The Importance of Being Neighbors

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I recently got a tweet from a reader in response to our article about package theft. She was surprised that the city of Chicago ticketed landlords with overflowing dumpsters. I explained that they usually only do so if neighbors complain. This led me to think more in-depth about the importance of neighbors, a group that are both crucial to and completely ignored by Chicago’s rental market. Today I’m going to use my own experiences and a few examples from the news to explain why both landlords and renters need to be more aware of their neighbors.

Islands Without Oceans

When I was a kid growing up in the suburbs my mom used to take me on walks through my neighborhood. I knew everyone on my block by name and face. I knew what they did for a living. I’d been into most of their houses. I knew whose yards I could cut across on my walk home from school. I knew the ones with kids, with dogs, the ones who had just moved in, the ones who had pianos in their living rooms, the ones who were too old to mow their lawns or shovel their walks. I knew which doors I could knock on to sell whatever fundraising products my school was making me hawk from time to time.

I’ve been living at my current Chicago address for the past 12 years. It’s a small condo building, and we have to work together to make collaborative decisions on how to keep the place standing upright. I know the three other families in the building with me. But even though it’s been more than a decade, I don’t know anyone else on the block.

I know the buildings, sure. I know which ones are condos, which are apartments, and sometimes I am aware if one of them goes up for sale. But I don’t know who lives inside. I recognize some of their faces, sure, but I don’t know their names or anything about them. I’ve never bothered to introduce myself to them, but to be fair they’ve never introduced themselves to me either. We’ll occasionally nod and grimace at each other when shoveling out of a sort of shared awareness of the task at hand. That’s about as far as it goes.

I would guess that many renters and condo residents in the city would tell the same story, save perhaps for the dog owners. We know the people who live in the apartments immediately next to us. We know the board members of our condo associations. Other than that we live in relative isolation, associating with friends from across the city instead of with the people on our actual block.

The only things that can make me pay attention to the people living around me are the events that actually intrude on my ability to work or sleep. Noises, smells, bright lights, heavy traffic, lawn chairs. I don’t notice when things are going well. I only notice when things have gotten so bad that they’ve spilled outside the walls of the homes next door, traveling across lot boundaries and up four stories to my office windows.

When I was working in the property management office the we barely even remembered that our buildings had neighbors. They were people to be feared, since the only time they inserted themselves into our daily business was when they complained enough about our tenants or our trash to get the alderman involved. We had no idea how to contact any of them, relying on the ward offices to relay our replies when the need arose.

Opportunities for Observation

Here’s the sum total of what I know about my neighbors.

  • The building behind mine across the alley was the home of some drug dealers until it was foreclosed on a few years back, went into receivership, was nearly condemned, and has now been finally purchased, renovated, and returned to occupancy by the new owners. I know this because there was abnormally high vehicle traffic late at night, followed by no traffic at all and clear signs of abandonment, followed by construction debris and a visit from the police who asked us to keep an eye out for trespassers on that property.
  • I know the building next to mine on one side is the home to a musician in a Tejano band which practices in their basement. I know this because a few years ago they changed the direction of the amplifiers so that the sound of the bass was pumping directly into my bedroom.
  • The upper unit of the two flat across the street was rented by a non-profit that assists refugees from other countries. The landlords had been trying to evict them for years since the occupants were not actually the parties named on the lease, but rather an ever-changing roster of temporary families and student groups. I know this because one particular set of occupants took to holding drum circles on the lawn.
  • The house on the other side of me from the musicians was empty for about 4 years, after which it was renovated by flippers and resold. I know this because the city had accidentally mixed up our water meters, which meant that when the building was suddenly occupied again it was our water bill that shot through the roof instead of theirs.
  • I know that the landlord who owns the courtyard building two doors down from me tends to overcrowd his apartments with large families. I know this because their trash is always overflowing and because the families spill out on to the parkway during the summer to hold loud parties until the wee hours of the morning.
  • I know that the building two doors away on the other side was built by the same developers as my own building because I track the sale prices of units in there along with the sale prices of the units in my own.
  • I know that a couple of the buildings near me have issues with insulation in their upper stories. I can tell which of the apartments in those buildings have been empty all winter. I know this because of patterns made in melting and piling snow on top of the roofs.
  • I know the building on the corner is CHA-owned public housing, since the issue was brought up at a CAPS police meeting a few years back after someone had been shot on the sidewalk in front.

