To squat or not?
September 27, 2009 7:09 PM   Subscribe

I am considering renting out an artist's studio space and squatting in it temporarily, does anyone have any experience in this? Good idea, bad idea?

So, I have been staying at a friends place in Chicago for the past few months and am ready to move out. Only problem is finding a good roommate/apartment combination hasn't quite happened yet. Because of this I am considering getting artist's studio space to move all of my stuff into and sleep in while I keep looking for a proper apartment. This could really be an ideal situation for me, because having studio space is really more of a concern to me than having a swanky apartment and most of the time I would actually use the space for art making etc. I figure in the future, if I find a better apartment situation I can just share my studio space with someone else to help offset the cost.

I have an older friend who has managed to squat in her studio in NYC for years and years, even after getting married for a while, so it seems like something I could manage. What I am more curious about are peoples experiences trying to do this in Chicago, and what the worst legal ramifications would be if I was found out. How do landlords even check for this or prove it if they are suspicious?

Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The big legal downside is usually with insurance and liability. The lease you sign probably includes a pledge that you will not use the space to habitate, and that's probably because the owner's insurance won't cover that. So if you burn the place down cooking bacon on your portable frying pan... you will inherit big liability problems.

That said, I did this when I was a young slip, and I know many others who have done it in the past (in NYC) and still do today. It works just fine as long as nothing goes wrong.

I also spent a few years renting the tiniest little living space because I was, like, never there anyway -- I was always traveling or working, or both. But just having that legal mailing address / place to store stuff was useful.
posted by rokusan at 7:16 PM on September 27, 2009

Rokusan's right; it's all about the liability. Will you be cooking there? Hosting people there? Think about things you might do that would increase your risk.

You'll be less likely to be found out if you a) don't have much stuff or b) put most of your things in storage while you work on finding an apartment.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:24 PM on September 27, 2009

a friend is doing this in San Fran. It seems to be working for him. He's an artist though.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:51 PM on September 27, 2009

So is the poster, Ironmouth.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:03 PM on September 27, 2009

If you're willing to live in your studio space, and you're willing to pay rent on both a studio and an apartment (with a roommate), why not just combine your studio and apartment budgets and rent an apartment on your own?

I guess this wouldn't work if your art involves loud or otherwise neighbor-disrupting processes, but I'd imagine it's easier and safer to find art-accommodating apartments than squatter-accommodating studios. My old apartment building in Chicago was both home and studio to several artists, including a filmmaker, a food stylist, and a guy who made sculptures out of old furniture and computer parts.
posted by Meg_Murry at 8:43 PM on September 27, 2009

Advice for the first time you get caught answering the door in a bathrobe with a toothbrush hanging out of your mouth: "My girlfriend threw me out."

The second time, you're on your own.
posted by rokusan at 8:49 PM on September 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Be sure about temperature insulation, electrical outlets, industrial noise. Converted studios are notorious for being uninsulated. Seedy areas that may have no grocery store or open restaurant for quite a distance. Seedy area that have no designated overnight parking. In Chicago, when winter sets in, these will be formidable issues.
posted by effluvia at 9:13 PM on September 27, 2009

Landlords will look for evidence that someone is living there - personal effects that don't belong in a studio being the most obvious things, but also electricity bills that are unusually high, mail being delivered to your studio instead of to the apartment you're supposed to have, etc. Some tips I've gleaned from friends (I swear!):

+ ask a friend with their own place if it's okay for you to give their address as your own for non-art-related mail and such.
+Make sure you can pack up and hide all your 'living' stuff - your bed, bedding, dishes, spare clothes, etc - at a moment's notice, or convincingly explain why it has a place in a studio space. (Thin foam mattresses for sleeping on can be explained away as yoga mats, I know some folks who have couches in their studios and a guy who built himself a bed that folded up to look like a big wooden box. YMMV. Obviously this is not something that's going to work if you have a lot of stuff. If you can fit your clothes and shit into a backpack, so much the better.) Keep stuff packed away when you're not using it.
+Turn out the lights at a reasonable time and keep them off until morning. Keep regular hours. Be out or working as much as possible. If your landlord handles the electricity bill for the whole building, keep your electricity bill as low as possible.
+Will the space have working plumbing? Will you have a heater? If you don't know how to do basic plumbing and electricity repairs, now is the time to learn.

I have no clue about Chicago specifically, but a cursory google search turned up this old-ish thread: - there's a pretty big anarchist/punk community out there, if you could get in touch with some of them I'm sure they'd know about the specifics of squatting in Chicago, and will be happy to help a potential squatter out. Provided you don't have anything against anarchists and/or punks, naturally.
posted by ellehumour at 10:04 PM on September 27, 2009

I did this for a while in Toronto - there were periodic building inspections, so we had to be able to hide the bed on short notice. I also set up my sewing machine close to where I hung my clothes so it looked like I was using the space as a clothing designer.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 10:14 PM on September 27, 2009

It certainly happens a lot, a person very close to me who will not be named did it for years without the slightest problem, and honestly it was pretty obvious - but a critical factor there was that he was renting it from a total absentee landlord (which of course came with a world of problems all its own), and I think that's the problem: the level of scrutiny is going to be completely variable depending on how invested the ownership is in what's going on in the building.

