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Business Mon Aug 27 2012

Travelers Find Welcome in Englewood

By Robert O'Connor

Englewood is usually said in hushed tones in conversation. It is regarded as one of the most unsafe places in Chicago, and if one reads the police blotter, it is hard not to come away with that impression. Despite its poor reputation, there are people still trying to make their way and bring people to the community, whether it's Kennedy King College or local businesses. One woman turned her grandmother's home into a place where travelers could come and stay for as little as $11/night. And they've come from all over the world.

Annie Wonsey runs one of the more popular Airbnb spots in Chicago. The website allows people to put apartments, rooms or even just couches up for rent by people who can't afford a hotel.

englewood_airbnb.jpgWonsey, 45, has always been a traveler and found Airbnb while helping her sister save money in Europe. "I had Champagne taste with a Kool-Aid budget," as she put it. Since she started hosting in July 2011, she has been able to support herself with the money brought in by as many as 15 people at a time paying to live in her house. She made enough to leave her job as a secretary at Northwestern Hospital. She's able to spend more time with her guests, and take them out to eat, to movies, and to sites around the city. She's gotten 200 positive reviews from previous travelers, the vast majority of them positive and most of them giving her high praise.

The people staying there all said they were comfortable staying there, but that mentioning at work or school that they were staying in Englewood had gotten them a wide variety of reactions. Lawrence Pablo had been staying there for a month when I paid a visit to the house. He had come down from Butternut, WI. He works as a welder and his boss raised an eyebrow when he mentioned he lived in Englewood.

May Aunaetitrakul from Bangkok had been there for three months. She's a medical student doing her observing at Jackson Park Hospital. "During orientation, when they were asking where all of us lived I shouted 'Englewood!' very loudly and everyone fell silent," she said. Since then people have come up to her and told her she's either brave or crazy.

Stacey Flowers had been staying there for four weeks and had nothing but good things to say about it. "It's like coming home to family. And we do everything together." Flowers, originally from Omaha, was looking for a place when moving here and when she found a place in Rogers Park, she was told, "Don't move there, not that neighborhood. It's Robbers Park." 

Wonsey said that Englewood is unfairly portrayed as the place where most crimes happen. "In fact, every neighborhood has its places where crime is prominent and people avoid it. [One of] the two most common L stops to be mugged at is the Roosevelt Stop. What does that say?" Her house is in the police district that last year had 60 murders [PDF], more than any other police district.

The people who stay in Wonsey's house come from all over the world and all over the United States. They're attracted by the low prices and the high number of positive reviews. The local police, whose station is two blocks away from the house, have occasionally stopped guests on the sidewalk out of fear for their safety — though Wonsey says they've occasionally offered free rides to the L and lodging for concerned travelers. She says that police who are drawn from the community are friendlier, while the ones who commute in from elsewhere are not.

On more than one occasion, the police have swarmed her house and questioned her. One time they were concerned that she didn't have a license to run a bed and breakfast — the city municipal code defines them as a place with fewer than 11 rooms for rent. A hotel is a building with seven or more rooms for rent and involves a separate license.

Wonsey was cited last year for not having a license, as reported by, but as of last month, she has not yet gotten a license. Airbnb states in its terms of use that it has no responsibility for whether the places listed on its website comply with local licensing rules.

Wonsey says the police have never gone after her because of her lack of a license, but because they are concerned that her house, and its availability for short-term stays, would bring people to Englewood and expose them to danger. "If they had approached me with some respect or were kind about providing a license I would have done so. But from the very beginning it was clear that this was racial profiling."

She also said she didn't trust the police. "After the three incidents, why would I get a license? Why would I pay for harassment from the police of my guests every time they walk to the corner? I'm not paying the city for that."

Airbnb states on its website that they only provide a way of setting up renting out rooms and that hosts are responsible for complying with local licensing laws. They do issue tax forms to their hosts that record how much they are paid.

During one of the altercations with the police — which she recorded and put up on Youtube — an officer says to her "This is a very dangerous neighborhood," and "You're running a business that's going to bring international people to this community, and they need to be safeguarded." She retorts, "Why did you put Kennedy-King College here? You paid $10 million to put it here to bring new people to the neighborhood." The college moved from 6800 S. Wentworth Ave. to 6301 S. Halsted St. in 2005.

