On the West Side, Airbnb is rising

Listings up big in North Lawndale, East Garfield Park, Humboldt Park, company says

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By Michael Romain

Editor

Tanya Petty, a 65-year-old who lives on Warren Blvd. and California in East Garfield Park, usually meets her guests with a warm greeting and a ceremonial house tour. 

Last month, the Loyola University Chicago graduate's attention was affixed to the TV as the Ramblers played in what would be one among a string of heart-stopping NCAA tournament games during their recent unlikely run to the Final Four. 

Her house guest — a sports journalist visiting Chicago from Chile to attend Bulls and Blackhawks games — would have to wait for Petty's pomp and circumstance. There were two minutes left in a close game.

"Loyola is my team," she said in a phone interview last month.

Petty is among the many West Side residents who share their homes through Airbnb, the short-term lodging company based in San Francisco.

According to data the company released last month, roughly 1,800 West Siders opened their homes and apartments to 152,000 Airbnb guests in 2017 — up 35 percent from 2016. Airbnb hosts, the company said, earned a combined $21 million in revenue — up 23 percent from 2016. 

A 2017 Chicago Tribune report estimated that there were roughly 5,200 total listings in Chicago last year, according to Inside Airbnb, a website that independently monitors the company's listings.

"We've been seeing this trend for a few years now," said Benjamin Breit, Airbnb's Midwest press secretary, during a phone call last month. 

"For decades, there's been a very healthy hotel industry centralized in Chicago's loop and downtown central business district, and that makes since, but that's only one area that tourists have taken advantage of," he said. "Now, that's changed. If you want to stay on the West Side, you can do that." 

Breit said that the West Side neighborhoods that have experienced the fastest growth in Airbnb hosts are North Lawndale, East Garfield Park and Humboldt Park, with the latter leading the pack. 

Humboldt Park, coincidentally, has also experienced steep housing increases. A report released last year by the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University found that home prices west of Western Avenue have jumped by nearly 50 percent since the installation of the 606 trail — a popular 2.7-mile converted rail line that runs through Humboldt Park, Bucktown, Wicker Park and Logan Square. 

The report's findings coalesce with claims by other experts that Airbnb promotes, or at least benefits from, gentrification — a loaded term that often boils down to the process of making an area more suitable for middle-class residents by displacing residents who are often poor, black and brown. 

A study released this year by the McGill University School of Urban Planning, but reportedly funded by an influential hotel workers union, found that Airbnb was responsible for restricting the volume of long-term rental units in New York City, resulting in higher median rents. 

From September 2014 through August 2017, the study found, Airbnb took between 7,000 and 13,500 units out of the rental market in a city that's already reeling from the demand for affordable housing. 

Airbnb's rapid growth across the country has been met with criticism from elected officials and activists, including many who have bemoaned not just what they claim is the company's role in gentrification but also that it is lightly regulated. 

Last year, an ordinance took effect in Chicago that requires Airbnb hosts to register each unit they list for short-term rental usage or face fines ranging between $1,500 and $3,000. In addition, the city tacks a 4 percent surcharge onto each Airbnb booking. 

During last month's interview, Breit said that the city's regulations worked to "legitimize the home-sharing community." 

"Previously, hosts throughout the city, not just on the West Side, were operating in kind of a gray area," he said. "The ordinance provided clarity and legitimacy." 

Breit said that Airbnb, contrary to reinforcing economic inequality, actually has a democratizing effect, which the company's penetration into the West Side demonstrates. 

"The type of effect this platform can have for people who live in traditionally underrepresented neighborhoods and that haven't gotten the attention they deserve — that is what excites us the most," he said. 

Breit added that in 2016, Airbnb "delivered $6.1 million in hotel tax revenue to the city on behalf of its Chicago hosts, including $2.9 million that is dedicated towards a homeless family support program." 

Petty, who shares her home year-round, said that Airbnb has offered her an opportunity to bring in money while meeting new people — something that comes naturally for her.

"Last year, I made $15,000 hosting," she said. "That's more than I made from all of my other ventures. I get other income from real estate and as a computer consultant."

Petty is a natural concierge, leveraging her knowledge of real estate and her experiencing living in Chicago to her guest's advantage. She knows what to do and where to go, which blocks are safe and which her guests may want to avoid. 

She even offers what she calls her "South Side private car tour," which entails Petty driving her guests around certain areas that have now become tourist destinations because of former president Barack Obama and former first lady Michelle Obama — locations like Whitney Young High School, where Michelle attended, and the Obama's Hyde Park home. 

"You just don't get that at hotels — you used to with the concierge, but I give it to you on another level," she said. "If you're going to go strictly by Google, then you're missing out. A lot of the cool places to go to people just don't know. They won't know that that block is just fine." 

Petty said that if her neighbors have complained about Airbnb's potential effect on rents and housing prices, or on quality of life, those complaints haven't registered with her. She did, however, complain about the city's hotel tax. Petty said it could hurt her business. 

 For now, though, she'll continue refining and improving her guests' experiences, which include the comforts of Petty's spacious home (each room has a desk, a microwave and mini-fridge "just like a hotel") and her hospitable, disarming personality. 

Last month, the Chilean sports journalist may not have gotten the usual welcome from the West Side host, but he didn't miss her presence.  

"He was overjoyed to sit there and watch the game with me," she said. "He'll probably watch it tomorrow." 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com   

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