Sunnily seeking shelter

The nightmare vocabulary of Madison apartment listings.

The nightmare vocabulary of Madison apartment listings.

Illustration: Apartment listings on a Craigslist-like interface. Illustration by Rachal Duggan.

If you rent your home in Madison, you can’t escape the mental itch of the apartment hunt, ever. 

Sometimes you’ve barely settled into a place when the landlord starts pestering you about renewals and showings. Or the rent goes up because the rent you have been paying is “below market rate.” (You, the tenant, have no say in what the “market rate” is; the figure simply descends upon you from some nebulous cloud of impenetrable economic calculations. And for some reason you are expected to take this seriously.) Sometimes renewal is simply off the table because the property owner wants to renovate or redevelop, presumably charging higher rents down the line. (You, the tenant, have no recourse unless you can prove this is retaliatory, as opposed to a cash grab.) You come across a promising listing for another place, but the timing doesn’t line up well with when your current lease ends—Madison’s infernal August lease system is pervasive, but not in a way that provides stability and consistency for the actual people trying to move into and out of the apartments.

The shuffle is endless. Unless you luck into something, you might never be truly home. 

Madison’s rental market demands alertness, cunning, compromise, thick skin, and resourcefulness from tenants. Aggressive development over the past 20 years has driven up prices, but still hasn’t provided enough units of housing, and Wisconsin has demolished legal protections for tenants.

But the market, in its wisdom, does not demand that landlords be particularly good at anything—certainly not at being landlords. 

All the proof you need is the incompetence on display in local apartment listings. I first moved to Madison in 2006, and every single bad habit I encountered then persists today. You, the tenant, simply have no right to clear, consistent, reliable information about your options. Craigslist, where I’ve had the best luck in my apartment hunts over the years, is a free-for-all of:

Posting titles that misrepresent the rent or housing situation.

Listings that don’t include an address or intersection, sometimes showing an unhelpful map with a big vague circle on it that is not in the vicinity suggested in the text. 

Listings with only outdoor photos. 

Listings with too few photos.

Listings with poorly lit photos.

Sideways photos.

Sometimes, even in the year 2022, listings with no photos!

Listings that have incredibly relaxed definitions about what is “Downtown,” “East Side,” or really any neighbor­hood or area of town. Is this really in Eken Park? The competent searcher can narrow down geographic parameters, but even then might still run into some irrelevant results.

I saw a Southwest-ish Madison listing the other day whose features included “walking distance to SEPTA station,” an apparent reference to the public transit system in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is in Pennsylvania. How do you even typo your way from “Madison Metro stop” to “SEPTA station”? 

Listings that describe a location in terms of extremely broad proximity to landmarks—stuff like “steps from the lake,” “within 2.5 miles of Camp Randall,” “minutes from MATC” (by what mode of transportation?!), “nestled between Lakes Monona and Mendota,” “1.5 miles to the Capitol.” These could all describe dozens, if not hundreds, or even thousands, of housing units in a city that is geographically not that huge. Please spare me the guesswork. I don’t have access to a CIA satellite and I don’t have the time to triangulate this shit. 

At least one listing I’ve seen recently claims to be “close to everything.” You know, I could see Madison’s city government rolling over so hard for developers that they allow apartments to be built over holes in the space-time continuum. Maybe that’s how you reach that SEPTA station. 

I also saw a listing this week that touted the “aroma of fresh bread” from a bakery near the apartment. Sir: that is the “Free Smells” sign from Jimmy John’s. 

“In the heart of [the isthmus/downtown/Willy Street/whatever].” Meaningless. 

Adjectives. Look, I use too many adjectives myself, but I am not renting shelter to other human beings at a profit. Adorable, charming, comfortable, lovely, spacious, cozy, cute, pristine—I, the person spending a downright stupid percentage of my income on rent, will be the judge of that! Sometimes I have even seen listings that describe a building or development as “popular.” Madison has a very low vacancy rate. Every available unit of housing is popular.

The final boss of apartment-listing vocabulary, of course, is “sunny.” On any day, you can find dozens of listings for sunny apartments. The name of the game is location, and first you want to make sure you are within the realm of the great star Sol. It’s an up-and-coming area. 

I’m not going to waste too much time on the landlords who try to make their apartment listings fun. Those people should be hurled immediately into one of our wonderful lakes. It is, after all, just steps away.


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