Worried about rising rents? We’re looking into the issue this spring at City Bureau.

By Alex V. Hernandez

(Photo: Alex V. Hernandez)

(Photo: Alex V. Hernandez)

Previous reporting on Chicago’s overall housing affordability has shown that the floor for rental prices is pretty high while the ceiling is pretty low. This means lower-income residents have a hard time finding a cheap apartment while upper-middle-class renters can typically find a place within their budget that leaves a financial cushion for other expenses.

These challenges to renting in Chicago appear to have been exacerbated by the Great Recession. Last year the Chicago Tribune published a story showing that after the housing bubble popped, landlords who owned two- or four-flat buildings suffered financially and were not able to recover as fast as developers who specialize in luxury apartments. At the same time, the recession created more renters.

“The number of Cook County households that rent has soared since the financial crisis, with 44.2 percent of households in 2015 renting compared to 37.7 percent in 2007. At the same time, the number of affordable rental units has been dropping, leaving 53 percent of renters paying more than what is considered manageable for their incomes, according to a new study by the Institute for Housing Studies at DePaul University.”

Yet the term “manageable” can be misleading. Federal guidelines say tenants must pay no more than 30 percent of their income for rent to be considered affordable. Yet that simple cost-to-income ratio may not factor in the reality of a low-income renter who may be earning $1,500 a month.

So what makes rent so high in neighborhoods where property values have declined and incomes have been flat for years? That question was posed to us by a friend of City Bureau who says that she and her friends witnessed rising rental prices in Englewood despite a period of economic stagnation in the neighborhood. They hypothesized that an influx of Section 8 voucher holders had artificially inflated rents — with landlords raising their rents in order to take advantage of the guaranteed voucher money — leaving market-rate renters priced out of the market.

Is this true? Pascal Sabino, Christian Belanger and I are tackling this problem, and its possible solutions, during our Spring Reporting Fellowship with City Bureau.

We took a look at a few national studies that have shown in recent years (especially since housing vouchers became more popular) that the voucher system does have an inflationary effect on rent. We’ll keep looking into the most current research, but we also plan to dive into the data and the lived experiences of residents in Englewood.

In our first reporting trip on March 30 we met Quinten Price, 35, while he was shopping at the Morgan Mini Mart at 6600 S. Morgan St. Price is an Englewood renter who says he’s paying $650 for a two-bedroom apartment, which he thinks is fair. However his brother is currently apartment hunting in Englewood and is running up against listings that are much higher.

“Everywhere he goes it’s like $900 or up. He really can’t find anything. Everywhere he goes it’s high,” says Price. “He can’t really find anything cheap until he moves out of the neighborhood, goes somewhere else.” He says he’s heard people complain about landlords increasing their rents in order to get the maximum amount possible for a housing voucher, but he hasn’t personally experienced it.

Do you have experience on this topic? Do you think housing vouchers are impacting Englewood’s rental prices? Are you an Englewood renter or landlord with a story to share? City Bureau’s housing team wants to hear from you:

  • Longtime renters

  • New renters

  • Rent with a housing voucher

  • Rent without a housing voucher

  • Landlords

  • Anyone concerned about rising rent in Englewood

  • Renters who live in affordable housing units

… and anyone else who has thoughts on the topic! If you’re interested in chatting, leave a comment here, or email us at info@citybureau.org.

Support the work of City Bureau Reporting Fellows like Alex Hernandez by becoming a City Bureau Press Club member today.

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