Alderman Will Burns has announced he will be leaving Chicago's City Council next month and joining short-term home rental giant Airbnb as senior advisor and director of Midwest policy. Burns has represented the 4th Ward since 2011, a constituency that includes portions of the South Loop, Bronzeville, Kenwood, and Hyde Park. A staunch supporter of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Burns did not make the motivation behind his departure entirely clear. While the tumultuous months since April's mayoral runoff elections must have been challenging for any pro-Emanuel black alderman representing a predominantly African-American ward, Burns' announced defection to the private sector may also signal Airbnb flexing its muscles and sending a message to City Hall.
While the San Francisco-based home-sharing service has enjoyed tremendous growth over the past year, Airbnb has also seen its operation increasingly at odds with Chicago lawmakers. In October, several alderman reached out to the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection warning of a growing discrepancy between the large and rapidly increasing number of Airbnb listings compared to the relatively small number of short-term rental licenses issued by the city. Not only has the City of Chicago taken steps to crackdown on hosts that have failed to obtain the proper $500 two-year license to rent their properties, the administration also seeks to treat each vacation rental purchase as a revenue opportunity. At last month's meeting of the Chicago City Council, Mayor Emanuel proposed a two percent service charge on all Airbnb transactions to be levied on top of the city's existing 4.5 percent Hotel Accommodations Tax, a one percent Cook County tax, and at least 11.7 percent state tax, according to the Chicago Tribune. With Will Burns soon to be serving in a top advisory role, it will be interesting to see how Airbnb counters the city's proposed regulations and fees.
From a community development standpoint it remains to be seen what if any effect Burns' replacement may have on current and future projects. The 4th Ward includes several active high-profile proposals such as the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, the Essex Inn residential tower, Helmut Jahn's 1000 S. Michigan, and potentially the Barack Obama Presidential Center should the Washington Park location win out over the competing Jackson Park site. In a February 1st farewell statement to constituents, Alderman Burns celebrated the work he did with the community to add hundreds of units of new housing and new retail to the city's South Side. Considering Alderman Burns was key backer of the mayor, it's likely whoever is chosen to replace him in the 4th Ward will continue to see eye-to-eye with Emanuel on most issues. Will Burns is expected to start his new position at the beginning of March. The mayor has 60 days from Burns' departure to appoint a successor.