When the city expels you

I haven’t written here lately. Right now, I am on a trip and I’ve only now made time to write— and such time I do have, but I’m now turning somewhat rusty gears. Looking back: in August, I was consumed by the process of moving apartments. Looking back even further: I was able to post twice in July, but those were the few spots in an almost catastrophically bad spell of depression, prompted by the original need to move. My writer-mind is still caught up on wisps of that fog, so before I can say anything else here, I think I need to write— perhaps in a fragmented way, I warn— about it.

A brief warning— there is some discussion of suicidal ideation here.

I was expelled by the city of Boston, and not through eviction but certainly through related political forces. (If you do not believe eviction is ultimately if not directly political, I don’t know what to say.) I now live across a river or two in a much smaller city, still only a twenty minute bus ride from the city, but far enough to feel as if my former locality had forcibly ejected me. Far enough to even feel as if the most immediate surrounding metropolitan area did not desire my residency. My new home is, in certain ways, preferable to the old home in terms of the actual premises and some facets of the neighborhood, but right now it also still feels like a rebound lover after a breakup that I did not initiate. I had even thought for years about initiating it, but I hadn’t thought that my old neighborhood’s immediate circle would reject me even more thoroughly than the ex itself did. The breakup almost seemed amicable, the new prospect seems better, and yet I somehow sank into a psychological abyss in between.

Gentrification. The same urban economic elitism that is striking cities across the globe— London, New York, San Francisco especially, but also others, and definitely Boston. I moved to Boston in 2009 when rent was already less than ideal; the condo-studio I found and eventually shared with my husband was going for $1050. We found ourselves with virtually no choice but to move elsewhere this summer after first it became $1200 in 2014— and after the unit’s owner could not, herself, keep up with the expenses and chose to list it on the market this year. We switched to a month-to-month lease at the end of June.

Logically, it was possible that the unit would sell to a hopeful owner-occupier, which would leave us with 30-60 days to vacate, depending on how fast they closed, but regardless, we would not have been legally allowed to stay in the unit.

Logically, it was possible that the unit would sell to someone who wanted to keep renting to us, but we already knew that the property had been valued highly enough that we could have already been paying $1500 last year. Someone less sympathetic than the current owner would have easily felt every justification to raise the rent. We quite literally could not have afforded that amount, never mind the fact that simply paying $3.00 per square foot of space is already an absurd notion and that this was a studio.

Logically, it was possible that the unit would not sell, but then what? The current owner was about as decent of heart as I could have asked for, but no matter her intentions, if she was not financially prepared to support the unit anymore, she would likely have seen no choice but to raise the rent as well.

There was a slim chance that nothing could have happened at all, but particularly given the fact that we already lived so far from people we knew, that there wasn’t a lot to do in the area, that obnoxious cookie cutter business forces were clearly aligning nearby, we couldn’t imagine a very pleasant outcome if we got to stay, but we couldn’t imagine “getting to stay” as a practical reality.

So we were not being evicted. We also did not face a situation as dire as we could have in other respects; we both benefited from white privilege, at first glance we might be read as a straight couple, both of us were employed in some regard, I had a bachelor’s degree, I had a high credit rating, and we could receive good landlord & personal references. Sadly, there were a host of other obstacles to our home-hunt.

Let me talk about Boston rent and tenant life as a whole.

Minimum wage in Massachusetts, a “progressive” state, is $9/hour. This means that if a single minimum wage worker works full-time, i.e. 40 hours per week, after taxes— after— they will earn about $1150 per month. There is now virtually no apartment in the entire Boston metropolitan area where you will pay that little in rent. By “Boston metropolitan area” I mean “if you can use MBTA-provided public transit to reach it,” though it possibly tapers off after you’re an hour’s commuter rail ride outside the city. And then you are paying literally hundreds of dollars per month on commuter rail expenses, so you should be wealthy enough to own a car. Within the geographic area I describe, anyone advertising an apartment under $1200 is all but certifiably a con artist or a disreputable broker (same thing, of course). I will reiterate that this includes studios.

Consequently, if you make minimum wage in the Boston metro area, you are virtually required to live with a roommate and/or partner to afford any rent. Never mind any social and/or mental health difficulties with sharing your living space; consider simply that because a studio goes for more than this amount, it makes no sense at all to rent a studio for “downsizing” purposes unless you are prepared to share your living space very, very intimately. My husband and I only survived together for five and a half years in a studio because of our own intimacy.

