A Tale of Two Apartment Hunts

I'm going to be moving in May, and I'm pretty excited about it. I'm sure I've mentioned before that I don't really like my apartment - it's dark, there's really smelly carpet all over, and the slanted roof means that there's about half as much space upstairs as it looks like there is. More than that, though, is the issue of cost. The neighborhood that I live in, Logan Square, is one of the most rapidly gentrifying areas of the city, and Brian and I just can't afford to stay there much longer. We have a roommate, which is fine (we almost never see him, and he's pretty nice when we do), but I, at least, am tired of that vague sense of embarrassment I always feel when I realize I've let the place get kind of messy, or left the laundry in the dryer for a solid week.

We actually just rearranged our living room, and this is SO MUCH BETTER than what it was like before. But still, it smells.

We actually just rearranged our living room, and this is SO MUCH BETTER than what it was like before. But still, it smells.

I've lived in the same neighborhood for about four years now, and the thought of leaving is both a little scary and a little exciting. Right now I live close to what is probably the most efficient train line in the city and have easy access to both my work and the airport. I have my coffee shop, where I go to read every weekend; I have my grocery store, where the same guy cards me approximately once every three days when I go in to buy a bottle of wine; I have comfort and familiarity, which is such a boon to someone with a chronically poor sense of the direction.

On the other hand, the neighborhood I'm looking at, Pilsen, is kind of amazing. I'll be close to Chinatown (oh my god all the foooooooood), all the best vintage shops are down there (great, all the rent money I'm saving will be going to new clothes), and it'll be easier to bike to work from there, making it more likely that I'll actually do so.

For me, the main concern is finding something close to a train line that's also in my budget. That's the hardest part - the closer you are to the trains, the more expensive the place is likely to be. It's one of those situations where you don't want to get your hopes up too high, because the better the deal sounds, the more likely it is that there's something really wrong with the place.

Still, I know I have options. I have options for what neighborhood I choose to live in, because I have a good understanding of the relative cost of living in a lot of them. I have transportation options, because if a train isn't convenient, I own a bike and am in good enough health to ride it when I need to, or could even call a cab if necessary. I don't have kids, so while I would like a larger apartment, I have the flexibility of choosing a smaller one that meets my other requirements.

Why do I say all this? Mostly because it wasn't until recently that I realized just how many people either don't have the same options, or don't know what their options are.

I'm a receptionist, and my department has support from a team of security guards. One of them, who I'll call LJ, is about eight months pregnant now. She lives on the south side, in a neighborhood that is mostly black, very poor, and very dangerous - her nephew was shot and killed last year, and so far, no arrests have been made.

LJ makes too much money to qualify for subsidized housing (which has a ridiculously long waiting list anyway), but not enough to easily find an apartment in a safer neighborhood. She also knows she's going to need help from her family once she goes back to work after giving birth; child care is really expensive, and there aren't a lot of people she would feel comfortable leaving her kid with. Her mom and sisters make even less money than she does, so if she's finding it hard to move, it's going to be even harder for them.

What really surprised me was that when I was talking to her about looking for an apartment, she felt like the only places she could afford to live were going to be those neighborhoods that are so unsafe. When I mentioned a few others to her that I thought might be in her price range, despite living in Chicago for 10 years, she'd barely even heard of them, much less considered them viable options.

I'm looking for an apartment that will suit my upwardly-mobile, middle-class 20-something life; she's looking for an apartment where she won't have to worry that she or her baby might get shot when they step outside. I don't think this invalidates my concerns, any more than the war in Syria invalidates her, but damn does it put things in perspective.

One of the biggest issues in Chicago is the fact that the city is really segregated. Logan Square, the neighborhood that I currently live in, has historically been mostly Latino; the same goes for Pilsen, the neighborhood that I'm looking at. And I'm pretty typical for a white, middle-income person looking for a cheap place to live - we'll move into any and all of the Latino neighborhoods, but we don't move to the South Side. Like, ever, really.

It's not because we're racist, but because usually, those neighborhoods are far from where the jobs are, not transportation adjacent, and dangerous. And to be clear, all of that stuff actually is because of racist housing policies.  

There is no easy solution to all of this crazy shit, but one thing that I think could really help integrate these neighborhoods would be to expand the subway system. Better public transportation --> easier access to higher paying jobs --> more money and more resources for residents. Granted, that would be really expensive, which in a cash strapped city like Chicago means it's not likely to happen any time soon, but still, I think it would be worth it.