While much of the attention in Oak Park has centered on new high-rise rentals in recent years, vintage apartment buildings like (clockwise from top left) The Paulina Mansions on the corner of Garfield Street and Wesley Avenue and the buildings at Grove Avenue and Ontario Street, Oak Park ad Erie and Ridgeland and Washington Avenue have attracted plenty of interest.| Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a newfound appreciation for living in the suburbs. During the summer and fall, local realtors reported a significant uptick in city dwellers looking for more space in the suburbs. 

The Chicago Tribune recently covered an Apartment List study reflecting that rents in Chicago fell 12 percent in 2020 and that Chicago-area rents dropped 6 percent, suggesting suburban rental markets were stronger than those of the city. 

According to the Tribune, Chicago ranked ninth in the nation for steepest rent decreases. 

But in Oak Park, far before the pandemic, apartments were a significant part of the development landscape. A recent study done by the California-based blog apartment listing service Rent Café shows that over the last five years, Oak Park has added the most newly-built apartment units of any suburb in Illinois. The study considered apartments of 50 or more units with 12 or more stories. 

In Oak Park, the past five years have seen the addition of four high-rise buildings: Albion, Vantage, Emerson and Eleven33. Of the almost 11,400 units added in Illinois, 1,068 of those were in Oak Park in those buildings. 

A recent dive into rentals at Oak Park’s newest high rises shows that rents at the buildings range from $1,254 for studios to up to $5,169 for three bedroom-units. Rent Café’s sister unit, Yardi Matrix, has published data showing that as of December 2020, the average occupancy rate in Oak Park buildings with 50 or more units was 85.9 percent.

Michelle Certu, spokesperson for Rent Café, reports that the U.S. Census shows that in Oak Park, there are 8,097 renter-occupied housing units in multifamily properties of two units or more. The majority of those units are existing apartments in vintage buildings.

How vintage units are faring

Oak Park Apartments is one of the village’s largest landlords with over 70 vintage buildings in Oak Park, Forest Park, River Forest and Chicago. Vice President of Operations Jim Rolff says 2020 was an interesting year for rentals in Oak Park. 

He notes that Oak Park Apartments rents units in the $800 to $1400 range, not in direct competition with the new high rises, which typically command much higher rents.

In the spring of 2020, Rolff says the pandemic initially had a negative effect on local rentals. 

“We were basically at full occupancy when the pandemic hit,” Rolff said. “But when it hit, we couldn’t show apartments. There were real logistical issues we had to overcome.”

He notes that the company quickly pivoted to providing virtual, 3-D tours of units. In short order, people who were not willing to tour a unit in person were willing to rent sight unseen. By July and August, Oak Park Apartments had two record-breaking months.

On top of getting around the issue of how to replicate face-to-face showings, the agency also had to overcome a variety of issues in doing routine updates to units. For example, the pandemic caused supply side issues, making it difficult to buy, receive and install new appliances in the short periods between tenants.

Overall, Rolff says that the pandemic hasn’t had too many negative effects on Oak Park Apartment’s rentals. Very few tenants have needed rent relief due to the pandemic, but he notes they have worked with the few tenants who have had problems. 

Unlike some areas where renters tend to work in the hard-hit hospitality industry, he says that because of its location, many Oak Park renters are in the medical field or students and have been able to keep paying rent.

While a handful of renters left to take advantage of the historically low interest rates to buy their first homes, Rolff says that occupancy remains very stable.

“One quarter of our buildings are at 100 percent,” Rolff said. “About a half are at 95 percent and a few are a bit lower.” 

In non-pandemic times, he says it is typical for banks to require 95-percent occupancy to underwrite loans, and says that Oak Park Apartments tends to run at that level or more.

In terms of overall trends, Rolff says that they are seeing less demand for units near the CTA’s Green and Blue lines and more demand for parking, remarking that fewer people are taking public transportation right now. 

He says that parking has always been in demand for rentals.

“Here, people want their cars,” Rolff said. “They want their parking. We’ve seen no indication that people living in Oak Park or moving to Oak Park are giving up their cars.”

Oak Park Apartments is using the pandemic period to focus on updating their current inventory rather than acquiring more buildings and expects to be renting at pre-pandemic levels within a year. 

“I think as things open up, college kids will move out of their parents’ houses, and people will be getting jobs and looking for that first apartment,” Rolff said.

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