renting out more than two rooms in a house or letting more than three people stay in each room.

Renters also would pay a 3 percent hotel-motel tax.

Tennessee lawmakers debated statewide regulations on short-term vacation rentals this year, though they didn't settle on any changes. State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, sponsored a bill that would have forced all Airbnb users to obey local government regulations.

But his bill didn't make it out of committee in April. He said a scheduling conflict stopped him from presenting it. Instead, another short-term vacation bill passed the House on May 8, 53-35. That bill didn't get out of the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee.

Lawmakers could revisit that bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, in 2018. McCormick voted against it this year, though, because the bill would stop cities and counties from saying no to property owners who want to rent through Airbnb.

McCormick hopes state senators change the bill in committee next year, giving more authority to governments like Chattanooga's.

"Local governments have a better feel for the local neighborhoods," he said. "They can make their own decisions."

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett. Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.