According to the US Center for Disease Control's 2014 survey, 29.3% of Illinois adults are obese, up from 27.1% in 2011. An additional 34.5% were considered to be "overweight" but not obese. As a point of comparison, they reported that about 15% of Illinois adults smoke cigarettes. Obesity is more prevalent among some racial minorities: about 44% of black adults and 35% of Hispanic adults are obese in Illinois. Obesity is also far more common in lower income brackets - this means that renters are more likely than owners to be severely overweight.
Obese renters have to make special considerations when searching for housing. They may encounter discrimination from landlords, even though severely obese individuals - those weighing at least twice the norm for their height - are considered disabled and therefore protected by the ADA. But not every overweight renter meets the threshold for "severely obese," and nobody wants their housing search to end with a discrimination lawsuit.
Today we'll be focusing on the house hunting concerns of the overweight renter, with special consideration for those who weigh over 300 pounds. Some of you are planning to lose weight. Others of you may be unable to do so, or may not care. We're not here to judge. No matter your opinion of your weight, if you're obese during your housing search you need to be aware of how your size may impact your available options.
Here are the reasons why a landlord might balk at renting to overweight tenants:
- Porches and stairs are required to support a minimum concentrated load of 300 pounds in Chicago. That is more than the weight of most furniture and appliances that are comparable in size to an adult human with the possible exception of fish tanks. That concentrated load measurement doesn't account for moving around, accidentally falling down, or sitting down hard on an already heavy piece of furniture like a recliner.
- Areas of an apartment designed to support heavy objects such as bathtubs and fridges will often be built with additional floor support not available elsewhere in the living space.
- Some toilets - especially wall mounted toilets - also often have a concentrated load weight of 300 pounds. Extended use of toilets by overweight people can result in broken seals and cracked fixtures. (Trivia note: This is also a common problem with renters and travelers who come from areas of the world that use squat toilets.)
- Obese individuals have been known to use towel racks and similar fixtures to help get up from the toilet or bathtub. These fixtures are not designed to support this kind of weight and frequently rip out of the walls.
- Overweight individuals may have trouble bending over to properly clean the floors. Rotted baseboards and cabinets from sloppy mopping is a common problem in the apartments of obese renters.
- Landlords may fear noise complaints from neighbors over obese individuals walking on floors above.
- No landlord wants to deal with a death on the property. Landlords may view the elevated mortality rate of obese renters as a liability, especially in walkup apartments.
- Obese parents are more likely to have obese children. Multiple overweight renters looking to live together will compound landlord concerns.
If you are an obese renter you need to expect these sort of assumptions from any landlord or agent you encounter, and figure out how to counteract them. While the best approach is to simply walk away from landlords who discriminate against you, you could also consider requesting reasonable accommodation as a disabled individual if you are severely obese, or prepare counterarguments that will assuage any concerns a landlord might have about your health and size.
While I rarely endorse working with agents when talking to renters, severely overweight renters will actually benefit from the assistance of a good agent. Rental applications don't ask about your weight. If you never actually meet the landlord or their staff before you move in, there's no way for them to know about your weight, removing the chance of weight-based discrimination from your application process.
Even so, beyond the issue of spiky, biased landlords it's also worthwhile to be proactive in your apartment search by focusing on housing that will cause you the least inconvenience and discomfort. Some of the concerns listed above may be offensive but they are indeed accurate, especially the ones pertaining to concentrated load limits. Here are some things to look for as you browse through apartment listings.
- Ground floor apartments are your best option but it's harder than you think to find an actual ground floor unit in Chicago. Most are at least a few steps up or down from the street.
- Old buildings (pre-1930 or so) will have the advantage of more robust framing lumber - real 2x4s as opposed to the 1.5" x 3.5" boards that pass for 2x4s in modern construction. Newer buildings have wider doorways, hallways and bathrooms. Lofts - especially those reclaimed from industrial buildings - may be your best bet due to their open layouts and very strong floors.
- Don't be afraid to ask the landlord if you can install grab bars in the bathroom if you have trouble sitting down or standing up.
- Test if you can fit in the bathtub or shower. Test if you can walk through every door in the apartment.
- Ask the landlord if the toilets are sealed with wax or with a rubber gasket. The latter are better suited to use by heavier individuals. Wax seals are cheaper but they tend to crack and leak under weight.
- When you call for an appointment, you can ask if the landlord allows fish tanks if you don't want to broach the topic of your own weight. Upright pianos are another useful analogue in pet-free buildings. Landlords that ban these items usually do so because of their weight. If they'll take a fish tank (400-1400 lbs) or small piano (300-800 lbs) but won't take you, you know you've got a discrimination situation on your hands.
- Steam heated buildings can be overheated in the winter, especially on upper floors. Overweight renters tend to feel warmer and will suffer in a sweltering steam heated apartment. Formerly obese individuals who lose a lot of weight quickly will run cold for while until their internal thermostats adjust. Look for a building that has tenant-controlled heat and AC so you can adjust for either scenario.
- As the average age of the American population gets older, more new buildings will be popping up with apartments for seniors and wheelchair-bound renters. If your weight makes it difficult to move around freely it may be worth considering some of these units in your search.
Have you encountered weight-related discrimination in your housing search? What happened? How did it affect you? Let us know in the comments!
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