Let’s say you’re planning a trip to Chicago, and decide to find a bed for the night via the online home-sharing website Airbnb. A listing catches your eye: it’s within walking distance of public transportation, across the street from a large and active park, and down the street from a police station. The reviews are glowing, with descriptions like, “The host was welcoming and kind” and, “Her place was very clean and organized.” Best of all is the price: only $15 a night. Sounds great, right?
But what if the bed was in a neighborhood stigmatized nationwide for gang violence, dilapidated buildings, drug trade and poverty?
A woman who calls herself Nonya (as in “nonya business”) makes her living hosting visitors from all over the world in every nook and cranny of her four-bedroom, two-bath home in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side– the same Englewood that makes daily headlines for violent crime – via Airbnb.
Contrary to what you might expect, Nonya says business is very good.
According to Nonya, she has hosted around 2,000 people since 2011. Students, tourists, transplants and business travelers from Pakistan, China, Sweden, Nigeria, Germany, France and more have slept in the bunk beds, daybeds and airbeds filling her home. Many of her guests stay for weeks, months, even years. Nonya chronicles some of her experiences as an Airbnb host at her blog titled “Behind the Bolted Door.”
Nonya began her career as an Airbnb host three years after that site went live. An enthusiastic budget traveler, she was perusing Airbnb for a room to rent in New York when she saw a listing for what she calls a “godawful” rental. “Sheets on the windows, dishes in the sink – her place was so nasty. But I was impressed that 15 white people stayed at her house. I wouldn’t stay there … the place sucked. But I’m thinking, she got 15 white people – I can get at least one!”
Inspired, she inflated a few air mattresses and hung out her digital shingle on Airbnb. Two hours later, she had eight confirmed bookings. Two days after that, she had a reservation for every week of the summer.
Once Nonya figured out how to list individual sleeping spaces on her Airbnb profile, she was regularly booked for as many as 30 people a night. She recalls, “I had to sleep on the treadmill a couple times, and once I had to tell somebody, ‘The only space left is the tub, but you’re gonna have to get out of there in the morning.’”
Since then, she’s used the money she’s made through rentals to update the 1875 home she inherited from her grandmother. She finished the attic and basement, added a bathroom, and recently bought the vacant lot next door to her home to create an outdoor living space, including a fledgling vegetable garden.
The house is clean and bright, but with so many guests, space in the home is at a premium. A tower of locking cabinets in the kitchen (Nonya says a guest built them for her) gives residents a place to store personal food. Four bunk beds hug a wall in a narrow space more accurately described as a hallway than a bedroom. Doors surrounding the dining room are painted like chalkboards and scribbled with greetings, doodles, Wi-Fi passwords, and house rules. Most notably, nearly every seating surface in the home doubles as a sleeping space – the couches in the living room, for instance, are daybeds that are also available for rent. In dedicated sleeping areas, twin-size airbeds are lined up cheek to jowl on the floor.
Nonya’s guest reviews are overwhelmingly positive, but when people do complain, she’s not shy about arguing that her guests are fully informed about all aspects of staying with her.
Nonya’s 850-plus guest reviews are overwhelmingly positive, with many complimenting Nonya’s personality and hospitality. When people do complain – about the neighborhood, living conditions, or the host herself – Nonya’s not shy about arguing that her guests are fully informed about all aspects of staying with her.
Nonya is upfront on her website about pretty much everything a traveler would need to consider, from transportation to tourist activities to her strict house rule of “no hanky-panky” between guests. (She laughs, “I’m a Jehovah’s Witness. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have sex. And if I’m not getting none, you ain’t either.”)
She also makes it clear that her guests are responsible for their own safety. She gives them what she considers common-sense guidelines for navigating Chicago, such as walking only on main streets, keeping valuables out of sight, and not traveling alone at night. But she emphasizes that this advice doesn’t apply only to Englewood: “We’re talking about Chicago. There’s no such thing as safe here.”
Some of her guests have experienced that firsthand. While she admits that three or four of her guests have been robbed in Englewood, she points out that another dozen or so have been victimized in neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Chinatown and the Loop. From Nonya’s perspective, it’s incumbent on the guests to take precautions and keep themselves and their possessions safe. She says of a guest who openly carried an expensive camera that was stolen, “[he] should’ve been robbed a long time ago if [he’s] walking around like that.”
