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Sex Offenders Near Schools? Vacation Renter Background Checks Needed: Ald.

By Mina Bloom | May 4, 2016 5:42am
 Built in 1884, 2525 N. Orchard St. could be converted into three vacation rentals.
Built in 1884, 2525 N. Orchard St. could be converted into three vacation rentals.
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Cook County Assessor

LINCOLN PARK — A vacation rental project in Lincoln Park is raising questions about background checks in the age of the shared economy.

AtHomeInnChicago, a company that has been managing vacation rentals, is seeking city approval to convert three apartment units within a vintage building at 2525 N. Orchard St. into vacation rentals. If all goes according to plan, the building will likely be accepting renters by mid-summer.

The building's location — which is steps away from both St. Clement School and Alcott Elementary School and Saint Paul's United Church of Christ — has some community members and Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) wondering if vacation rental operators are doing enough to screen renters.

"You have no way of knowing if [the renter] is a sex offender or pedophile," remarked one resident at a community meeting to discuss the proposal Monday evening at Alcott, 2625 N. Orchard St.

Currently, AtHomeInnChicago and other similar operators like Airbnb are not required to run background checks on potential renters. 

"We don't routinely perform background checks on Airbnb accounts — though we reserve the right to," Airbnb's website reads. "Airbnb offers a number of features that help build trust and cultivate a transparent community marketplace, including our secure messaging system, reviews, the Host Guarantee and Verified ID."

Founded in 2000, AtHomeInnChicago screens its renters by making them answer a series of questions. Of the 50 properties the company manages in Chicago, 22 of them are vacation rentals.

"It's typically families staying at these locations. We're doing a very good job of screening them," said Bob Biddle, who runs AtHomeInnChicago with his wife, Liz.

Liz Biddle said most renters will be "tied" to the neighborhood in some way. She named families of college students, people traveling for business and people traveling for occasions like weddings as typical AtHomeInnChicago renters.

"I know you guys are picturing something else. It's pretty positive. [The renters] are pretty sophisticated," she said.

But the couple said they're interested in conducting more formal background checks in the future.

Smith said Tuesday that concerns over background checks were "very valid."

"It was a very, very good question to ask," she said. "It's a heavily trafficked street for children."

The meeting comes as Smith and fellow aldermen fight for tougher regulations on Airbnb and similar operators throughout the city. An ordinance on the issue is currently making its way through the City Council.

The way the booking system is designed also makes it difficult for sex offenders to follow the terms of their registry status.

Renters don't know the addresses until after they book. Airbnb and other operators do this to protect the hosts, but it could lead to a situation in which a sex offender unknowingly books a stay near a school.

Smith said that could easily be fixed by listing on the ad whether or not a property is near a school. While many of the ads list proximity to things to do like shopping and cultural institutions, none reviewed by DNAinfo Chicago mention proximity to schools.

When asked if vacation rental operators should require background checks, Smith said she plans to "look into" the issue further. 

"I'm certainly going to look into it. We haven't seen the next draft of the proposal. I certainly wouldn't want anything to pass or be pushed through the council without the interest of the neighbors represented."

Vacation rentals are different than traditional hotels, Smith said, because the rentals are usually situated in residential areas. 

"The best protection for a neighborhood is having a nosy neighbor," she said. "What if there aren't any neighbors? Every time something becomes a vacation rental, you're removing a neighbor. It's a concern to have fewer and fewer neighbors. That's not great for safety."

Still, Smith said she doesn't oppose the Orchard Street project. She supports responsible growth of the vacation rental industry under tougher regulations.

What she doesn't support is the "proliferation" of vacation rentals that compromise neighborhood safety.

That happened in the nearby Gold Coast: Neighbors have been tangled up in a legal battle with the vacation rental operators on Cedar Street for creating a party atmosphere on the block. 

Sam Lichtenfield, a resident who is involved in the Gold Coast fight, said Monday evening that AtHomeInnChicago's willingness to meet with neighbors is a good sign, given that many of the Gold Coast operators didn't meet with the community.

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