The battle over Airbnb in Lake Bluff, Illinois
Lake Bluff homeowners home sharing with Airbnb were forced to cease and desist by the village zoning board.
This September, Californian JoLynn Pollard was planning to surprise her boyfriend, Dave, with a birthday visit to his hometown of Lake Bluff, Ill., located about 35 miles north of Chicago.
Unfortunately, local politics got in the way.
JoLynn had found the perfect spot. Using Airbnb, she found Trish and Bob Havrin, Airbnb hosts offering the upper apartment of their two-family building located on the very street where Dave grew up.
Thrilled, JoLynn shared the find with Dave and the two started planning their trip.
But not long before the pair was set to head to Illinois, JoLynn received a reservation cancellation.
Lake Bluff had issued a cease and desist order for all short-term rental accommodations.
Would-be visitors like JoLynn and Dave were not the only ones the village’s order has affected. The cease and desist order also has had a detrimental effect on residents.
Trish and Bob bought their house six years ago. Back then, the property was in disrepair, and the Havrins were advised it would be better to tear it down. Instead, they decided to turn the dilapidated building into a safe, welcoming space.
So they renovated. Floors were replaced, cooling fans were installed, safety features were added, and the garage was made safe and usable. Trish and Bob did the work they could and hired locals to help with the rest.
“They did a lot of work,” JoLynn says. “It’s a beautiful building.”
Short-term rentals gave the Havrins an opportunity for supplemental income.
“We used Airbnb because the vetting system is excellent,” Trish says, “and we wanted shorter term to work through the bugs and see if we were comfortable renting it out.”
The first Lake Bluff visitors the Havrins hosted were a young couple visiting for medical reasons, and they wanted to bring their dog along for comfort. Next came a military family in the area to see their son graduate from boot camp. Following them, a couple, both with doctoral degrees, needed a place to stay during a short-term work assignment, and they left for a house of their own when the work became full time. Then the Havrins hosted a woman whose daughter-in-law was expecting the family’s first grandchild.
Business was good, so Trish was surprised to receive a phone call from a neighbor who told Trish she didn’t approve of short-term visitors. Hoping to make the neighbors feel comfortable, Trish says she and Bob constructed a fence for privacy.
Nonetheless, the issue escalated to the village zoning board.
“I don’t know why there is the strong hostility,” Trish says. “Perhaps we are a scapegoat for their increasing taxes and decreasing property values. One neighbor across the street yelled ‘I pay 25,000 a year in taxes and don’t expect to live next to a hotel.’ I see no correlation. I am not a hotel.”
Other Lake Bluff residents have joined the cause against short-term rentals. Some residents told the zoning board that they worried allowing the Airbnb homes to persist would damage the community. Resident Peter Acker, for example, expressed concern that a high concentration of short-term renters would cause the village to lose its sense of belonging and community.
Although Trish and Bob lie at the center of the fight over Airbnb, other Lake Bluff residents are quietly suffering the costs of the moratorium.
One resident, who asked not to be named, had hosted guests for three years without receiving any complaints. Often, her guests were families who wanted to live together while attending a graduation, wedding or funeral.
A popular Airbnb host, this resident had reservations booked through September when the moratorium hit in May. She had to cancel all of the reservations, worth about $20,000, money that was supposed to cover a portion of her substantial property taxes. Lake Bluff sits in Lake County which boasts the highest average property taxes in Illinois and the 17th highest average property taxes in the country.
She also worries that the forced cancellations may disallow her from relisting her property even if Lake Bluff lifts the moratorium.
A third Lake Bluff host was a medical student who offered space to guests interested in touring a local college. He changed his name and address on the Airbnb website to work around the moratorium.
Another operator began using Airbnb to provide income for the household when her husband lost his job and later tragically died in a traffic accident. This operator used Airbnb to provide for her household, which consists of her aging mother, who cannot work; her niece, who is an honors student attending the University of Illinois at Chicago full-time and tutors Lake Bluff children; and herself. Trish Havrin expressed concern that this family may not be able to keep their home if the moratorium persists.
Lake Bluff residents who oppose short-term rentals highlight the decisions of Lincolnshire, Lake Barrington, Park Ridge, Armour Woods, and Northbrook, which prohibit home sharing outright or prohibit rentals of less than 90 days.
These cities’ harsh rental requirements reflect an anti-home sharing precedent Chicago established in 2016. The city’s relatively new Airbnb regulations greet home sharing visitors to the city with a 21 percent tax bill, and an increasing number of buildings that prohibit home sharing.
A group of Chicago homeowners, represented by the Liberty Justice Center and the Goldwater Institute, have sued the city for inappropriately restricting property rights. The Liberty Justice Center, the litigation partner of the Illinois Policy Institute, has also sent Lake Bluff Village Board members a letter pointing out similar constitutional problems in a proposed ordinance to restrict home sharing in Lake Bluff.
Regulations proposed through the Lake Bluff zoning board include:
- Short-term rentals may not occur within 1,000 feet of each other.
- No more than two adults may stay in a room on a given night.
- Short-term rentals may only occur at the property owner’s “primary residence.”
- Every host home must have one room accessible as defined by the Illinois Accessibility Code.
- Hosts must be present on their property through the duration of the rental.
Because short-term renting is a relatively recent economic development, some local governments are awaiting Lake Bluff’s regulatory decisions, seeking precedent to guide their actions.
One Airbnb host is not optimistic that a decision will be forthcoming. “I’ve been to these meetings,” she says. “It’s really one person after another getting up and talking about how terrible this is. Nobody’s listening to each other. The zoning board was supposed to come up with some regulations, which I think is a good idea, but the zoning board can’t really do that while they’ve got a room full of people yelling at them and not listening.”
Potential visitors also await a decision. After the moratorium, JoLynn had to look for other lodging options for her vacation present. Dissatisfied with Lake Bluff’s limited hotel market, JoLynn booked an Airbnb rental in nearby Lake Forest.
“Lake Bluff is turning away one of its homegrown citizens,” JoLynn says. “If my boyfriend weren’t from there, I wouldn’t want to give them any of my business now.”