State of Chicago Renters Report

Last updated: September 14, 2009 – 7:39 PM


Chicago renters burdened as incomes lag behind rent increases

CHICAGO – Over half of Chicago’s 1.3 million renters are paying more than a third of their income for housing and facing other stresses, according to a new report from The Metropolitan Tenants Organization (MTO).  The report entitled The State of Renters in the City of Chicago was released at a public policy forum held at The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago on Tuesday, September 15, 2009.


As the Obama administration works to craft a secure and stable housing policy in the face of the foreclosure and financial markets crises, the Metropolitan Tenants Organization’s report adds the renters’ perspective to the housing policy discussion and highlights the need for local and national policy change. Historically, federal housing policies have favored home ownership, but a number of policy expertsbelieve public policies should equally encourage successful renting, especially if the alternative is marginal success in home ownership.

“For years renters have needed and wanted a new national housing policy that balances home ownership and rental housing,” said John Bartlett, Executive Director of MTO. “Absent livable, affordable and stable housing, individuals and families will continue to face conditions that make them vulnerable to financial stress, illness, absence from school and missed work.”

The Metropolitan Tenants Organization operates a citywide tenants-rights telephone Hotline that can be a valuable data source in real time for policymakers on housing trends in Chicago. Since 1994 the Hotline has received more than 150,000 calls. The report analyzes the call information in conjunction with US Census data to examine specific conditions renters have faced over two decades, including the geographic distribution and household conditions of renters.

Most of the callers to the MTO Hotline, like Steven Johnson, of the Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, request assistance because of the physical condition of their buildings. For more than a year, Johnson battled with an absentee landlord to get a leaky roof fixed and, for more than two years, he lived with cold winds blowing through a broken bathroom window. Then, a porch banister broke while he entertained friends, and two people were injured after they fell more than a story to the ground.

“The MTO Hotline helped to educate me about my rights,” said Johnson, who obtained the necessary repairs after he sent his landlord a rent reduction letter. Johnson, 55, who is disabled, pays more than half of his income toward rent. “The Hotline gave me the necessary knowledge and that makes it worth its weight in gold.”

The report’s findings include:


  • Chicago is home to 1.3 million renters and rental households still constitute about half of the city’s households, even though rental units declined as a proportion of the city’s total housing stock from 59 percent in 1990 to 50 percent in 2007. Still, rental housing constitutes the majority of housing units in over half of the city’s ward, illustrating the importance of rental housing in developing and preserving healthy neighborhoods in Chicago. Rental income generated nearly $450 million in Chicago in 2007.
  • Rental housing levels have grown in neighborhoods that traditionally have been occupied by homeowners, including the Northwest, Southwest and South Sides, meaning that renters are dispersed more broadly throughout the city. Renters have also increased in an area from the South Loop to the near West Side. At the same time, a reduction in rentals occurred in the North and South lakefront areas of the city (with the exception of the South Loop). Many of the geographic areas with rental unit increases are away from central parts of city, where jobs, services and transit are concentrated. As renters move to the periphery of the city, a greater proportion are living in properties with three to four units; these properties are often owned by individuals or couples who depend on continuous streams of rent. Relatively fewer live in properties with 10-49 units that are more likely to be held by institutional investors and operated by professional management companies.


  • As increases in personal income lagged behind increases in rent, more than half of Chicago renter households have become “rent-burdened,” a term dubbed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for renters who spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent. In 2007, an estimated 53 percent were rent-burdened, up dramatically from 40 percent just seven years earlier.  Furthermore, the percentage of renters who pay 50 percent or more of their income for rent grew from 21 percent to nearly 30 percent of renter households.
  • Chicago lost around 9,000 units of affordable rental housing a year between 1990 and 2005, a total loss of 125,000 affordable units. The unassisted private market has not supplied sufficient affordable housing.


The MTO Hotline was established and continues with funding from the City of Chicago Department of Community Development, formerly the City of Chicago Department of Housing, and currently receives support from the following foundations: The Albert Pick Jr. Fund, Woods Fund of Chicago, the Marguerite Casey Foundation and the McCormick Foundation.  Demographic and other data from the calls are tracked, providing a picture of the changing conditions facing renters.


  • More than 70 percent of Hotline callers are women, suggesting that housing policies and programs should specifically consider and target this population.

One such caller is Charlotte Starks, who now volunteers for the MTO Hotline after she was helped by it.  Starks, who has lived in her Bronzeville building for nine years, found conditions had drastically changed when the 24-unit apartment building was sold to a new absentee owner five years ago. Trash began filling the laundry room and property, loud and disruptive tenants who sometimes engaged in illegal activities moved into the building, and heat was low in the winter.

“I got the support I needed from the MTO Hotline,” said Starks, who convinced her landlord to guarantee some repairs in writing in a new lease.


  • Most calls to the MTO Hotline continue to relate to the physical condition of rental buildings, such as a need for repairs. The West Side has emerged as an area generating high levels of requests in recent years, and over time a large area of the South Side has continued to generate these requests for assistance. This trend suggests problems persist in the condition of the rental stock in those areas.
  • Renters are strongly impacted by foreclosures. In Chicago a significant number of all residents that lose their home to foreclosure are renters.

The State of Renters in the City of Chicago was released and discussed at a forum sponsored by MTO at The Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago, which featured:  Joy Aruguete, Executive Director, Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation; Sheila Crowley, President of the National Low Income Housing Coalition; Phillip Thomas, Senior Program Officer of the Chicago Community Trust; Denise Perry, Director of the Power U Center in Miami, FL; Ellen Sahli, First Deputy Commissioner of City of Chicago Department of Community Development; Anita Sinha, Senior Attorney with the Advancement Project; and Janet Smith, Associate Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Co-Director of the Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Development.

Program co-sponsors included: Chicago Housing Initiative, Chicago Rehab Network, Community Investment Corporation, Housing Action Illinois, Interfaith Housing of the Northern Suburbs, Lawyers Committee for Better Housing, Local Initiative Support Corporation and Metro Chicago Information Center. Data analysis for the report was conducted by Join + Relate Consulting, Inc.

MTO is the largest renters organizing group in Chicago.  A membership based organization, MTO’s mission is to educate, organize and empower tenants to have a voice in the decisions that affect the affordability and availability of decent and safe housing.  MTO was instrumental in helping to pass the Chicago Residential Landlord Tenant Ordinance which went into effect 24 years ago this November.