Apartment shortages squeeze young, poor;
As units dwindle, rents march higher
LaDonna Dennis and her 9-year-old son want to live in a safe neighborhood on the South Side. But to do that, she may have to spend more than half of her $1,400-a-month income on rent.
The 48-year-old single mother, like many other renters in Chicago and across the country, faces dramatically higher rents as the housing boom has swept away old buildings and turned others into expensive condominiums.
Cook County is losing about 3,400 rental units each year, part of 200,000 units disappearing annually across the country. The shortage was outlined Wednesday in the first comprehensive study of the U.S. rental housing market by Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. It was sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago.
Nationally, about 2 million apartments--more than 6 percent of the rental stock--were lost between 1993 and 2003, the last full year for which numbers are available.
The loss of affordable rentals is putting pressure on groups of people who can least afford to cope with the increased costs: the young and the poor.
Some 34 million households, about one-third of the nation's total, live in rental units, a fact overshadowed in recent years by the housing boom.
"We are taking one step forward and two steps back as gentrification in some neighborhoods and continued deterioration in others leads to the removal of vitally needed lower-cost rental housing," said Joint Center director Nicolas Retsinas.
In the downtown Chicago market alone, 2005 was the biggest conversion year in 25 years, according to Appraisal Research Counselors of Chicago, which only tracks buildings of 25 units or more. More than 3,800 units were converted to condos last year.
John Bartlett, executive director of Chicago's Metropolitan Tenants Organization, said the condo conversions are a "serious problem" in the city as once-affordable apartments are "turned into places that people cannot afford."
Two years ago, "there used to be lots of apartments you could find for $700," Bartlett said, "and now that's non-existent. Some of the places along the lake, they're going to be $1,200 to $1,400 for a one-bedroom apartment."
Bartlett estimated that the average price for a one-bedroom in Chicago now is about $1,100, with the average two-bedroom nearly $1,800. That's "completely out of reach. For a low-income renter, there is going to have to be some kind of subsidy" to afford it, he said.
The problem varies by neighborhood, but Bartlett's group increasingly is getting calls from people who can't afford the rent in places such as Rogers Park and the South Side's 4th and 5th Wards. "Even in the 28th Ward [West Side]--we are getting way more calls than we ever did," in an area that used to have a high density of rentals.
"Those kinds of low rentals are needed," Bartlett said. A person would need to earn about $30,000 a year to afford the current average rent, he said.
"People making minimum wage" can't do it, he said, adding that his group is seeing more doubling up of family members in one apartment, and more friends moving in together. "People can't afford to live on their own."
Garth Taylor, president of the Metro Chicago Information Center, a policy research center, said about 308,000 of the local households renting are considered rent-burdened, which means they spend 30 percent or more of household income on rent. Nearly 62,000 households are severely rent-burdened, which means more than 50 percent of income goes to rent.
Consider Dennis. She pays $500 a month, or roughly a third of her monthly income, for a two-bedroom unit in a six-flat building in the South Shore neighborhood.
Since January, the hospital worker has narrowed her search to the South Side neighborhoods of Bronzeville, North Kenwood and Woodlawn, where public housing complexes have been redeveloped into mixed-income developments. She's on a long waiting list for a new Bronzeville unit near her church.
"They've torn down a lot of Chicago public housing and they are rebuilding for mixed-income. The rents are running like $850 for two-bedrooms and $1,000 for three-bedrooms," said Dennis. "If I could find a two-bedroom for $850, I'd be happy."
Cook County has an estimated 748,000 rental units, about 39 percent of the county's housing, according to Chicago Metropolis 2020, a business-sponsored think tank that studies regional issues. This is down from 831,400 in 2000.
And by 2009, 32,000 rental units with government subsidies in Cook County are at risk as government supports expire.
Eighty percent of all households 25 years or under are renters and two-thirds of households ages 25 to 29 live in apartments, the Harvard study reported.
Median listed rent for new-construction buildings rose from $734 in 1994 to $974 in 2004. During the same period, monthly renter income rose from $2,272 to $2,348.
Illinois and the Chicago area may be especially vulnerable to those pressures, noted Frank Beal, executive director of Chicago Metropolis 2020.
The Chicago area is consistently falling behind the rest of the country in building new rentals, Beal said. The Cook County tax codes are unfavorable for large rental buildings and Illinois laws are favorable to conversions, he said. In addition, the region has 272 municipalities, which can keep out rental buildings if officials deem it in the interest of the town.
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
From your March 9, 2006 Chicago Tribune:
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