Chicago Tribune

Chicago renters swap space, privacy for super-small luxury apartments

“Friends.” “New Girl.” “Sex and the City.” When you watch just about any sitcom that features 20- or 30-somethings, you inevitably see them living in gigantic apartments located in spectacular areas of fun cities — no matter what the characters do for work (if they even have jobs at all).

But if you’ve ever hunted for apartments in Chicago, you know that while these spaces might exist, they exist in … let’s call it a difficult-to-attain price range.

“People can’t afford to live in these high-end, class-A luxury apartments,” said Aaron Galvin, managing broker and owner of Luxury Living Chicago Realty.

For many renters, fiscal realities dictate that it’s not possible to have both the big space and the great location. So they make compromises.

In many instances, this means choosing a desirable neighborhood at the expense of living space — sometimes a lot of living space.

“We have studios that are under 200 square feet,” said Mark Heffron, a managing partner of Cedar Street Cos., the organization that operates the Flats Chicago brand of rental properties, with apartment buildings in Wicker Park, Uptown, Edgewater and Libertyville.

(And 200 square feet is undeniably tiny. While estimates from realty agents and property managers vary, a typical Chicago studio is in the ballpark of 400 to 500 square feet.)

For other people, compromise means embracing a co-living model, renting out a single bedroom in a furnished apartment in which you share the common areas with a few roommates — typically strangers — who also rent single rooms.

One building in which co-living spaces are available is L, a luxury apartment building in Logan Square that welcomed its first move-ins in 2016. Galvin’s company, Luxury Living Chicago Realty, is the leasing and marketing agent for L, where co-living apartments come furnished with a TV, sectional couch and coffee table, along with kitchenware like pots, pans and cutlery. The location lures many renters; Logan Square is one of the city’s trendiest neighborhoods, but rents are rising alongside the area’s cachet.

“Co-living offers an opportunity to be able to take advantage of those amenities and be a part of that community as long as (renters) are open to sharing space,” Galvin said.

Co-living arrangement sound familiar? You’ve likely been to — or seen movies about — college. But Galvin said the arrangement isn’t exclusive to students. Rather, it tends to appeal to “those people that embrace and appreciate the sharing economy,” he said, citing Uber as a comparable service. “And transplants and short-term gig workers love the convenience and community of co-living.”

It can also be a good option for people like Wei Wu, a 25-year-old quantitative analyst who rents a co-living space at Infinite Chicago on Jackson Boulevard in the Loop with two roommates.

“I just graduated and I got a full-time job downtown, so I needed to find a place that’s near my workplace,” Wu said.

Renting a single room gives him the job proximity he craves without the burden of typical Loop rental rates. And co-living savings aren’t insignificant.

“A co-living renter could be saving, I think, anywhere from 40 to 60 percent in some cases,” said Mark Durakovic, vice president and principal at Kass Management Services, which manages the L apartments in Logan Square.

Of course, throwing together three people who may not know each other and must share a living space has the potential to go south. That’s why places like L try to screen tenants before they move in.

“We have a very strict procedure that we follow with respect to our application-vetting process and who we will allow or not allow,” Durakovic said.

Management doesn’t work to pair like-minded roommates together. “Simply put, from a legal standpoint, you don’t want to steer someone in any direction,” Durakovic said. But with renters sharing furniture, kitchen appliances and dishes (though typically not bathrooms; most renters get their own private bathrooms), some disagreements can arise.

Just in case renters find that they can’t coexist, “we do have a clause which permits them one transfer to another co-living unit if such is available,” Durakovic said. If no other units are available, a renter can terminate his or her lease with 60 days’ notice. But so far, said Durakovic, “almost no one has requested a transfer or to move out.”

Wu said that simple communication between roommates can help. “Just be nice and friendly when talking with your roommates,” he said. “Don’t be too shy or don’t be too aggressive. So just be normal.”

For those renters who want the great neighborhood without diving into a co-living situation, there are other options. Smaller options. Micro options.

“On average, smaller studios are kind of in the range of 210 to 240 square feet,” said Heffron of the microapartments that Flats Chicago rents.

Not all Flats apartments are considered microunits, as some have one or two bedrooms. But all Flats units, no matter how small, include a full kitchen, a full bathroom, closet space and an in-unit washer and dryer.

And while you may be envisioning a crowded, cartoon-style tiny box, Flats residents are hardly feeling cramped. At least Jack Krueger isn’t.

“For a studio, it’s really not too bad,” said Krueger, 24, who works for Flats and also rents an apartment in the company’s Lawrence House, a renovated 1920s-era hotel-turned-rental-property replete with original character in Uptown. “The space is pretty well laid out.”

This layout, says Heffron, is no accident.

“We spend a lot of time upfront during concept design locking in how every unit will live,” he said. “You’d be surprised where some units that are 225 square feet live better than a unit that’s 260.”

But beyond the thoughtful floor plans and the apartment perks such as free Wi-Fi, in-wall USB outlets and modern design flourishes, a skeptic still might ask, seriously, why would someone choose to live in a 200-some-square-foot apartment?

Easy: location and amenities.

“You’re not just paying for the space you have,” said Brian Rhinehart, 25, a Lawrence House resident. “You’re also paying for the awesome gyms that they have and you’re also paying for the convenience that most of the locations will have too.”

Lawrence House’s 7,000-square-foot fitness center features a boxing ring and a heated indoor pool. This is in addition to the coffee shop and bar in the lobby; the backyard with lounge seating, grills and a fireplace; and the rooftop lounge. And this is all on top of the dining and socializing opportunities that the Uptown neighborhood has to offer.

“You don’t necessarily need to entertain or be in your studio all the time,” said Krueger.

So renters are swapping square footage for amenities and access. But how small is too small? Tough to say.

“They’re less marketable at some point,” Heffron said. “It all depends on the geometry of the unit.”

And of course, living in microspaces does require a few sacrifices.

“For sure, the kitchens are smaller,” said Heffron. He pointed to narrower-than-normal refrigerators and ovens as an example of how builders save space, while Krueger noted that the studio units don’t have dishwashers.

These living arrangements — co-living with unknown roommates and renting super-small spaces — may not be a long-term solution for some individuals.

“I would like to eventually have something big enough for my in-laws, or if friends come to visit it would be nice to have a second bedroom,” said Adam Fredrichs, 26, who lives in Lawrence House. “I think that’s more down the road.”

But according to Galvin, the Chicago rental market may be facing a “relative affordability crisis,” with too many high-end apartments and not enough renters who can afford them.

In that case, super-small living may be here to stay.

Chicago Tribune | Nicholas Padiak