Classified History: Housing Ads in Chicago 1871-1900

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I'm returning to the Chicago newspaper archives this week for another look at classified ads placed by landlords at different points in the city's history. The first installment of this series ran in December covering the earliest decades, starting with some of the very first issues of the newspaper in April of 1849 through April of 1871, just six months before the great Fire. This week we'll be moving forward in time, starting with the fire and up through the end of the 19th century.

As with the first article I have tried to transcribe the ads verbatim, with all their old-fashioned abbreviations and language. It is worth repeating that the Tribune archives held by the Chicago Public Library are scans, with blurry sections, curved pages and portions that are completely obscured by bleed through text or torn pages.
Continue reading Classified History: Housing Ads in Chicago 1871-1900

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Kay Cleaves

How to Find an Apartment without a Social Security Number

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I am trying to use simpler English for this article. I hope that this will make it easy for machine translators to convert the text correctly. I apologize that I am not able to translate it myself. To my English-speaking readers: the language I use here may seem a little strange. Machine translators read language in a different way than humans do.

We have posted six parts of this series for "unprotected minorities". You can find links to the other parts at the end. This time I want to speak to renters who do not have social security numbers. Most U.S. citizens have a social security number. Many new immigrants and international students do not have these numbers.

The laws of the United States protect many people from being refused housing based on the things they cannot control. These things include their race, their religion, their age, their children and their disabilities. But the country's laws do not protect people from being refused housing based on their immigration status. Some states have laws that do protect people based on their immigration status. Illinois does not have this sort of law.

Landlords like to check the history of tenants who want to live in their apartments. But many people have the same first name and last name. Landlords use the social security number to make sure that they are not reading the history of another person with the same name. They must use another company to look up the history. It is possible to use other numbers to identify a renter. But the history research companies do not always allow landlords to use other numbers. When a landlord cannot find the history of a renter they become fearful of the renter. They may turn down the renter. If you do not have a social security number you must learn how to find a landlord who will not be fearful of you.

I was a real estate agent for many years. I worked with many renters who did not have social security numbers. In this article I will tell you what I have learned from this work. Continue reading How to Find an Apartment without a Social Security Number

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Kay Cleaves

Nosing Around: Apartment Odors and What they Mean for Renters

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Renters tend to approach apartment hunting as an exercise for the eyes only, without involving the other four senses. If it's a loud building the ears may get involved, but taste, touch and smell rarely come into the process. It's generally unacceptable to go licking or pawing at the walls or furniture in an occupied apartment, but an apartment seeker can benefit greatly by sniffing around in every building lobby, hallway and apartment they visit on their showing tours.

Today we'll be explaining the significance of the odors that renters may encounter in their search for new housing. Continue reading Nosing Around: Apartment Odors and What they Mean for Renters

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Kay Cleaves

Which Apartment Listing Websites are the Most Accessible?

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Accessibility is a word with multiple meanings. To the layman it refers to how easy it is for someone to get in or out of a location or new concept. Within web design it refers to adjustments made to the design and code of a website to make it useful for visitors with disabilities. Not everyone who visits a website is equally capable of seeing, hearing, moving their hands or reading.

There are several different guidelines published by international web development authorities that can be used to rate the accessibility of websites and individual pages within those sites. The two primary options are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines published by W3C and Section 508 of the US Workforce Rehabilitation Act. The former list is voluntary. The latter is mandatory for all US federal websites. Both can also be used as metrics for gauging the accessibility of civilian websites, including apartment search sites.

You may have never considered what it's like to interact with websites when you have a disability. Some of the common problems faced by these users are described in detail on the W3C's change log for their newer WCAG version 2.1.

Today I'm going to use the Web Accessibilty Evaluation Tool (WAVE) browser extension by WebAIM, which reveals accessibility problems, to analyze seven different popular apartment listing websites. WAVE looks at a site's code and compares it against the slightly dated version 2.0 of the WCAG and against the Section 508 guidelines. While it doesn't provide a score, it does provide a summary of important errors, less important alerts, along with the number of adjustments that are in place to improve accessibility.

