Homeowners take on city over Airbnb regs

By AMBER FISHER
@Amber_L_Fisher

CHICAGO – A group of residents has filed a lawsuit to halt the city’s new home-sharing regulations, which affect Airbnb and other rental websites. The restrictions are set to go into full effect next month.

The homeowners originally formed the non-profit Keep Chicago Livable to help educate people about how to comply with the new regulations, but now the group says the city took them too far.

“It’s a trap in a way. They’ve taken something that started off as innocuous—registering people—and then tied all these conditions to it that effectively give the government control over your home,” says Shorge Sato, the group’s lead attorney.

Sato says the regulations violate homeowners’ constitutional right to have privacy, and to use their own property.

“The notion that the government can dictate to you at home how frequently you do your chores, what kind of chores you do, how you decorate your home, what you have to put up in your home, that to me is going a step too far,” Sato says.

Sato says failure to comply with the regulations could result in heavy penalties for violations such as leaving a dirty dish in the sink.

“The government has the right to send in inspectors whenever they want and fine you $3,000 per violation—per dish.”

The city’s law department released the following statement in response: “We intend to vigorously defend this suit and the ordinance it challenges, as we believe the plaintiffs’ legal arguments lack any merit.”

Chicago high-rise manager Kevin Horwitz says he’s had bad experiences with Airbnb renters in properties he oversees. He says most condominium associations in Chicago—including his own—don’t allow renters to post their apartments on Airbnb, but he says those rules often get ignored. Horwitz says one of his worst Airbnb rental experiences happened on New Year’s Eve several years ago.

“The renter sublet the unit on Airbnb. They had probably a hundred people in the unit. They got into my laundry room—I had people urinating on the floor in the laundry room; I had people running up and down the hallways screaming,” Horwitz explains.

“It was a disaster. Nobody took responsibility for the rental of the unit.”

In May, Airbnb opened a portal on its website where its hosts’ neighbors can file complaints. The company says that hosts who “repeatedly fail” to meet its standards will be “subject to suspension or removal” from its site.

Sato says hosts can also assuage neighbors’ fears by handing out waivers that ensure responsibility will be taken for any damage renters cause. But Sato also notes that many people view hosting as a hobby, not a business—they see Airbnb as a site where they can meet people from around the world.

Strangers visit apartments and neighborhoods all the time through sites like Tinder, Bumble and delivery services … how is Airbnb any different?”

In its 73-page lawsuit, Keep Chicago Livable says the new regulations require homeowners to keep records about whom they host, an action that the group says runs against the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure.

The suit says the City of Chicago “creates a new power for itself unprecedented in the United States: the power to force its citizens to forfeit their anonymity and register before they participate socially on the Internet.”

“The city is working with Airbnb to build a back door into its massive database of private user data, without a warrant or user consent,” says Keep Chicago Livable founder Benjamin Thomas Wolf, a former FBI national security official.

The regulations also impose annual and per-listing fees on Airbnb and add a 4 percent surcharge to all bookings.

Airbnb, which boasts 2 million listings worldwide, has faced controversy in many cities, including New York, New Orleans and in the company’s home city San Francisco. In October, a judge in Nashville ruled that the city’s Airbnb regulations were vague and unconstitutional, and the city has been in the process of reviewing them.

Keep Chicago Livable’s lawsuit argues that the reaction by city governments is one of “fear and misunderstanding, mixed with economic protectionism from the hotel and motel industry.”

Keep Chicago Livable says the city never collaborated with homeowners to come up with the regulations. The group says it hopes the city will agree to a temporary injunction to allow time for negotiations.