As a long time resident of Chicago and a former real estate agent I have a major love for the city’s alleyways. I will freely admit to joining the many drivers who break the law by using the alleys as a sort of alternate to the city’s often overcrowded grid of actual streets. I have a parking space in an alley too. Most of the time I can come and go as I please, but during the last week of April each year I must forego my parking space and park on the street, lest I get trapped by the hordes of moving trucks that arrive to block the alley for May 1, Chicago’s busiest moving day of the year.
The May 1 renter moving day in Chicago is well-known throughout the real estate industry. Landlords sculpt their leases around it, along with the lesser peak of October 1. In fact, if you look at Google’s search trends, shown below, the search term “Chicago apartments” surges to double its winter popularity annually between March and April as renters search for new homes.
When I worked as an agent I always accepted that May 1 would be busy, but until now I’ve never really questioned why. It doesn’t make much sense when you look at how modern Chicagoans live their lives. Local colleges usually don’t end their spring terms until late May or even June. Public schools end their terms even later, well into June. There are no known work holidays near May 1 that would allow workers to take time off for moving without losing pay. But still, May 1 remains the explosive starter pistol bang of the city’s moving season. As it turns out, the reason why May 1 is so popular has no foundation in modern life. Instead, it’s a relic of a legally enforced system dating back centuries, codified in leases until 1918, and still permanently ingrained in our lives a century after Chicago’s “Moving Day” vanished from the historical record.
A Centuries Old Tradition
The roots of the May 1 moving day extend back to rural England and the Netherlands. On May 1, household servants would pack their bags and leave their employers to head to job fairs. Farmhands, on the other hand, had to wait until the harvest was over. Their job fairs were held in the late fall – right around October 1. When workers crossed the ocean to America, they brought their tradition of moving on May 1 or October 1 with them. In New York a law went on the books stating that any lease without a specified end date would end on May 1. A similar tradition was established in Chicago, as real estate boards drafted leases that ended by default on May 1.
Moving Day was not as official in Chicago as it was in New York. No laws governed the starting and ending dates of leases out here in the Midwest as they did back east. But powerful Chicago real estate boards created the leases and manipulated the rental season to make Moving Day semi-official. An article in the Chicago Tribune of May 5 1865 describes how Moving Day was shifted to May 3 to make way for President Lincoln’s funeral procession.
“May day has come and gone – this year without any of the accessories which are indissolubly linked with it – in the American mind. The great national bereavement which has visited us preceded the close of April by several days, but the flood tide of sorrow only reached us on May day morning – it was then that the corpse of our beloved President was borne through our midst, and everything else was forgotten. The busy din of moving wagons and rattling furniture which on every preceding May day morning has saluted our ears, was hushed, and the paraphernalia of woe alone moved through the streets.
But the movement was only deferred. The irrepressible tendency of our people to a ‘change of case’ broke out in all its old vigor on Wednesday morning, and from morn til night everybody was on the move. Every wagon in the city was pressed into the service, and made to do duty for Rachael carrying away the household gods; and in not a few instances, Rachael-like, the women sat upon them as they careered through the streets.”
By the end of the Civil War, just before the Great Fire, as many as 1/3 of all Chicago residents were moving en masse on May 1 each year. It was madness. Moving companies would band together to fix prices in advance, at elevated rates far over what they would charge for the rest of the year. In the end it was only the onset of World War I that brought an end to Moving Day – at least on paper.
A small piece on page 13 of the Chicago Daily Tribune of February 16, 1918 makes note of the end of Moving Day. The Chicago Renting Agents’ Association signed its death warrant. War efforts had reduced the available manpower for moving by 75%. There was no food for the horses and there were no men left to drive them. But that was nearly 100 years ago. Why has the trend of May 1 moves still continued?
Old Habits Die Hard
Agriculture had started to move out of the city into the suburbs following the Great Fire of 1871. Several townships including Lake View and Hyde Park had been annexed by the city in 1888. By 1918 the city was well established as an urban center. Many of the “vintage” apartment buildings that remain fixtures of Chicago’s rental landscape to this day were already standing and full of tenants. Those tenants were on year long leases that started May 1. Just because people could now move on any day of the year did not mean their leases suddenly lasted for less than 12 months. Only the construction of new buildings, with new leases starting on dates other than May 1 or October 1, would be able to break the cycle – but they didn’t.
Maybe the news that other move dates were now available, buried as small back page short columns, simply did not spread to the city’s landlords. Maybe they were so accustomed to focusing all their efforts on May 1 that it was not feasible to spread their focus across the year – after all, hiring work crews to turnover rentals is best done in one big push. But I suspect that pure greed remained as the real reason behind Moving Day’s stubborn refusal to die. When more people compete to move on a certain date, demand exceeds supply. Prices go up. People must rent any apartment that they can find. The element of choice is removed. Landlords knew that Moving Day meant they could put housing of any quality on the market and exercise extreme discrimination, and still be guaranteed a paycheck that would last them for 12 months. Years moved on and turned into decades but still Chicago’s residents moved on May 1.