That’s it. Out of the 32 buildings on my block and the block behind mine, I only know 8 buildings plus my own, and only because each of them has had problems.

This is probably more than most Chicago residents know about the people in the buildings that surround their own. I work from home, often at night, so I’m present for a lot of things that happen when others are off at work or asleep. Regardless, the point is that in the city we only know the worst things that occur around us, or at least that’s the case with me.

Third-Party Power

Now, I’m one of those annoying neighbors who will complain to the necessary city departments when my neighbors are being obnoxious. If the problem is coming from an apartment building that has the city-mandated sign in front with the owner’s name and contact information I will, of course, first try to contact the owner. But far too often these signs are outdated leading to disconnected phones or PO Boxes. As the owner of a business that specializes in finding the owners of any property in Chicago I will sometimes use our in-house tools to track down the folks who own these buildings with incorrect signage. But in many cases it is easier even for me to go through the police or the alderman since they have the full list on hand from the property tax rolls.

It took me about half a day to track down the managers of the building with the drum circle refugees. They were based in Arlington Heights. I sent them an email. They were grateful, as the eviction case against the not for profit on the lease had at that point been ongoing for at least three years. Since the not for profit was paying their rent on time it fell into that murky territory of behavior-based evictions, which are always a challenge for the court system. My complaint was one of the rare pieces of third-party evidence corroborating the behavioral problems in what had become a he-said, she-said debacle.

The police can’t be patrolling every abandoned building every day. When they chose to get us involved in watching the traffic at the one behind ours, it was a pretty important day. Maybe if they’d asked us to get involved sooner, the whole process of getting that building back into active use wouldn’t have taken five years, but once we were aware and brought into the dialogue we could at least help ensure that the former drug dealing occupants didn’t return.

One of the most lengthy and ongoing dialogues I had back at the property management office was with a tenant in one of our buildings who actually did pay attention to the behavior of the renters in the two flat next door. In particular, she paid attention to their tendency to leave dog waste lying in the front lawn for months. It took the alderman over a year to track down the landlords of the offending property. While we waited to get hold of owner contact information, we started sending out our own maintenance workers to clean up the waste even though it wasn’t our property. This meant that we were able to use our work order records as proof of every time when the problem had spiraled out of control over a prolonged period of time. The dog owner was evicted. The building no longer accepts pets.

Of course we also have to think about all the recent instances where neighborhood groups have shot down high density apartment building development plans via appeals to the alderman or the zoning board. We have to think about the recent fracas in Albany Park where neighbors started speaking up as a group about a problem building only after a firefighter had been shot out front while extinguishing a burning car. A few had been complaining about the building for years, but it took a tragedy to get enough neighbor amplification for the media and the landlord to pay attention.

The point here is that city departments and the county court system are both aware of how incredibly rare it is for neighbors to speak up about problems in the buildings surrounding their own. If a problem has escalated to the point where neighbors are getting involved, eviction cases get fast tracked. Building policies change. Leases get altered. Zoning changes get approved or shot down.

Exist as a Neighbor

Life in the city is never going to be the same as life in suburban or rural areas of the country. I don’t think the situation I describe here is unique to Chicago. I don’t live in the areas of the city that you see described on TV and in movies as “Chiraq.” I live on a fairly quiet north side side street. I think it’s urban life in general that puts us in a constant state of alertness, making us view our neighbors as either problems in potentia or problems in actus, but never as completely neutral parties.

I don’t think that meeting our neighbors and learning about them subjectively will prevent us from taking this defensive objective view of them when problems arise. I don’t think we should start complaining to city departments more often about smaller problems, since that would dilute the impact of neighbor involvement as a whole. But I do think that getting to know our neighbors (or at least their names and contact information) could be helpful in resolving those smaller problems before they turn into big ones.

City residents define themselves as renters and homeowners, workers and consumers, parents and students. These days we think of how we exist in relation to our employers, our families or our online communities more than we think about how we relate to the people who live next door. When we pause to remember that we have neighbors it may make us feel uncomfortable given the population density of the city and the lack of control we have over who may occupy the buildings near our homes. However, we are each neighbors to several other people and we mustn’t lose sight of that fact.

I can’t help but wonder how the city life would change if we were to add “neighbor” to our list of self-defined roles.

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Kay Cleaves

Founder and owner of RentConfident. She's the primary developer of the website and research engine code. She's spent over 10 years working in the Chicago rental industry and has assisted with over 1200 leases.