This article was originally going to be “questions to ask your next landlord about package delivery,” but once I got about 2 paragraphs in I realized that it’s a problem that extends far beyond something that landlords can address on their own. So I’m framing it from the perspective of a discussion that Chicago residents and residents of other cities nationwide need to have as a community, involving the US Postal system, landlords, property managers, third party parcel carriers, logistics innovators, and municipal governments.
We’ve stuck our fingers in our ears for too long on the matter of increasing package delivery volume. Today I’m going to simply try and outline the problems we’re facing. Hopefully it will serve as launchpad for discussion, because I’m not really sure of a way forward but I’m also not sure how much longer we can afford to ignore the matter.
Increasing Package Volume
It’s no secret that the popularity of online shopping has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. According to Mastercard SpendingPulse, online sales during Black Friday and Cyber Monday were up by 18.8 percent in 2019 compared to 2018.
With that increase comes an increase in the number of packages flowing through the postal system. USPS’s fact sheet reports an annual increase of half a billion packages going back to 2014. Private carriers UPS and Fedex report less substantial growth during Amazon’s exclusivity deal with USPS, but even so their delivery volume is steadily increasing as well. Even though Amazon has apparently ended that deal and are switching to their own in-house couriers for delivery, this doesn’t change the fact that we’re ordering more packages than ever and our reliance on e-commerce is not likely to decrease over time unless certain major and unlikely steps are taken at the federal level.
Century Old Buildings
Meanwhile, according to this report from the Institute of Housing Studies on Chicago’s housing stock, 80% of Chicago renters are living in apartment buildings with less than 50 units, and 44.3% of them are living in buildings with less than 5 units. These small buildings were almost all constructed before the e-commerce era and many of them are over a century old. Even the smaller condo buildings constructed in the early 21st century boom are still following the same patterns as their older neighbors when it comes to the lobbies and foyers where mail is delivered.
Our old apartment lobbies are simply not designed to cope with a constant stream of cardboard boxes. If there’s a foyer at all, it’s usually tiny, with one door that’s always unlocked to the outside that always blows open in the wind.
Some newer developments may have mail rooms or locker systems in place to handle package deliveries, but most Chicago renters can’t afford to live in a fancy new high rise. Homeowners can install fancy doorbell cameras to keep an eye on delivered packages, but most renters can’t get permission to install such devices in shared common areas.
Chicago isn’t the worst city in the nation when it comes to package theft from porches, hallways and mail rooms, but it’s pretty high and the numbers are getting worse every year. Check out this chart I assembled from the Chicago data portal showing the total number of larcenies from residence hallways and porches each year going back to 2001.
Even if you discount the downturn in thefts in 2013 and 2014, the surge in package thefts over the past two years is pretty astonishing, and that’s just the thefts that were actually reported to the police. According to this 2012 study from the US Dept of Justice (PDF), when it comes to household theft about 67% of crimes go unreported. If you want to get a more reasonable estimate of the scale of package theft in Chicago, take those chart bars and triple all of them in size.
Package thefts were a problem even in the mid 2000s when I started working in the industry. At the time we had a big problem with neighbors and passersby stealing Netflix DVDs from each other. Now the scale has grown larger, as more and more high-pricetag items are being purchased online and shipped.
Every Chicago residence has to have two routes of escape. For many Chicago renters they have a back porch and a front door. During the summer this is fine, but Chicago’s laws don’t require landlords to shovel the back porches. Once the snow starts falling, the porches that are supposed to serve as fire escapes become clogged with ice and snow. Now compound this with a lobby that may be choked with large packages, many of them wrapped in highly flammable cardboard.
Some larger buildings with doormen may leave packages outside of residents’ doors, but this also creates a fire hazard by installing flammable trip hazards into hallways that are part of fire escape routes. Imagine trying to get out of your high rise apartment through smoke-filled hallways. Now imagine doing that with a whole bunch of shipping boxes in front of apartment doors.
While a cursory search of news articles didn’t turn up any cases where residents were unable to escape a fire due to packages blocking a fire exit, there have been incidents where sloppy deliveries have trapped residents in their apartments, wedging under doorknobs or completely filling up doorframes. In my opinion it’s only a matter of time before this seemingly minor annoyance escalates into a life or death crisis.
Property Management Labor
While some property managers can spare someone to handle postal duties in larger high rise communities, most of them are located offsite with no regular presence at the building. The days when landlords would keep a superintendent living on site have long since passed. Centralized dispatch of repair workers is the norm now and has been for some time.
