It was not your typical Friday night. And it wasn't your typical overnight accommodation. But I wanted to find out how the very popular but very hush-hush Airbnb, an online marketplace for listing and booking accommodations, would translate to Oak Park.
That's what brought me to the Downtown Oak Park area townhouse of Abdul and Momenah and their two children where I rented a spare bedroom for $66 and had the chance to find out just why a couple would choose to open their home to strangers.
Abdul is 29 and studying network security at DePaul University. Momenah is 27 and studies education at Concordia University in River Forest. The young married couple (who preferred not to give their last name) is from Saudi Arabia and despite the scholarships that help pay for school are looking for ways to supplement their income and pay for day care for their kids.
That's what brought them to Airbnb.
Airbnb began in 2008 and now boasts over 500,000 properties in 192 countries and over 34,000 cities. The company has served over 9 million guests and if you are interested in renting any castles, Airbnb lists over 600 of those.
Locally there are now 10 Airbnb hosts in Oak Park and three in River Forest. They are not a chatty lot, as evidenced by the multiple rejections I received after seeking both a night's stay and an interview.
Using Airbnb is simple for both hosts and guests. The system relies on Airbnb's website and PayPal accounts to handle the transaction. Airbnb gets a small percentage of every stay.
Hosts set their own prices, their own rental terms and agreements and can rate guests. Guests in turn can correspond directly with hosts as well as rate and review the home they stayed in.
Among Oak Park's 10 hosts, some rent multiple rooms so the total number of available sites can seem larger when you study the Airbnb map.
A tactic to outwit the system
Abdul said that if someone has more than one room for rent, but lists all rooms under one account, then once one room becomes occupied, all the rooms appear to be occupied.
All but two of the local hosts provide private rooms. One host, who describes herself as a student, offers her entire one bedroom, one bathroom apartment near Wesley Avenue for $145 a night. Another host, who lists his accommodations as "The Homeless Shelter," offers a private bedroom for an extra $25. Otherwise everyone shares a room and sleeps on the floor in his home. He writes on his profile that beds take up too much space, but airbeds are available.
Now though even an established local bed and breakfast is considering using Airbnb.
"Just last week I wrote to my webmaster about me joining Airbnb," said Gloria Onischuk, proprietor of Under the Ginkgo Tree, 300 N. Kenilworth Ave.
After almost 25 years in business, Onischuk said her bed and breakfast still has unfilled rooms in the winter.
She said that she does not know much about the online accommodations site now, only having recently read about it in a Chicago Tribune article, but thinks that gaining some exposure through the marketplace would help her gain patrons during her slow season.
When I decided to embark on an Airbnb adventure in Oak Park my first decision was to steer clear of any communal sleeping arrangements.
After a long explanation of who I am and what I am reporting, the first host I contacted politely declined.
"My house isn't that awesome. But I do know there are many more that are," she wrote. "Ha ha! Just tryin' to pay the property taxes."
The second host wanted to know how much of a time commitment the interview would be, but never responded to my answer of 20-30 minutes.
On my fifth attempt to find a room Abdul agreed to an interview and offered me a private room in his family's home for $66.
I arrived a little after our agreed meeting time of 4 p.m. I got lost inside a small complex of town homes just off Lake Street and in the pouring rain C's and P's start to look alike.
When I finally arrived at the correct home a slim, brown-haired woman opened the door and a waft of spices and herbs escaped outside. We greeted each other and Momenah showed me where I would be sleeping -- a spacious room with two twin beds set side-by-side and a private adjoining bathroom decorated in blue.
After putting my bag and coat down in the room, I walked back to the kitchen and stood across from Momenah at the kitchen counter making small-talk and taking in the aroma of a dish with an Arabic name that was too complex for me to say or fully understand.
"I saw some of my friends trying it. Going here and there using Airbnb. So, we gave it a try." Abdul said sitting on a boxy, navy blue couch in the couple's living room; Momenah brought some Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and a canister of Arabic coffee in to the living room from the kitchen.
Before becoming hosts, the couple said they had tried Airbnb when they traveled to Boston, "but many [hosts] did not reply it seemed because we are foreigners and we are two adults and two children."
Deciding to allow someone to stay in your home based on discriminating factors is not uncommon. The couple admitted that they often discern whether or not to approve a guest based on how he or she writes when they correspond with them or from pictures on their profile.
"We come from a culture where it's not OK," said Abdul referring to the practice of opening up ones home for strangers to temporarily live. "But we tried it."
The unconventional choice to host travelers came out of the couples' need for extra income to pay for their 4-year-old daughter's daycare program where she, a fluent Arabic speaker, learns English.
The couple started an account on Airbnb in 2011 but did not use the service until July 2013, when they needed to move into a larger home.
Since the couple started hosting through Airbnb last summer, they have earned $2,000.
When they could not find subletters to rent their apartment they turned to Airbnb and found two college students from France who paid them $3,000 for two months; $700 more than what they had been paying in rent for two months.
As of Jan. 10, I was the ninth person to stay with Abdul, Momenah and their two children who are 4 and 7 years-old. Up until then, they had housed mostly couples who were visiting for a few days.
Abdul and Momenah agreed that the safety, relative inexpensiveness to downtown Chicago and the proximity of Oak Park to the city and public transportation are major attractions for visitors.
But as Airbnb gains more popularity there is opposition on the horizon.
The couple was surprised to hear that in New York City officials have taken measures to regulate and tax Airbnb hosts just as they would hotels.
Abdul said he did not see why Oak Park's village government would have a problem with Airbnb because he did not personally know or hear of any other Oak Park residents hosting in town and because his family sells space not out of greed but need—paying for their daughter's education.
The three of us sat in the living room well past 9 p.m. talking about traveling, education, and different cultural practices in America and the Middle East. We laughed as Abdul and Momenah's delightfully energetic children bounced around the room playing. I ate the last cinnamon roll and opted out of Arabic coffee for tea made with dried mint from Saudi Arabia. And then Momenah and I watched music videos of the English/Arabic singer Maher Zain on TV.
After a year of Arabic in college, I only remember a few words.
Shukran jazeelan. Thank you very much.
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