Airbnb hosts become Chicago’s tour guides

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel still hopes to get an ordinance passed that would regulate Airbnb and other home-sharing services. | File photo

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Urban disrupters are hot. Last week I reported on the furor over digital-forward ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. This week, it’s Airbnb.

The Chicago City Council is considering an ordinance that would mandate a 4 percent surcharge on short-term housing rentals, with the revenue supporting programs to combat homelessness. Critics want more regulation.

Short term rentals by absentee landlords are destroying his Gold Coast neighborhood, wrote Samuel A. Lichtenfeld in a recent Crain’s Chicago Business op-ed.

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“The Great American City is being invaded by the vacation rental industry,” wrote Lichtenfeld, a commercial real estate attorney.

Airbnb “brings up to 50 strangers plus friends to my unprepared street on any given night.”

Down in Bronzeville, Kay offers another story from The Great American City.

Kay, 33, rents rooms in her renovated, 3-bedroom condo in Bronzeville. Chicago’s historic center of black commerce and culture is undergoing a slow but vital renaissance. (Kay asked that I use her only first name, to protect her privacy).

Her Airbnb rooms are usually booked. The reviews from her guests are glowing.

Kay prefers long-term renters who pay $40 a day and stay for a month or more. The extra income helps fund the Chicago Public School teacher’s travel bug.

More important is the chance to disrupt stereotypes, she says.

Most Chicago visitors stay downtown. They know only that the South Side is nicknamed “Chi-Raq,” and wracked with crime.

“The perception that the media puts out there is not, is not correct,” says Kay, an African American and native Chicagoan. “The people in this neighborhood, the people in my building, are all hardworking Americans who are respectful, kind, and caring, and genuine people.”

As I strolled to her building on a muggy afternoon, a couple of older men waved from the stoop next door.

Her space is smartly furnished in mid-century style; bright art hangs on the walls. There is an air of serenity. A photo of the Dalai Lama sits high on a bookcase.

Her guests have a two-block to the CTA green stop, with a 15 to 25 minute commute to downtown, she says. It’s close to the University of Chicago and Hyde Park.

Some have just moved to the city and are looking for temporary housing; parents visiting university students; some are tourists. They come from throughout the United States, and Australia, Columbia, Ecuador, Canada, Lithuania, Beijing.

Kay is their concierge. She tells them, “It is (my) home, but it also could be your home. And that you can represent what the South Side is too.”

“I can curate an experience for you,” she tells them.

Kay connected a French graffiti artist with other artists in the city. He “came to the school where I work at and painted the hallway.”

Chicago “means house music,” so she sends guests to the right spots for the real thing. And to the “stellar” jerk chicken place down the street; brunch on 47th Street; outdoor movie screenings at Washington Park; bicycling courtesy of Divvy.

They bond, and stay in touch by text, email, phone. She met up with her Chinese guests when she later visited Beijing.

The Chicago City Council may vote on the rental ordinance this week. Aldermen are working on a compromise that would do more to police bad hosts and limit some short-term rentals.

In 2015, of 4,800 active Airbnb hosts in Chicago, 660 were on the South Side, according to a company spokesman.

Plenty of chances to tell our stories.

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