Nonya says some of her guests familiar with Englewood’s rough reputation view their stays as a kind of adventure travel. A few have actually expressed disappointment at not witnessing gunfire during their stay. Nonya says she spotted two of her boarders taking selfies in the back of a police car after the police picked them up for looking out of place in the neighborhood. The guests later told Nonya that the officers toured a crime scene with the guests in the squad car before dropping them off at the Greyhound bus station. But, she says, most of her lodgers are just looking for a cheap and convenient place to stay, and her place fits the bill. She says, “As long as you’ve got a low price, there’s always travelers who’ll take some kind of risk.”
Unsurprisingly, Nonya’s a proponent of the new sharing economy. Nonya’s biggest challenge with starting her B&B in Englewood was not crime, but taxi service. She said that for the first couple of years she was open, it was almost impossible to get a taxi to the area; guests would have to wait hours for a taxi to arrive if they came at all. Since the Uber ride-sharing service came to Chicago, she says transportation has become much easier.
The one consistent problem Nonya reports is what she considers harassment by state and local police of her business. She related an episode from early in her hosting career, when she says as many as 30 Illinois state officers entered her home without her permission looking for unspecified violations. (One of her encounters with the Chicago police is posted on YouTube.) As a result of her run-ins with the police, she explicitly tells guests that police are not welcome on her property. Her website states, “If you should bring [police] into my home, then you will be leaving with them.” This distrust extends beyond the boundaries of her property – on her blog, Nonya annually posts a video warning people to avoid talking to police in general.
Nonya makes it clear that her guests are responsible for their own safety, but she emphasizes that her advice doesn’t apply only to Englewood: “We’re talking about Chicago. There’s no such thing as safe here.”
Some of this wariness comes from officers’ frequent admonitions that she should license her business with the city – and with licensing comes inspections. She says, “Telling me to get a license is suspicious. My brother told me that the police kept insisting that he get a license [for his home business] – and as soon as he got a license, they started fining him for fire hazards and stuff like that until they closed him out of his own home. So I knew that’s what they were trying to do … it didn’t feel right … and then I saw a story about an older lady in California who signed up with the city and wound up getting fined $50,000. I’ll take my chances with a $250 ticket than to get a license so you can legally come into my house and do whatever.”
In fact, Nonya advises other Airbnb hosts to strip their photos and names from their profiles and website. She says, “I know it’s about trust, and I trust Airbnb. But I don’t trust the government.” (For the record, under current regulations, the city says a license is required to operate a bed and breakfast, although some aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are working on an ordinance that would change the rules for Airbnb hosts.)
But a conversation with a police officer actually inspired one of Nonya’s quirkier house rules. She says she asked a police officer what the difference was between having a lot of paying guests in her home and simply having a large family in her home, and the officer replied that it wasn’t illegal to be cousins. Since then, she has asked her guests to refer to each other and themselves as “cousins.”
When asked what her neighbors think of her business, Nonya says, “They love it!” She says everyone in the neighborhood is aware of her B&B and have even directed guests trying to find her home, saying, “White folks go that way.” Her long-term guests have struck up friendships with her neighbors – one guest had a going-away party thrown in his honor by a neighborhood drug dealer.
Not only are her neighbors and the police aware of Nonya’s business, she’s also well-known among Chicago’s Airbnb hosts. Eric Mathiasen, an Airbnb “superhost” in River North, is familiar with her story and reputation. Mathiasen calls Nonya’s operation an “edge case” among Chicago hosts – he can think of only one other Airbnb operator who comes close to her volume and pricing, but that operator is licensed. He points out that her practice of accepting long-term guests could cause difficulties down the road, since once a guest is in your home for a certain length of time, they gain legal protections as tenants. Mathiasen also mentions that Nonya offers advice to new hosts and posts stories of her more offbeat guest encounters in a Facebook group for Airbnb hosts.
One unexpected consequence of running an Airbnb location in a neighborhood with an unsavory reputation is that Nonya makes a significant portion of her revenue from cancellations when guests book a bed and change their mind about staying once they arrive. Nonya recalls some of her first guests “went to McCormick Place, then they came back and said, ‘My father was in a car crash and we’ve got to go back [home] … can we get a refund? The next one was like, his dog died. There were a lot of deaths going on. But then I realized after the third death that I could keep the money.”
Nonya’s cancellation policy is, in fact, quite rigid – cancellations within a week of arrival are not refunded.
But she believes this was less about the safety of the neighborhood and more about guests feeling alone or out of place in the mostly African-American neighborhood. As she started booking and retaining more guests, she says that she has had fewer cancellations, because “when people see other people of their color – and I’m not just talking about white people, black people do this too – they see each other and say, oh, it’s not so bad.” And while she’s in the business to turn a profit, Nonya says this dynamic is what she’s really hoping for – bringing people from disparate backgrounds together to experience her neighborhood and city.
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