Landlords have traditionally viewed problems with mail service in the same light as problems with utility companies. They’re a matter that must be settled between the tenant and the utility service without the landlord’s direct involvement. But sometimes the landlord does have to get involved with utility matters. Meters have to be changed out. Repairmen may need to access central ductwork. When it comes to the postal service it’s no different. Eventually landlords of smaller buildings are going to have to acknowledge that their buildings must be altered to accommodate packages but until we make it a problem that affects their bottom line it isn’t going to be viewed as a problem they have to fix.
The issue is more evident at the larger buildings, who traditionally assigned mail duties as a side task for the doorman. These days package deliveries at high rise apartment buildings are becoming a huge drain on resources. Some landlords of larger buildings have been forced to lease back space from ground floor businesses to hold packages intended for their residents. Others have had to hire additional staff just for sorting and receiving of mail. Hiring costs and storage costs are all passed on to tenants in the form of rent increases.
I don’t see how the offsite management business model could really give birth to a human-based solution for the package problem in smaller buildings. Any solution is going to be hacked together with bits of string and chewing gum.
Knowing the apartment market as I do, these offsite landlords will be more likely to alter the buildings to accommodate extra packages than hire someone to ensure that they remain safe. Will they carve out space from ground floor apartments? Create a receiving room in the basement? Reopen the old, sealed-up delivery chutes on the backsides of vintage buildings that were created for coal and ice deliveries in a bygone era? Given that they’re not even willing to assign apartments to building superintendents anymore, would they really be willing to allocate a portion of revenue-generating living space to hold packages? Not unless the renting community indicates that they’re willing to consider such an amenity as a value-added thing.
When I drive through the alley near my house, I constantly see piled up cardboard boxes. They aren’t broken down, and many of them are placed in overflowing apartment dumpsters along with the regular trash. They aren’t recycled. Even my own little building is not immune. It’s a four-flat with four blue bins, each of which always packed to the brim with unflattened corrugated Amazon shipping boxes. It’s a rare day when I can get all of my own recycling into a single bin for all the box waste already in there.
Chicago landlords have dragged their feet on providing sufficient recycling options for years now. Streets and Sanitation are notorious for ticketing landlords with overflowing dumpsters. Straddling the overlap between both of these issues is the problem of cardboard shipping boxes, which are becoming enough of a nuisance to merit a category of their own in the ongoing debate about the city’s waste management woes.
Renters can help with this somewhat by taking the extra time to flatten their boxes before removing them, but it still doesn’t solve the problem that the bins may often be too small to hold flattened boxes easily. Flattening is merely a band-aid solution anyhow.
Lack of Alternatives
When faced with all of these problems a renter may seek alternatives. You can get the package delivered to an office if you work at an office, but how many renters do in this day and age? We work at outdoor job sites with no mail rooms. We work in temp positions where we can’t receive mail at all. We work at restaurants and bars, hair salons and schools. These places don’t have any more package space than the lobbies of our apartment buildings.
You could ask a friend or family member to receive the package at their home, but many renters are temporary residents with no long-term connections in their given city.
You could ask the post office to hold the packages for pickup, but how many of us are actually free to go pick up a package at the post office during their operating hours?
You could use a third party package locker service but that means an additional rental cost that many renters cannot afford.
All of these options still require you to lug the package home from another location, which may or may not be closer to home than your average grocery store. Considering how many residents use public transit or bikes to get around, none of these options may be viable for a large subsection of the renting population, meaning we’re back to square one: home delivery. All told it’s easier to go pick up your purchases at an actual retail store than to deal with all the package receiving issues.
Band-Aids are not Cures
Lockers, offsite delivery, cameras and recycling bins for cardboard are all band-aids. They treat the symptoms without addressing the real issue. We’ve been ignoring the steady increase in parcel traffic and now it’s threatening to drown us. We all need to acknowledge that this trend isn’t going away. Even if the big tech companies get broken up in the future by federal intervention, e-commerce is still here to stay. We need to address the issue while it’s still an annoyance rather than waiting for clear and obvious risks to turn into deaths. Otherwise we’re facing the death of a thousand paper cuts, eating away at us in tiny locker rental costs, minor thefts and steadily increasing property management fees.
So if you want questions to ask your landlord about package delivery, here’s the only one that matters: “How do you handle package delivery in your building?” By all means, ask the question and get some discussion going. Listen to their responses. But the real question is, “How do we handle package delivery as a society?” That’s the bigger one we all need to be discussing, and, like every package we ever ordered, the sooner we get there, the better.
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