Take Only What You Need

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There is a popular argument among equality advocates that the majority cannot understand the struggle of a minority until they recognize how much easier their lives are due to unearned privileges. When it comes to renting, the issue of privilege is something that cuts across boundaries that are firmly drawn in other areas of life. It's very possible for a renter to be part of a majority without knowing it. This leads to renters choosing apartments without regard for special features that would be make-or-break necessities for others. It is, of course, important to find a place that suits all your needs. But it's also important to make sure that you only rent what you need, leaving the specialty apartments for others.

Now, I've been blogging about apartments for many years now, and I have voiced this opinion several times buried in assorted articles, but I've never dedicated an article to it. So today we're going to explore privilege as it pertains to renters. It can be nice to find an apartment that suits some of your "wants," but there are many renters who can't even find a place to cover their "needs." In an era where the rental market for all but the most wealthy remains extremely tight, it's important to consider if an apartment you see during your hunt could be better used by someone else.


It's a commonly accepted, if somewhat flawed, rule of thumb that you shouldn't rent a place that's more than 30% of your income. However, many thrifty renters will opt to go for something far below that 30% limit if they can find it. When you do this you keep the low cost apartments out of the hands of renters who really need them.

Additionally, renters who aren't voucher-holders need to understand how rare it is to find a landlord that willingly accepts Section 8, let alone one with an apartment that's already approved by the city housing inspectors to participate in the Section 8 program. While the city now prohibits discrimination against voucher holders it's still commonplace. Even if you aren't on a voucher, it's worth asking the landlord if they accept them and if the apartment is pre-approved. If they say yes, leave that unit for someone with a voucher.

Age & Ability

There has been quite a lot of research hitting the web lately about the shortage of apartments for seniors and others with limited mobility. Renters with disabilities can rent any apartment, and landlords are required to make reasonable accommodation for these renters. However, apartments with pre-existing alterations to suit disabled renters are very scarce.

If you find an apartment that's already been refitted with ramps, widened hallways, grab bars, lowered peep-holes or lowered light switches, leave it for someone in a wheelchair. Leave the ground floor units for people who cannot handle stairs. If you can handle living in a high density building leave the townhomes and rental houses for those with anxiety disorders.


A study by the animal welfare research non-profit Firepaw found that 80% of renters with pets had trouble finding housing, and that 100% of renters with multiple dogs had trouble. About half of all renters have some sort of pet. About a third of all pets surrendered to shelters come from renters who couldn't find a place that would accept them. If you do not have pets, you need to restrict your search to buildings that don't allow animals.

There are plenty of apartment listing websites out there that allow you to filter your search using the "no pets" criterion. Take the extra time and use it.


It's very common for renters to choose apartments with more bedrooms or bathrooms than they need. They may want to use the spare room as an office, exercise room or guest bedroom. However, it's crucial to remember that there are very few three bedroom rentals in this city and almost no rentals with four bedrooms or more. There are, however, many renting families with two or more children.

Beyond the problem of finding an apartment with enough space, families with children encounter a lot of static when it comes to finding rental housing. Landlords fret about the noise and damage caused by children. Although it's considered illegal behavior, they may encourage parents to rent first floor apartments or even basements.

Parents of school-age children will also want to make sure that they are living within a good public school district. Although Chicago does offer school portability and many good private schools, these options require a lot of work or cash that renting families may not have on hand.

If you're renting without children it's therefore important to restrict yourself to apartments with no more than two bedrooms and to avoid the best school districts. If you see signs of children in the building, take it as an indication that the landlord is friendly to parents and leave the apartment for another family that needs it.


While everyone wants to feel like they're safe in their apartment, some buildings provide more safety features than others. Doormen, cameras and even locking gates are scarce and quite valuable. If you are someone without a lot of luxury items in your apartment and are reasonably able to defend yourself, you may want to give these amenities a pass.


In a city like Chicago it's hard to say if owning a vehicle is actually a privilege. However, there are definitely some residents who need their cars and others who need to be near public transit. Parking spaces are rare, and the availability of street parking varies widely from block to block. The CTA has decent coverage but there are definitely some areas of the city that could use better access. If you're a public transit user you still need to remain alert as to buildings with good street parking and parking spaces, leaving them for people with cars. If you have a car and don't need public transit, it's best for you to choose a place that's a little further from the bus and train.


Do you speak English fluently? Many renters in this city do not. Communication between landlord and tenant is really crucial, especially during emergency situations when stress can cause our language skills to slip a bit. Bilingual landlords are pretty common in the outlying sections of the city but not as common as you might think.

The issue of language is more important if you're renting from small private landlords. It's worth asking if a landlord speaks any other languages, even if you yourself only speak English. If they are fluent in another language it may be worth giving them a pass so that someone from the immigrant community can rent from someone with whom they can communicate freely.

You may be thinking, "if I eliminate all of those apartments from my search there will be nothing left for me!" In a way, that's the point. By eliminating all of those options you are leaving something for renters that have very little to choose from by default. The ability to rent without considering any of the matters I discussed above is a privilege.

Apartment hunting with your own needs in mind is tough enough, let alone keeping in mind the needs of others. Most landlords will not turn your down for exceeding their requirements. Most of your friends and relatives will not criticize you for choosing an apartment with more features than you really need. You probably will only feel slightly better about yourself if you pass up a nice apartment in favor of an unknown stranger who might need it more than you. For all you know, someone with even more opportunity than yourself could take the apartment that you pass up. But if you are an advocate for those who suffer from inequality this sort of mindfulness is absolutely crucial. You could even take it one step further and share your apartment hunting finds with your friends who are less fortunate. By making your search a little tougher you may be taking someone else's search out of the realm of the impossible.

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Kay Cleaves

One thought on “Take Only What You Need”

  1. Serious food for thought here. I have recently encountered a few of these stumbling blocks myself.

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