No Place Like Home

Journal of a Pissed-Off, Aggravated, Downright Apoplectic Apartment Hunter

No Place Like Home
By Jason Stout

Dream analysts say the appearance of houses, buildings, and what happens in them are metaphorical expressions of the dreamer's subconscious. In the conscious world, you could look at someone's living space with an archeologist's eye to try to determine a person's needs, tastes, and habits. But only the dweller can know the true value of their space, loaded as they inevitably are, with the literal and figurative stuff of their lives. So, doesn't it follow then, that losing your place is a little like losing your mind? That's what it seemed like to me when I went apartment hunting and confronted the possibility of not finding housing. During the search, I was haunted with fears of displacement, insecurity, and what it means to be a 42-year-old adult without a mortgage. What follows is a short journal of the hunt and thoughts on the fears that accompanied it.

It doesn't take much to find an apartment hunter in Austin with a tale of woe: Ballooning rents, application fees, the cost of moving, and starting and stopping utilities are just a few of the headaches beleaguering apartment hunters nowadays. So much attention is paid to the rising cost of housing and finding affordable housing, there's hardly time to consider just what it is we're getting so worked up about. Is it just the bullying housing market, or something deeper?n

We decided to move in early May. I remember this because it was soon after the apartment building next door caught on fire, and a full two months before our lease expired. The fire was big news, covered by all the local television networks. Let me tell you, there's nothing like approaching where you live in the early evening and seeing it surrounded by a calliope of panting fire engines and police cars, smoke, and emergency lights dappling everything in sight. Thankfully, I was prepared. My boyfriend and house mate was at home during the entire event and warned me. But nothing prepared me for the real sight of coming upon our complex and the chest-tightening anxiety that swelled and faded (but was to recur often during our apartment hunt).

On the bus ride home from work, traffic slowed to short bursts as we approached my complex. Sentences were left dangling in midair as passengers caught sight of the spectacle of smoke and lights. After absorbing the scene, a couple of people said they knew someone, who used to know someone, who used to live in my complex. No one, it seemed, had a current connection to the complex. That was an audible source of relief for all, except for me, of course.

As I watched the bus load of working people watching the spectacle, I was struck by how gawd-dog tired everyone looked. Work may be rough, but now it was time to go home. I thought of how hard most of us work to claim that place we call home, and how fragile that claim really is. The stakes are quite high. The mental or physical capital eked out year after year are, if you're fortunate, tied to something that brings intangible satisfaction: a sense of belonging, creative energy, grounding. A job that whips your spirit or your body may provide nothing more than happy hour grist, but even those jobs are clung to in order to claim a piece of the oft-cited American dream: a place you can call your own.

I've avoided becoming a home owner all my adult life. Though I admire a well-appointed home, I've always been leery of being owned by my stuff. The year I bought a car, a computer, and a washer (used, no less), they jabbed me like rigid stays in a corset of debt. I couldn't breathe. Finding "a space" was more in tune with what I imagined to be my vagabond nature, my pick-up-and-go desires. Paradoxically, I've fiercely feared that thing that life on the so-called open road ensures: homelessness. Since I never had the experience of being on the street, perhaps it's the experience of growing up poor that instilled this fear. I'm not sure. I've never been evicted. My mom kept a tidy apartment in contrast to the squalor around us and paid the rent on time. As a teenager, we moved to a house in the suburbs. I found it the most suffocating piece of hell on earth. Everything, the house and the neighborhood, the regularity with which you could expect to hear a lawn mower on Saturday, or the garbage truck on Monday, was mired in a sticky sweet security. Most people find comfort in that. I was restless and dreamt of touring the world with no one place to call home. But the specter of homelessness looming in the fire next door choked me.

When the bus finally reached my stop, I heard a woman say to no one in particular, "I wonder if anyone got hurt?" Then someone else asked the most frightening question of all:

"Where will those people live?"

My boyfriend and I began apartment hunting when we discovered that electrical wiring, not someone smoking in bed or an untended candle, caused the fire. I already knew firsthand the effect of rising rents, having first taken a roommate to share expenses after six years of solo living, then moving twice in search of more affordable rent. Little did I know that apartment hunting in today's market was going to be such a jaw-dropping experience.

First, there was the application fee. This was new to me. As it turns out, the application fee made its appearance about five years ago, according to Bruce Rodenborn, a housing counselor with the Austin Tenants' Council. Five years ago was also when the cost of renting an apartment began to escalate.

The application fee is a curious animal. It's essentially a fee to pay the complex to do what they would do anyway: check your employment and rental history, run a credit check, and see if you have any convictions. The application fee is one of the most contested issues between renters and tenants, according to Rodenborn. Depending on where you apply, the fee could be $35 to $50 per person (usually the adult members of the household). In today's housing market, it makes sense to start searching early, and apply at more than one facility, right? Right -- if you can afford to plunk down application fees at each apartment complex.

"If you put an application and deposit in at one place, you really can't apply anyplace else, or else you run the risk of forfeiting your fees should you pull out because you found other housing more attractive or simply had buyer's remorse," says Rodenborn. "There are no real regulations or laws covering application fees."