Here are some of the things that WAVE looks for:

  • Alt text that can be used by screen readers to explain images via screen reader technology.
  • Subtitles, pause/stop and volume controls for videos.
  • Simplified and organized layouts, including proper use of headings and lists.
  • Text with a color contrast of 7:1, which can be resized up to 200% without loss of clarity or content.
  • Text blocks should be no wider than 80 characters, properly spaced.
  • Text should be text, not an image of text.
  • Every link, button and other site interaction should be possible with only a keyboard.
  • No strobe effects.
  • No empty or uninformative links. (e.g., fully linking "For more information click here" or only linking the word "here.")
  • Properly indicate errors in forms.

Note that this is not an exhaustive list, but it does give you some idea of the sort of things that could throw an error if missing during our review.

For each of these sites, I checked the homepage, a search results page and a listing detail page. I also checked the RentConfident site and the federal as points of comparison. For my search term I used "Chicago, IL" with the exception of the Census, where I used "Illinois" for a more robust selection of search results. Listing detail pages were chosen at random. In the case of map based sites I visited listing detail pages directly if possible rather than using the result popups over the map, although I could not find a mapless detail page on Hotpads. For the census site I used the Illinois QuickFacts page as a substitute for listing details. For the RentConfident results I used our blog search results page, and for our detail page I used our sample Signature report, one of the heaviest pages we've got.

I should also note that I used the desktop version of all of these sites. There are separate guidelines for mobile sites and apps that go beyond the scope of this article, such as rotation control, zoom control, and far more concessions for those with fine motor disabilities.

In the table below, the column we've called "HTML5/ARIA" refers to parts of the underlying code that have been included as a concession for disabled visitors.

Site Problems Concessions Ratio
Errors Contrast
Alerts Total Structure
HTML5/ARIA Total Prob. : Conc.
Main 44 100 31 175 69 32 101
Search 897 130 157 1184 158 154 312
Detail 64 125 124 313 191 69 260
Totals 1005 355 312 1672 418 255 673 2.5 : 1
Craigslist Chicago
Main 6 2 3 11 67 12 79
Search 22 127 133 282 16 318 334
Detail 1 4 5 10 8 25 33
Totals 29 133 141 303 91 355 446 1 : 1.5
Main 33 94 8 135 76 3 79
Search 143 139 32 314 49 51 100
Detail 99 77 17 193 30 52 82
Totals 275 310 57 642 155 106 261 2.45 : 1
Main 1 70 1 72 4 4 8
Search 12 173 3 188 2 460 462
Detail 51 71 8 130 19 129 148
Totals 64 314 12 390 25 593 618 1 : 1.6
Main 15 33 81 129 78 118 196
Search 89 142 161 392 169 64 233
Detail 54 24 203 281 156 135 291
Totals 158 199 445 802 403 317 720 1.1 : 1
Main 4 9 89 102 64 19 83
Search 137 123 94 354 146 136 282
Detail 14 42 92 148 88 215 303
Totals 155 174 275 604 298 370 668 1 : 1.1
Main 16 37 8 61 23 87 110
Search 15 74 5 94 63 74 137
Detail 10 112 14 136 24 136 160
Totals 41 223 27 291 110 297 407 1 : 1.4
Main 11 16 50 77 17 27 44
Search 10 64 85 159 16 49 65
Detail 89 54 19 162 74 82 156
Totals 110 134 154 398 107 158 265 1.5 : 1
Main 14 22 4 40 18 12 30
Search 11 21 100 132 23 43 66
Detail 12 10 19 41 66 106 172
Totals 37 53 123 213 107 161 268 1 : 1.3


We went into this with the thought that some sites would be considerably more accessible than others, and also the thought that no site would be perfectly accessible. We were proven correct on both counts. Even the Census site, which as a federal government site must adhere to the Section 508 guidelines, was found to be lacking with one of the weaker error to concession ratios.

