by Jacob Huebert and Christina Sandefur
Nov. 29, 2016
When the Cubs won the World Series in early November, the city was euphoric. And in the days leading up to the win, Wrigleyville was buzzing with excited fans — from Chicago and around the world. During that time, Airbnb reported that people who rent out their homes using the platform made at least $2.6 million from World Series visitors.
But it’s not just during a Cubs World Series run that Chicago benefits from home-sharing services. Airbnb has reported that about 4,800 Chicagoans, across all 50 wards, are Airbnb hosts, and they earn an average of $5,300 per year renting out their homes. On the South Side alone, Airbnb hosts made $2.6 million in 2015. Many of those people count on that income to pay their mortgages and their property tax bills.
“Home-sharing” may sound like a new thing — part of the cutting-edge “sharing economy” — but it’s a centuries-old American tradition. For generations, people have let visitors stay in their homes, rather than in hotels, sometimes in exchange for money or for doing chores. The internet has enabled homeowners and travelers to connect better than ever before, and online home-sharing platforms such as HomeAway now help millions of people rent rooms or houses to help pay their bills.
Home-sharing gives travelers more choices and lower prices and attracts visitors to communities they might not otherwise visit, where they support local businesses. Home-sharing also gives property owners an incentive to buy dilapidated homes and restore them.
But in June, Mayor Rahm Emanuel signed a city ordinance severely restricting home-sharing in Chicago.
The city’s complicated 58-page home-sharing ordinance imposes burdensome new restrictions: The ordinance levies special taxes on home-sharers and forbids many people from renting property if they don’t live there — rules that don’t apply to hotel owners. And the ordinance threatens home-sharers with punishment if their guests make noise exceeding the “average conversational level” — another rule that doesn’t apply to hotels.
What’s truly shocking are the ordinance’s rules that allow city inspections of any home-sharer’s property without a warrant, for any reason, as often as the government wants. That’s what the ordinance says: Homeowners must submit to inspections “at any time and in any manner.” Another rule forces home-sharers to collect their guests’ personal information — including their home addresses, signatures and dates they visited — and to give that information to city officials upon demand, without a warrant, or even a reason.
Both the state and federal constitutions forbid the government from searching homes arbitrarily. Just last year, the Supreme Court struck down a Los Angeles ordinance that forced hotels to give police their guests’ private information upon demand. Such broad rules, the court said, create “an intolerable risk that searches authorized by it will exceed (legal) limits, or be used as a pretext to harass hotel operators and their guests.”
The Chicago ordinance is the latest in a nationwide campaign of harassment against home-sharers, a campaign that’s often fed by misinformation and overreaction. While some communities have imposed unjust and arbitrary rules like Chicago’s, others have banned home-sharing entirely. Some argue that such restrictions are necessary because, they claim, home-sharing disrupts neighborhoods and causes noise or traffic. But communities already have tools for addressing these problems without violating constitutional rights — and there’s no need for such extremism. Cities don’t outlaw backyard barbecues just because some get noisy, or prohibit graduation parties because guests sometimes park on the street. Instead, they rely on existing rules that limit noise, or regulate parking or other nuisances.
That’s why the organizations we work for — the Chicago-based Liberty Justice Center and the Goldwater Institute, based in Phoenix — are challenging the constitutionality of Chicago’s ordinance on behalf of homeowners.
We’re prepared to fight this legal battle for as long as it takes. But we shouldn’t have to. Instead, the City Council should do the right thing by repealing the ordinance and letting Chicago homeowners, visitors and businesses enjoy the benefits of home-sharing.
Jacob Huebert is a senior attorney at the Liberty Justice Center and Christina Sandefur is the executive vice president of the Goldwater Institute.