Another element of the application process is the check on current rental history. It turns out that most landlords refuse to give out rental history on current residents unless you've given notice that you intend to move, saying "it's for the tenant's protection."

"Now let me get this straight," was my response to our complex manager upon learning this news. "We give you notice of our intention to move, a full 30 days before obligated to. If we don't get accepted at another complex, and you rent out our apartment, we're basically out in the cold. How does that protect me?"

The response was something to the effect of, "That's the way it's done."

"We think rental histories should be given whenever it's requested and approved by the renter," Rodenborn says. Again, there are no regulations governing the request and release of rental histories, local or statewide. And forget about qualifying at a "good" complex if you have a criminal record or bad credit history.

You won't.

"If you're a convicted criminal, you won't live here," one of the cheery complex representatives we visited told us. Fortunately, neither my boyfriend or I have to worry about this. Yet, I couldn't help asking: "Well, where do those people live?"

"Yeah. It's really sad," the cheery rep said.

"The issue of liability comes into play for landlords when it comes to people with criminal records, and it's tough to contemplate how to regulate that," says Rodenborn. "A person convicted of a violent crime is one thing, but a person convicted for say, embezzling -- should he or she be handled the same way?" he asked.

"There are some landlords who've been trying to use arrest records to screen tenants," Rodenborn says. "An arrest record doesn't mean you are guilty of anything. It means you were arrested."

We reluctantly gave our Intent to Vacate notice over 60 days from our official lease end date. I wrote checks on May 20 for a $250 deposit at one complex along with a $70 application fee for both my boyfriend and myself, and a deposit at another complex for $300 (they waived the application fee). Both complexes assured us that unless an apartment in our size and price range became available, the checks would not be cashed. I held my breath. I would have to do some creative bookkeeping to cover those checks should they all get cashed at once.

In my apartment hunting past, landing a place took no longer than a day. This time, days and weeks began to pass. We were approved at both complexes, but nothing was becoming available, and our move-out date was looming closer. I began to make jokes about having to live under a bridge if neither of the two complexes had openings. Then, on May 25, José Lopez Guerrero was beaten to death under the Springdale Road bridge over Boggy Creek. He was killed in front of witnesses, at the foot of his "home" -- a row of mattresses where other homeless men spent their nights. That incident sent a shock of shame through me. I was joking about something I didn't want to imagine as my reality, and here it was in real life. It belonged to someone else.

"My worst fears have come true," my dear friend JoAnne told me. The housing situation in the Bay Area is legendary, but I could never have imagined the changes she was going through when her own housing arrangements fell through. For weeks, she lived out of an overnight bag, crashed on friends' sofas, house-sat, and searched for affordable and safe housing, while trying to work on her dissertation.

She answered ads for roommates that required "limited TV watching." This was a great compromise for a woman who loves her Masterpiece Theater and Nash Bridges. Then there was the place she looked at that was so small she thought surely, a hidden camera was behind a mirror. When the potential roommate took her down a narrow hall to the bedroom, he indicated a small bed in the corner where she would sleep. He would sleep in the bed in the opposite corner. When she said that this would not work for her, he shrugged, showed her to the door, and called the next person on his waiting list.

Is this what's in store for Austin? A housing market that caters to the influx of the "new economy" gentry while the rest of us struggle to get by? What happened to that chicken in every pot? That was a pretty good idea, wasn't it? I didn't think it had to be a pot down by the river -- or under a bridge. At least I hope it doesn't have to be.

"It's weird, but no one is moving," one of the complex managers we applied with told us. Call me a wuss, but the whole thing was beginning to get to me. It was imperceptible, at first, but present in the way you have a hunch when something in another part of your house is amiss. If you would have asked, I would have said everything was fine. I was stressed, but fine. I began to have nightmares about Guerrero's murder, juxtaposed with images of JoAnne. The things in my metaphorical attic were beginning to pile up and topple over, it seemed. Then the pipes began to act up. I began to have these bothersome palpitations that required me to wear a heart monitor concealed under my clothes. That was when I decided to quit before the whole damn attic broke through the ceiling. We withdrew our applications at the two complexes and asked to stay in our present apartment.

"Well, we rented your apartment already. Let me see if the new tenant will take another unit," we were told. Just what I was afraid of.

Okay, so this story ends ... not happily, exactly, but it ends. My deposit checks were returned. We signed a new lease at our old apartment complex, which included a $50 rent increase, and riders that said we understood the dangers of lead paint, asbestos, and the importance of renter's insurance. My friend JoAnne moves into a housing co-op in August. All is fine, or so it seems.

The apartment building next door still stands. Instead of being torn down, the building was aired out for weeks, topped with a new roof, and the garish black soot streaks from beneath the eaves painted over. I've been told the building will be ready for occupancy in September.

You would never know there was a fire there, unless you knew to ask. end story

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rent, renter, apartment hunting, apartments, Austin Real Estate Market, Bruce Rodenborn, Austin Tenant's Council, housing

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