Chicago saw a building boom in the 1920s, but the new buildings hewed strongly to the old traditions of a May 1 move date. The persistence of Moving Day laws in other US cities may have put outside pressure on Chicago to remain on the same schedule – in New York City Moving Day laws remained on the books until housing shortages and the creation of rent control following World War II forced the city to strike them in 1945.
By 1956 Moving Day was still a big thing in Chicago. A Daily Tribune article from April 30 states that the moving volume was up by 25% over the prior year, indicating that while it was fading as a tradition it was still very, very much an accepted part of city life. Moving Day cut across class and race lines. A gossip column in the Chicago Daily Tribune from April 10, 1957 shows that May 1 was still “traditionally Moving Day” for even the most wealthy residents. An advice column for the frugal housewife of the era gave tips on how to lower your moving costs from $125 to $19 ($1090 to $165 in modern money) by using friends and family instead of hired movers. At this point real estate associations had been providing leases that allowed landlords to set their own start and end dates for about 40 years, but they still persisted in starting their year long leases on May 1.
The End of Moving Day
Only the rise of suburbs and condominiums really put a dent in the magnetic power of May 1 as a Moving Day. New homeowners would leave at random times of year, opening up leases to start on dates other than the 1st of May. The rise of tenant advocacy in the 1970s and 1980s made it easier for renters to break their leases midway through. By the mid 1980s, only Chicago’s weather, holidays and huge number of exterior back porches remained to govern the moving season. But weather and holidays are powerful forces as well. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas/New Year’s dominate November, December and January 1 respectively. April 1 is frequently in the middle of Lent, Passover or both. February and March 1 are too cold and snowy for major moves in a city that moves through back doors, down ice-covered wooden porch steps and through alleys that don’t get visits from snowplows and salt trucks. It’s really only the months from May through October when major moves can occur on the first of the month without colliding with snow, fasting or celebration. Summer holiday travel made moving during July and August less likely. So May 1 faded a bit, with many renters shifting their moves to the fall.
These days, moving is distributed through the warmer months of the year, but peaks still exist on May 1 and October 1 as any long term resident or real estate agent can confirm. A Tribune article from 1994 shows that October 1 had eclipsed May 1 as the busiest moving date of the year. They consulted with a representative from Apartment People, who stated that 18% of their leases were starting on October 1, followed by 15% on May 1. Agents interviewed in that article gave a variety of anecdotal causes for the two peak dates but none of them hit the nail on the head. School years and heating laws were both suggested as reasons for the surges, but none of the agents realized that the May/October surges dated back beyond reckoning to job fairs for the peasants of rural, pre-industrial Europe.
In the years since the mid 1990s, the rise of computer modeling for residential investors has led to a slow ebbing of October 1 as a peak. Chicago’s rental season comes to a very abrupt end on October 1, leaving landlords who don’t make the deadline with units that could well remain empty throughout the entire winter. As a result, many larger local landlords now push their fall vacancies backwards to September 1 to be on the safe side. A 2015 Red Eye interview with a representative from Penske Trucks stated that 20% of Chicago’s truck rentals for moving occur in April and May. May 1 remains the start of the moving season and a big day for renters citywide, a century after Moving Day supposedly came to an end in Chicago.
What Does this Mean for Chicago Renters?
If you’re moving on May 1, you need to start looking early. This article will go up on March 31 – for May 1 movers, this is your last weekend to find a place before the competition really gets crazy. You need to be securing your moving trucks now. You need to be tracking down packing boxes and help now. If you live in an elevator building, reserve your time as early as you can.
When you find an apartment, the most important thing you can do for your own sanity in the future is to ask for a 13 or 14 month lease. Do anything you can to get away from the May 1 cycle. Prices don’t relax in June and July, but the competition for vacancies does. If you’re a renter with a blemished background this is even more crucial. Renters who move on May 1 have far less clout for negotiation and far fewer good apartments to pick from.
Don’t expect to get quality movers for May 1. The over-hire rate for moving companies skyrockets, meaning the chances of you getting someone with an established track record and experience are far lower than normal. Take extra care in packing fragile items, with the expectation that the person moving them may not have any more practice doing so than you do.
The most important thing you can do is to choose an apartment that’s already vacant, if at all possible, especially if you’re moving out of an elevator building. This will give you some wiggle room on the front end that will allow you to get out early if you must do so in order to avoid the May 1 crush.
As for those who aren’t moving on May 1, you can help make things easier for your new neighbors. Hold off on taking out the trash for the week of May 1 unless you really have to. Move your cars out of the alley to make way for moving trucks. Clear away porch furniture that could block the path of incoming movers.
At some point in the distant future we may see the end of May 1 as Chicago’s peak move date. But for now, we just need to batten down the hatches and accept that Moving Day is as much a part of the city’s tradition as hot dogs and deep dish.
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