If they do check they're going to be looking for obvious signs of living there (you don't need all your clothes or a place to sleep in an artists studio) and if they suspect and care the obvious way to check is to make you verify an alternate legal residence. The most likely consequence is eviction, so make sure you've got a plan B and consider adding the expense of renting some storage. It is extraordinarily commonplace.
posted by nanojath at 11:10 PM on September 27, 2009

During my teenage years, I lived in a warehouse space that during nights serves as an all ages nightclub/show venue. As long as you can hide the obvious living materials, or adequately explain them should someone come sniffing around, and you don't mind having to shower at the Y or the gym.. it's a perfectly reasonable alternative to an apartment for the artsy bohemian type. I can't offer any advice that no one here hasn't already, but wish you luck! It's a lot of fun, living in an alternative space like that, and leads to many cool stories to tell years down the road.
posted by mediocre at 11:22 PM on September 27, 2009

Are you the sort of artist who might draw or paint? Put up your bed, then put up an easel, and draw your bed.

Bonus points for naked lady on bed.
posted by Sallyfur at 11:50 PM on September 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

Based on five years' experience using industrial space for non-industrial purposes:
> Make nice with your neighbors, security guards, etc. If you annoy them they may rat you out.
> Domestic trash (wine bottles, food scraps, etc.) is a dead giveaway, so dispose of it discretely.
> Do a little research into asbestos and PCBs, both of which are nasty and often found in industrial space.
> Having photographic backdrops and equipment around (even if it's old stuff) might convince a building inspector that you are running a photo studio, which is common in old industrial space.
posted by quidividi at 12:09 AM on September 28, 2009

From my own few years spent in Chicago not long ago ago--- if
you are in a post-industrial space, practicing artist or not,
as long as you pay your rent on time
and cause minimal trouble, you are in a no-questions-asked zone.
posted by at the crossroads at 12:44 AM on September 28, 2009

I had studio space in a building that housed a print shop, a couple tech companies, a yoga centre, and this one dude who definitely lived there.

I was usually there from early in the morning to really late at night, so I would hear him play his flute really loud, walk around, or play some records. That didn't bother me at all. The thing that did bother me was the fact that he smoked inside. It was a no smoking building that always smelled like smoke at night/in the morning. I didn't say anything but I easily could have. So, if you smoke, don't do it inside.
posted by 913 at 2:38 AM on September 28, 2009

Said dude would sometimes leave notes on my studio door during the winter telling me not to turn my heat-dial down (it was an old building with shared heating). Apparently, if I turned the heat dial down, he would not get any heat at all. So that was a problem for him, as I wasn't the only person he had to make this request of.
posted by 913 at 2:43 AM on September 28, 2009

Whether or not you can do it depends on your landlord and whether or not he _really_ cares that you are living there. For insurance purposes he has to say you cannot live there, whether or not he cares is something you can't really ask.

I kept my 'living' stuff (bed and etc.) in a large crate in a corner, kind of like a murphy bed. It was manageable. What was not so manageable was the lack of heat (from 6pm until 6am the building was kept at around 45deg F.) and then noise from neighbors.

The other thing I found was that I liked having a living area that had nothing to do with your work, where you can do other things, and that's not available to you when you live in your studio.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:50 AM on September 28, 2009

I used to run a big artists' space in Chicago (no longer around, sorry). I'm not recommending this, but we strongly suspected, after he moved out, that one of our long-term tenants (we're talking more than 20 years) had in fact been living there, at least on and off, evidenced by the things he left behind (too many clothes, laundry detergent, dishes, sheets, mail addressed to a PO Box). Oh, and no evidence he'd been making art. He was absolutely brilliant at it, because we never suspected. So yes, not sure I'd recommend it, but it's doable.
posted by nax at 8:10 AM on September 28, 2009

I don't know what it's like in Chicago, but where I live (smaller city) I know people who live in their studios, some of them have been doing it a long time. Some don't have showers or kitchens, so they use cook stoves and go to the YMCA or something for a bath. But they pay dirt cheap rent and live in some of the most amazing "apartments" I've seen. I agree with the suggestions to be sure you can pack up your clothes/bed/living stuff somehow to make it look like studio space if necessary.
posted by Rocket26 at 8:26 AM on September 28, 2009

Your answer when you're caught bringing in groceries is "still life".
posted by djgh at 8:28 PM on September 28, 2009

Your answer when you're caught bringing in groceries is "still life".

I got away with "pulling a work all-nighter" a couple of times. Snacks justified.
posted by rokusan at 5:13 AM on September 30, 2009

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