In 2012, Grace Sweeney did the impossible. She found a studio in Lincoln Park for $745 a month -- just within the budget she kept as an unpaid intern out of college.
It was steps from Fullerton Avenue and Clark Street, had a walk-in closet and utilities included ... but no kitchen.
"It had a full-sized fridge, which was nice, and a microwave, and I bought myself a toaster oven. I did my dishes in the [bathroom] sink," Sweeney said. "It was definitely a crazy trade-off, but the price was great."
For longtime Chicagoans, spacious, affordable studios for less than $700 in such trendy neighborhoods as Lakeview and Wicker Park are a recent memory. But for many people new to the city they are the stuff of myth. The average rent for a studio in Chicago is more than $1,200 a month, according to data from listings website apartments.com, but some people are still finding deals -- but with less square footage and fewer amenities. Others are heading south of Roosevelt Road, west of Western Avenue, and north to Uptown and Rogers Park in search of more reasonable rents.
Amber Payden, 30, of Bronzeville, said she is dismayed that many Chicagoans believe they have to live in one of a few North Side neighborhoods to feel safe from crime. She just moved from the West Loop to a luxury high-rise near 31st Street and Michigan Avenue, but her roommate backed out of the deal at the last minute over concerns about South Side crime reports.
"She was like, you know, I'm not moving here, it's the South Side," Payden said.
Payden said she has more amenities than she can count in her two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment, including in-unit laundry and a deck, along with proximity to several bus routes and Dunbar Park. The rent is $1,375 a month.
"When I looked at the place, it was originally $1,550, and they had gone down in price because the owner was saying there were a lot of people who didn't know the area and were afraid to move there," she said. "Ironically, some of those neighborhoods up north are not even as nice as this."
Real estate experts pin several factors on the $700-a-month studio's near extinction, including the recession, which has made buying less attractive than renting for many, and the gentrification of neighborhoods that were once considered scrappier, like Bucktown, the Near West Side, and Lincoln Square.
"The reality is, typically when a deal is too good to be true, it usually is," said Robert Richmond, the director of sales for Apartment Finders. "And that's more true in the Chicago rental market than ever."
Richmond said it was easy to find a cheap studio when he started working at the real estate company six years ago, but those places have started to disappear as neighborhoods grow in popularity and landlords spring for upgrades.
"Now, there might be a building or two that still offer old-school rents, where owners know what they need to make, but don't care about making more," he said, "but owners are a lot more savvy than they used to be."
And if those owners can afford to renovate their units, he added, it's becoming a better and better business decision.
"Owners are finding they're getting more value out of renovations now than they ever have in Chicago," he said, including relatively inexpensive changes like putting in granite countertops or stainless steel appliances. "If you make even a small change to a studio that's $450 square feet, like taking out the carpet and putting in hardwood floors, they're seeing increased rents by 10 to 35 percent."
That means, if you're among the young professionals and students attracted to communities like Lakeview and Lincoln Park for their nightlife and proximity to trains and the lakefront, it's harder than ever to find that deal, especially without wading through a handful of bad options first.
Chastidy Burns, 27, wanted to live in Lakeview, but was daunted by how little her budget -- less than $1,000 a month -- would get her. When she finally found her studio, near Grace Street and Pine Grove Avenue, on Craigslist for $800 (it's gone up to $840 now), she decided its small size was worth the trade-off of being close to her friends and living in a neighborhood she considered safe.
Patrick Welby faced a similar predicament when he apartment-hunted in Lakeview a year ago on a budget of $1,000, and settled on a studio near Broadway and Surf Street that now rents for $900 a month. He said taking a place on the higher end of his budget paid off in space: It has a walk-in closet, a kitchen area separate from where he sleeps, and room for his bicycle.
"My friends are generally in awe of how big my space is compared to their [studios]," Welby, 24, said. "It's nice to go back to something that's not just one room, and having the cooking separate from where I sleep is a nice break in the action."
Michelle Higgins, 26, and her husband Joe, 28, were lucky enough to find a bigger place. When they moved to Chicago from Atlanta in July 2011 they were hoping a less-than-$900 budget would find them a place large enough for two people. They settled into their one-bedroom apartment near Lawrence Avenue and Hermitage Avenue, which rents for $895 a month, after deciding they could live with less closet space.
"For that price in different areas," Michelle Higgins said, "it can be so much smaller or so much older."
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