Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to slap an additional 2 percent surcharge on Airbnb and other home-sharing services to bankroll a 50 percent increase in shelter capacity and support services for domestic violence victims.
If the City Council approves the new fee, the total city tax on the “gross rental or leasing charge of any shared housing unit or vacation rental” would be 6 percent.
An existing 4 percent fee earmarked for homeless services generated $3 million during the first year and another $2.7 million during the 10-month period ending in April.
The new surcharge is expected to raise $1.3 million-a-year dedicated exclusively toward adding shelter beds to the city’s existing inventory of 140, creating transitional housing and bolstering support services for victims of domestic violence.
“The mayor has had some success with the previous surcharge levied against home-sharing. … He kind of feels like this is a fair place to encourage visitors and tourists to help increase funding for city services as opposed to just taxing residents themselves,” said Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison-Butler.
Airbnb spokesman Benjamin Breit noted that, since the summer of 2016, Airbnb has been collecting a 21.4 percent occupancy tax — including a 4 percent surcharge to support homelessness initiatives in Chicago.
“We support the mayor’s desire to aid victims of domestic abuse and believe Chicagoans would be best served if the city ensured every short-term rental platform, not just Airbnb, collected Chicago’s taxes and fees, including this one,” Breit wrote in an email to the Sun-Times.
Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), City Council champion for domestic violence victims, was all for the new fee. He called domestic violence an “epidemic in our country” that impacts “every race, every religion.”
“I don’t have that much of a concern about home-sharing myself. But more needs to be done to assist victims of domestic violence,” the alderman said.
Rebecca Darr is CEO of WINGS, the first domestic violence shelter to open in Chicago in more than a decade. She argued that the dedicated funding source will allow WINGS to “move people out faster into their own housing” leaving “more beds available for people coming here.”
“The No. 1 reason that victims go back to their abusers is because they can’t afford to move from a shelter into their own housing to be able to get back on their feet,” she said.
Darr noted that sexual harassment allegations against now-indicted Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein that triggered the #MeToo tidal wave of allegations against men in other industries have emboldened domestic violence victims, prompting a surge in calls to the state’s domestic violence hotline.
“Their abuser is telling them that, `If you leave, I’ll kill you. You’ll never make it on your own,’ and giving them all of those negative messages,” Darr said. “When you see … people of influence — movie stars — saying, `You don’t have to tolerate this behavior’ and speaking out against it, it’s an empowering thing. If someone like that has gone through it, I can talk about it. I can get help and I can get out.”
The dedicated funding source marks the latest in a series of steps Emanuel has taken to confront the scourge of domestic violence.
In 2013, the mayor announced plans to donate $500,000 in city land and $1.8 million in disputed back taxes and legal fees paid by a Chicago strip club to help build the new WINGS Metro shelter in a Chicago Lawn neighborhood where police reports show a high incidence of domestic violence.
At the time, Emanuel projected the new shelter would cost $4.2 million and open in June 2014. Two years ago, the shelter finally opened — two years late, at more than twice the original cost.
Darr said then the cost had skyrocketed because the scope changed dramatically.
The mayor also stepped up crisis intervention training for Chicago Police officers in response to a blistering indictment by the U.S. Department of Justice.
And he started a pilot program in the Shakespeare district that calls for Chicago Police officers to identify households at high risk for domestic violence and target those families for special attention ranging from phone calls and “well-being check-ins” to social and legal services and “priority prosecution.”
More recently, Emanuel joined forces with O’Shea on an ordinance that guarantees up to one month of paid leave for city employees who are victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.