We were quite pleased that RentConfident came out with the lowest number of total errors and one of the better error to concession ratios, but given that even our own site had some pretty glaring errors we're not exactly covered in glory here. (We'll work on it.)

Search result pages were the main stumbling block for most of these sites. It's easy to understand why this could occur, given how many moving parts are involved in the common map-based layout used by most of them. Color contrast was another big problem, and one that the good folks who work in web design graphics departments must confront daily. High contrast sites just don't look all that pretty. Fortunately there are browser addons that can help those with trouble seeing low contrast text to adjust the colors of a website independently, but it is of course far more pleasant to be able to browse the web without such tools regardless of your eyesight. had a shockingly high number of errors across the board, especially when compared with some of the other options. However when viewed strictly from the perspective of error to concession ratio, Hotpads was almost as bad. They might have had fewer errors, but they're simply doing nothing at all to help offset them.

In terms of raw errors, we were surprised to see the graphic-heavy Zumper actually holding its own against the notoriously bland Craigslist, proving that it is possible to make a visually appealing site without sacrificing too much in terms of accessibility.

Of course, all the objective scoring in the world cannot compare with the actual experience of browsing through apartment listings with a disability. Map-based listing sites with all their tiny pins can be torture for someone who cannot use a mouse or someone lacking in visual acuity. Comparing Zillow's pale purple map pins,'s dark green pins and Hotpads' orange pins with the mindset of someone with these limitations made it very clear to us that the user experience for the disabled can vary greatly even across sites with almost identical interfaces. Craigslist and win the day on the map front by offering optional maps but defaulting to text or image based search results.

None of the sites we visited used videos prominently so they were all mostly spared from the animation-related guidelines.

Overall, for apartment hunters with disabilities we recommend the current versions of Padmapper, Zumper or Craigslist, not only for their comparatively low number of errors but also for the efforts they're making to increase the accessibility of their sites. Congrats to all three companies and thank you for going the extra mile.

If you find this topic of interest, maybe you can try out WAVE yourself on a few sites that you visit regularly and see how they stack up. Let me know in the comments if you find any superstars or completely inaccessible sites.

RentConfident is a Chicago startup that provides renters with the in-depth information they need to choose safe apartments. Help us reach more renters! Like, Share and Retweet us!

Published by

Kay Cleaves

Roommates, Guests and the Mechanics of Squatting

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Wikipedia has over 26 articles addressing the matter of squatting in the United States. By squatting I do not mean the crouching position or the exercise technique, but the housing practice. We've covered this topic before, but that was mostly focused on the concept of squatting as it relates to adverse possession and had a whole bunch of cat analogies. We've never really addressed it as an alternative housing strategy.

There are a lot of reasons why someone would choose to squat instead of taking on a lease in their name. They may have a blemished history that prevents them from getting approved for a lease. They may be morally opposed to the concept of contracts or paying for housing. They may not have the financial werewithal to pay rent on any market rate home. They may be on a wait list for subsidized housing, which can keep them in a holding pattern for years if not decades. They may be staying past the deadline after a legitimate lease expires or after a bank has foreclosed on their house. They may be the significant other of the lease holder and just spending the night a lot, unaware that by doing so they're breaking the law.

No matter the reason, it's time to stop ignoring the existence of squatting or treating it like it's a universally bad thing, always done with malicious intent. Renters know it happens, landlords know it happens. I'm not going to preach at you about it. This a guide to practical squatting for renters. However, before we get into the details I want to start with a warning.

Everything we are about to discuss here is illegal. In Illinois it is considered trespassing and therefore can be treated as a Class B misdemeanor punishable with eviction, jail time and/or fines. It is not likely to be legalized at any point in the future. If you choose to squat in an apartment or house you do so at your own risk. We do not endorse it, nor are we encouraging you to consider it as a viable option unless you have no other choice except the streets. Continue reading Roommates, Guests and the Mechanics of Squatting

Published by

Kay Cleaves