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New city registry creates ‘burglar’s paradise,’ Airbnb host warns

The city's new registry of available Airbnb properties, created by an ordinance passed Wednesday, could be an unexpected boon to burglars, one host fears. | Screenshot

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has inadvertently set the stage for a “burglar’s paradise” by creating an on-line registry of home-sharing listings as part of his plan to tax and regulate Airbnb, a host warned Thursday.

One day after a divided City Council approved the controversial home-sharing ordinance, a Ukrainian Village resident who has supplemented her income by renting out her condo while out of town urged aldermen to tighten up the language to protect hosts across the city.

At issue is the city’s decision to create an on-line registry of home-sharing listings that include the license number.

That has the potential to turn Airbnb into a convenient online listing of potential targets for burglars, complete with a calendar of when the home will be vacant and lavish pictures showing the merchandise available inside.

Would-be thieves could compare the addresses on the city’s registry to listings on Airbnb and other sites, and easily deduce which rentals are which, said Airbnb host Tracy Thirion. She called it a “burglar’s paradise” even though that was clearly not the mayor’s intention.

“I’m fine with a license. I’m okay with inspections, looking at my rental manual, checking my smoke detectors,” Thirion said.

“I’m not okay with having my name and address publicized on the advertising platform before we check people in. This is about people being basically cased online. I mean, some people even put floor plans of their units, showing where all the doors and window are.”

Thirion suggested three ways the City Council could protect homeowners after-the-fact.

It could withhold the address of the licensee in public records.

Or, it could require the city clerk to create an “alias license number” for advertised, pre-booking listings. That would allow guests to confirm it with the city, without having the listing disclose the address or name of the homeowner.

Finally, it could require hosts to show their license number inside the confirmed itinerary only after a booking is confirmed. That way, hosts will know the guests’ information before the guest has access to the host’s name and address.

Mayoral spokesperson Shannon Breymaier blamed the burglary concerns on a “misunderstanding about how the registry for units listed on intermediary platforms like Airbnb will operate.”

“The truth is that the registry of home sharing listings will not be accessible to the general public. The city alone will have access to this information for enforcement purposes. Further, a registry number alone won’t reveal anything to the public other than the fact that the City has registered the unit,” she said.

Thirion contends that the potential “burglary registry” would have occurred to any host given the time to review the ordinance. The fact that it was overlooked by the City Council and the home-sharing industry’s clout-heavy lobbyists shows a disconnect in how the legislation was handled, she said.

“The regulators who wrote it still don’t understand how Airbnb works,” she said.

Thiron acknowledged that registering the addresses of homes being rented on Airbnb and competing sites is a key element of regulating the fast-growing home-sharing industry. That’s because the city has promised to inspect them and limit the number of units for rent in a given building.

But where the information is posted could be a deal breaker for Thirion and many other hosts.

Thirion has owned her condo in Ukrainian Village for 10 years, but only started renting the home, as well as an apartment her husband owns in Glasgow, Scotland, a few months ago.

The couple travels often, but spends about seven months a year in Chicago.

Thirion said she and her husband had been considering putting the condo up for sale, thanks to a looming property tax hike and the continued financial struggles facing Chicago. Rental income from Airbnb guests was supposed to allow them to hedge their plans, she said.

Airbnb currently takes a series of steps to protect hosts from residential burglaries.

The home-sharing giant has the accurate address and verifies its hosts, but guests only see the “general neighborhood” of a listing with a map that’s “slightly off kilter to protect homeowners before guests confirm a booking,” Thirion said.

The listing routinely describes how many blocks away the home is from public transportation or known landmarks. Hosts are also rated on the accuracy of their description by guests who have stayed there.

But, until the guest is approved by the host and confirms a booking with a credit card, they are not sent an itinerary with the details of the home.

Few hosts send all check-in information — such as wi-fi passwords or contact phone numbers — at the time of the booking. In fact, most hosts do not disclose the exact address until a day or two before the guest arrives, for security purposes, Thirion said.

Airbnb does not release the names and cell phone numbers of its hosts until after booking.

Instead, hosts and guests are required to use the company’s “email portal for communication and booking,” she said. For Airbnb, that has the added benefit of making certain “legal contracts go through them” without any “side deals not covered under the company’s insurance policy or host guarantee,” Thirion said.