My nightmare began in early February. I’d moved back to Chicago, having completed law school there in January 2017. I initially found a great and cheap sublet in Lincoln Square for January. Unfortunately, the tenant returned from traveling abroad in early February and Airbnb was my best alternative. I didn’t have time to go apartment hunting as I was deep in bar exam preparation. I selected a shared living situation with a host in Andersonville who had sterling reviews and claimed to be a very relaxed and almost guru-like individual, living in harmony and exuding peace. What I found was a middle-aged woman who believed she had psychic abilities, had recently had foot surgery, and was taking a lot of pain medication.
I had a very bizarre breakfast with her the first morning. She babbled on and on for a couple of hours and prepared mystery goo, clearly under the influence of her pain medication (and likely her delusions of psychic powers). I left in the early afternoon of that first morning to go study at the university library and was there until late into the evening. I returned, watched the tail of the Super Bowl, chatted with her, and then went to bed. The next day I went to work and returned home in the evening and resumed studying for the bar at a table she’d encouraged me to use for that purpose. At around 8:30 PM she brought me more mysterious food, and then at 8:45 she came over and told me she was uncomfortable with me for reasons unknown, as I’d barely been there and she’d certainly been the much weirder individual in our interactions.
Her name is “Ashqi”, a name some random guru purportedly gave her. She’s a paralegal in Chicago but she has no understanding of the law. I’d recommend running far away from her listing if you see it. As I began questioning what that was about, she proclaimed she didn’t like feeling like she was being unreasonable in her own home. Well, if you take someone’s money and offer them housing through a formal service that does only that, then you should expect to address the concerns of your guests, particularly if you express to them that they make you uncomfortable. She said she’d think about it and went back into her kitchen with her friend with whom she’d been cackling loudly as I was attempting to study. I let the situation sink in, and resolved that I would leave the next day.
Fifteen minutes later, after I’d been made uncomfortable to the point of returning to the bedroom and locking the door, she told me she needed me out that night. This was at 9:30 PM. I immediately got on the phone to Airbnb, eventually got through, and let them know that she was violating their user agreement (and local, state and federal housing laws to boot). They were surprisingly accommodating and refunded the total to my account so I could book another Airbnb that night. I had a fairly uneventful stay in a Lakeview apartment for the next five days. However, it was too pricey to remain so I booked with a couple who had a space that looked like a nice and stable place to stay in order to finish out my bar prep. The listing claimed it was a private room, living space, and private bath. The first two were true, but the bathroom was in their kitchen, while the bedroom and living space were downstairs.
Furthermore, what they didn’t disclose is that they had two young girls who made constant shrieking and running noises right above the bedroom from about 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM. These girls and their babysitter were almost constantly in the kitchen, right outside the bathroom, and would stare icily each and every time I had to go use the bathroom. It made holding in it for hours at a time often the best choice. What was more, the laundry room adjoining the living space had three separate litter boxes in it (for one cat), all of which had heaps of cat feces and urine clumps in them for the entire two weeks, despite the fact that the cat never used them while I was there, instead going outside. It was really nasty.
They were also a very dirty family, which could be excused given the ages of their children, but it got to the point where I became very ill twice during the two weeks just from going on into their bathroom and kitchen. They left dishes out for days, and food uncovered on the stove overnight. They pled with me to leave them good reviews from the very start and complained about bad reviews they’d received. When I checked out, despite what was a pretty bad experience, I left a good review. They in turn criticized how much time I spent in the house. I told them in the initial message that I’d be preparing for the bar exam. They weren’t too bright and I guess assumed that meant I’d be out of the house like a tourist for reasons unknown.
Again I found another good place in Lakeview, but could only stay there for two weeks before it was booked again. I decided to pick one more place before I was able to move into my apartment in mid-March. I could only afford a place in Wicker Park at $28/night. The pictures accurately represented the hovel it was. From all appearances it would have served well as the kind of place where people are held captive secretly like in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: unfinished, one old crappy rug, a few extremely dirty cooking implements, and a twin bed that was probably salvaged from an alley. I was fine with all of that; I needed to save money for apartment move-in fees and other associated costs. I just had to grin and bear it. It was a place I actively avoided until I had to sleep, though that was difficult in the middle of winter in Chicago.
I booked for two weeks but found a place to stay earlier (I’d informed the host my purpose in staying there was to look for an apartment while I started a new job) and attempted to change my reservation to end five days early. The host had already messaged me in the middle of the night two nights prior, lightly accusing me of withholding payment from him (as if that was even possible). I informed him Airbnb guests are charged immediately upon booking and his issue was with Airbnb. He said he’d get in contact. When I requested the change, he immediately rejected it. I messaged him to let him know why I was requesting it, and he said he’d already turned someone else down in order to accommodate me. He clearly didn’t turn down an Airbnb guest because no one could have attempted to book it while I had it booked.
I gently insisted that I needed to check out and whatever his issues with payment were, they needed to be addressed to Airbnb. Again he refused, suggesting that he wouldn’t let me leave until he got paid. I suggested that it was likely Airbnb withheld funds from hosts as a policy until reservations had ended, specifically to ensure that hosts couldn’t withhold refunds or keep guests’ money and kick them out prematurely. He wasn’t interested in this rationale. I find myself currently a day away from a release from Airbnb hell, and yet still in the midst of it, currently listening to the same hold music I’ve been hearing for the last 90 minutes, waiting for some form of customer service.
Long story short: use Airbnb only for short-term vacation rentals and even then, be prepared to know your legal rights as a tenant in the jurisdiction in which you’re staying. Contrary to what many hosts and probably guests seem to think, Airbnb is really just a financial clearing house for rental situations. They are not in the hospitality industry and hosts certainly are not, despite the artifice they present of being a hotel alternative. You have rights as a tenant under these short-term tenancies that are the same as if you were renting an apartment. You have a right to notice before you are kicked out and in truth, you can’t legally be removed from the tenancy unless you’ve committed an unlawful act. A violation of the host’s house policies may permit them to cancel your reservation, but you are not compelled to leave the premises immediately upon that cancellation regardless of what the host insists upon.
The relationship is one of landlord to tenant, not host to guest. Knowing this, regardless of the length of your stay, should allow you to familiarize yourself with your rights as a tenant in the specific jurisdiction and assert those rights at all times. Really, just avoid it unless you have no other choice. There are a number of great hosts and guests but Airbnb does a really bad job of explaining to their hosts what their responsibilities are to their guests (tenants) and the nature of the contract they’re entering into each time they accept a booking. This is undoubtedly intentional from Airbnb, as allowing confusion and misunderstanding about the legal rights, responsibilities and remedies available to the people they have using their platform to persist mitigates the potential for litigation against them. Indemnification by misinformation and lack of transparency.
Finally, if you’re a guest, I’d suggest asking as many questions of potential hosts as possible, particularly in shared living situations. They owe you candor but most think they can adopt the rules that best suit them. Ask them what they are concealing from their listing or what might be misleading. Lead with the assertion that you aren’t asking in order to avoid staying with them, but to better understand what your living situation is. If they think they’re offering customer service in this mistaken fantasy they have of being a hotelier or B&B operator, they’ll be much more likely to be honest. That may be the only time you get any sort of honest action out of them, but it will help you avoid some of my nightmare.