Undocumented Renters. Finding a “Paperless” Lease

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

The woman threw a sideways glance towards her husband. “We can’t,” she seemed to say as a drawn but sturdy man with a South Side accent rifled around in a drawer and, relying on a thin cane, hobbled toward them with a short stack of papers. 

“Just fill out the first page,” he said, licking his finger and flipping to the next section of the packet, “and sign here. It’s a $20 fee for the background and credit check but don’t worry about it too much, it’s just a formality and I got a good feeling about you two.” 

“We’ll get back to you tomorrow,” the woman said. 

On the way out, she slid the application into a recycling bin and pulled out her phone. “Hi, my name is Monica. I called about the apartment yesterday. Could I see it this afternoon? Great. What’s the application process like?” 


Or at least that’s how I imagine it happens. Undocumented immigrants must secure housing without credit history, a documented income, Social Security numbers, or “official” identities. Of course there’s a certain amount of guesswork involved.

But I can’t tell a specific story; I couldn’t find one. Plenty of the people I spoke with were willing to pass on secondhand information, to share what an undocumented “friend of a friend” did to secure an apartment, but few were willing or able to recount their experiences.

There’s an obvious underlying point here: undocumented people do find housing, whether they want to run through a play-byplay of how they did it or not. After all, it’s a sensitive process that could land a person in a detention center or on a direct flight back to their country of origin.

From what I did gather, an undocumented person’s apartment hunt can start out like any other: trolling Craigslist or combing side streets, searching out “for rent” signs. But if a potential landlord requests a Social Security card or requires an official lease, undocumented apartment hunters never follow up. Calling ahead to inquire about application specifics is a common way of avoiding the “we need to think about it” application exchange.

Without a lease, some undocumented renters live under the radar, paying their monthly dues in cash under informal agreements with their landlords. Some property owners are immigrants themselves. Others are members of the Latino community or simply don’t conduct background checks. Often, undocumented renters hide their status, but some are open with landlords they feel can be trusted. With all the guesswork, the hunt for an “undocumented” apartment can be hectic. Chicago has dozens of Latino community organizations, but few are able to assist undocumented immigrants in securing housing.

Evelyn Dega, assistant property manager at the Latin United Community Housing Association (LUCHA), says there are programs available through LUCHA that give undocumented people access to SROs and apartment housing. The catch?

“They need to meet a certain income to qualify,” Dega explains, noting the annual minimum was around $22,000. A more substantial barrier to the official housing support and resources offered by organizations like LUCHA is that applicants must have an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) in order to be eligible. As the name suggests, an ITIN is a mechanism created by the IRS to allow undocumented immigrants to pay taxes. Most undocumented folks are not willing to take the risk of working with the federal government.

Outside of sanctioned channels, undocumented Americans use their own networks to land a “lease.” Mexican citizen Gael Arango*, 27, spent two short days looking for a pad after arriving in Chicago at age 16. “I have coworkers, collegeeducated kids, who take months to find a new place to live and complain the whole way.”

Granted, Arango and other undocumented folks in his situation have to accept some “givens.” Four-star accommodations are unlikely (Arango’s first apartment had mold, mice, and no running water in the kitchen), and because of an unforgiving wage-to-rent ratio, roommates are often necessary. But Arango confirmed that many landlords, especially those with ties to the immigrant community, will rent units to undocumented people, even if the flats themselves are unkempt. Not the ideal situation. But the system is cheap and easy to navigate—if you know where to look.

“Once someone decides to come to this country, they have to think about how they’ll make contacts. Not a lot of immigrants, at least from Mexico, come to the US without knowing anybody, but if you don’t there is a community. Because a lot of other Latinos went through the [same process] of finding a place to live, especially before you have a job or enough money to pay rent,” he explained in a Spanglish interview.

Arango immigrated to the United States with three other men, childhood friends, from the same town. Once in Chicago, he and two of the others, Diego* and Damian*, roomed with one of Diego’s cousins on the West Side. The three snagged jobs in the restaurant industry and soon found an apartment. Their landlord, a once-undocumented man from Oaxaca, Mexico, rented the trio a unit without requiring them to fill out a lease or prove their identities.

“We found the place through Diego’s cousin. It’s a network. My brother was recommended a place to live in Los Angeles while he was working as a day laborer. He moved in with another worker, from El Salvador, and they shared an apartment in Van Nuys. When the Salvadoran needed to move out, he sent my brother to a friend of a friend. He leased him an apartment, no questions asked,” Arango says.

Although an informal agreement would have left the men without legal recourse if they had a discrepancy with their rent payments, Arango applauded the landlord, saying the man was an exemplary “member of the Latino community. He trusted us and we trusted him. When we moved out, a Honduran couple rented our old place—the wife was a waitress at a restaurant where I bussed tables. Now, their niece lives there. They’re all undocumented. By putting each other in contact with a friendly landlord, we kept the space available for someone who needs an unofficial lease.”

Arango moved out of the apartment four years ago when his sister Paloma, a US citizen by marriage, moved to Chicago from Washington, DC. A coworker was looking to rent an apartment on the South Side, closer to Paloma’s new home and public transportation. A native US citizen, the woman chose to rent to Arango without a lease and knows he is undocumented.

“I still live [in the South Side apartment] with Diego, my cousin and his wife.” Arango said he doesn’t have any plans to move out of his two-bedroom apartment anytime soon. “I’ve had such luck finding housing that I don’t want to risk it again. And our landlady is very understanding. It’s small, but it’s home and this is my community.” ◊ *Name has been changed.

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