Other popular Airbnb hosts in Chicago have not reported problems like this. Eric (last name withheld) has been hosting people in his River North apartment for a few years — and makes on average $1,500/month and has never had a problem with the police. Mejai Kai Dyson has been hosting people in his place in Bronzeville and has only had problems with two guests out of 100.

Airbnb has gotten people evicted, but it has also been touted as a way of stopping the foreclosure crisis. It's also brought people to Annie Wonsey's house, brought them to a neighborhood they would otherwise have never gone to. The city has spent millions trying to develop the neighborhood and it could be a sign that things are slowly — if reluctantly — starting to turn around.


Robert O'Connor is a co-editor at 3:AM Magazine and a regular contributor to Spike Magazine. His work has appeared in the Chi-Town Daily News, the Twin Cities Daily Planet, KFAI and elsewhere. He lives in Irving Park.

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Rodrigo Sepulveda Soto / August 27, 2012 5:13 PM

I'm Rodrigo from Chile. I spent a whole week at the end of 2011 staying at Annie's. I had so much fun there at new years eve and sightseeing the city. I never felt affraid or insecure in the neighborhood. Annie is such a wonderful woman. I totally recomend this option to stay in Chicago.

aunt and child / April 21, 2013 4:05 AM

My nephew and I stayed with Annie a year ago. May 2012. We had the sofa sleeper. The neighborhood was a little scary but that was not our main concern. Annie is not who the picture is. She is in her late 40s. Has a wig and barely any teeth. She was nice and all, but a real picture would've been nice. On our last day there. We were getting ready to leave when someone knocks on the door. Another guest quickly popped out of another room and amswered the door and it was the police. They were there because two woman from another country said they were lost and walking the neighborhood with alot of luggage. The other guest who answered the door went to get Annie and as she was coming out she advised me nephew and I to be quiet and stay inside. We could hear the convo her and the police were having. There was about 4-5 cars. Including the head police guy. I could hear Annie tell them that she only had three people staying there and they were her friends. There was actually at least 8 people. The police stayed about an hour before my nephew and I had to leave or we would miss flight so we gathered our belongings and left. Of course we were stopped and questioned about the conditions inside and how much I paid. After another half hour they finally left and an officer took my nephew and I to grab a quick bite and then to where we needed to be. So overall I do not recommend her place. To many people at one time to feel comfortable. House not as in pictures. Everyone's stuff everywhere. Stepping over people sleeping on floor. Messy bathroom and kitchen.

Conci Serrano / May 2, 2013 12:02 AM

It never cease to amaze me about the very few people who posts negative comments about their stay at Annie's, who could have stayed anywhere in Chicago but they chose Annie's because they can't afford anywhere else. You laid your head on a soft sleeper sofa for $11 per night. That's better than a city bench in the park! Last time I checked there where hundreds of airbnb's in Chicago, but they aren't cheap...I suggest you go to one of those the next time you visit...oh wait, I guess you can't afford it!

Nonya / May 2, 2013 1:01 AM

I'm just reading the comments. Thank you Rodriguez! As for the aunt..I actually remember you. In fact, you were the only african american in my home amoung the other guests from around the globe. What I remember most about you that you seemed like a sad lady, solemn, somewhat depressed. For that reason, I'm not going to comment on your comment. You have enough problems as it is. As for my teeth, I had to laugh. It is true, I had 2 missing teeth, even more now, since I suffer from periodontal disease especially this year. That beautiful photo, in your backhanded compliment I guess....that gorgeous picture is me. I prefer to look my natural self from time to time. We can't always look like supermodels. LOL

But what I would like to address is place is popular. And not because of the area. If dearie had read any of the reviews, 9 out of 10, guests would always state, 'the area is sketch, scary, etc.' but they had a great time. I don't know what this lady was reading since even my ad states clearly that if you are looking for posh, do not book here. But I guess she was overcome by the cheap place.

As for the cops, that wasn't the first time cops came to the house. But here's whats interesting about that time they came. Not only did they take the 'complaining' guests somewhere, they took the aunt and son out to lunch and navy pier. And then the officer offered me services of delivery for some of the restaurants their friends own. We all had a good laugh.

The police are trying to stop individuals everywhere from running airbnb services from their homes because they are taking business away from hotels. As Conci states, there are plenty of places where the lady could have gotten a private room on airbnb for $25 a night....but she chose a sofa sleeper in the living room of a strangers house and still complain. But thats ok. You can't please all. So remember this, the next time I want to stick my teeth in my mouth, it will be for a date! LOL and you just aint my type! LOL

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

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