Meanwhile, market rate units are leased largely with the expectation that the residents’ combined income be three times the rent. This is at best an irritation. Suppose you have a couple seeking a studio or a 1-bedroom. If they want one such apartment in any place that is reasonably serviced by an actual T line, they should expect $1500 as a minimum market rate. Bare minimum. They may knock off $100 or $200 for merely having a somewhat accessible bus line. Let us be charitable and give this couple a rental offer for $1300/month, all utilities included except electricity (because electricity in Boston is not usually part of the deal, at least for this end of the market). By market rate standards, the couple should hope to make $3900 per month in total, which translates to $1950 per person if an even split at full-time hours is assumed. That’s somewhat more than a $12/hour wage. Now, the landlord may merely expect $12/hour per person before taxes; and if the couple is lucky, eats fairly cheap, and doesn’t have too many regular expenses overall, they may be able to afford the $1300 rent with a little monthly wiggle room, though that’s more likely if it’s $12/hour after taxes.

But if they are not both making something in this approximate range, it is entirely likely the couple’s rental application will be denied, regardless of whatever other factors may work in their favor, not simply because of market rate standards but because of demand. The landlord has virtually no reason to rent to such candidates who are equal to others except that they earn less. For the landlord it’s a question of their own personal risk, and in the first place they assume they’re taking a very high degree of risk if their tenant(s) don’t make over some baseline amount. That’s not necessarily an inaccurate calculation, but it means that even a couple making more than minimum wage is still priced out of many units. Remember— $1300 is very cheap, and we assumed both partners were working full-time.

And I have only laid this out for a couple. Assuming that one does wish for more routine privacy from one’s roommate(s), a 2-bedroom probably starts around $1700, and again that’s at the very low end. Do the math again and for an even split this puts two roommates just shy of requiring $16/hour each at full-time. For three people, I cannot imagine a market rate 3-bedroom going for less than $2000, and here you would again need all three roommates to be at $12.50/hour at full-time. Four people might split a 4-bedroom priced at $2500, at which point the full-time wage requirement for each of them is finally something under $12. Maybe. I may be too kind with these rents. They’re all certainly rare.

People can, of course, live like this. People live like this all the time in Boston, because they don’t really have two thirds of their income left over every month for non-rent expenditures, especially not when many employers refuse to bump workers up from part-time hours in many industries. (Giving raises isn’t even in their vocabulary, either.) Paradoxically, however, even though market rate units are not supposed to accommodate economic hardships aside from the legal requirement to accept Section 8 vouchers— the requirement that a landlord mitigate risk through a minimum income requirement means that many apartment doors are de facto locked for people who are “not poor enough” for subsidized housing or can’t get off the waiting list for it.

This becomes a more laughably awful state of affairs when some things about subsidized housing are considered. The Section 8 waiting lists in this state are, generously, 8 to 10 months, often much longer, and many waiting lists are flat out closed. In an emergency where someone doesn’t fit the rather stringent requirements, there is no choice but to look at alternatives for a new home. Most public housing in Massachusetts, meanwhile, is about as synonymous with slum conditions as Pruitt-Igoe became, thanks to the powers that be. Private “affordable housing” alternatives are nominally safer, but even though they are not market rate, they almost universally come with minimum income requirements for anyone lacking the sacred voucher. Those requirements are lower than market rate because the rents themselves are lower. Sometimes. Frequently, “affordable housing” is given away, sometimes by lottery, to households making between $50,000 and $80,000 a year. Frequently, those values are for a single person.

This is “affordable” insofar as people within such income brackets may still find themselves being asked to pay $3000 per month or more in rent for maintaining their personal standard of living, and they still naturally want something less expensive that won’t increase as regularly as a market rate unit will. Despite what economic challenges these tenants face, however, Boston does not expel them as it expels others.

Of the several dozen people I call Boston-area friends or acquaintances, I can think of possibly two or three who live alone, even though they are single, and I am not sure how many can fathom doing otherwise, even if they would much rather do so. There is simply no choice.

I know the figures I’ve quoted above because I’ve read some statistics but also because, though the market is volatile, in terms of my own experience in July this was precisely what my husband and I faced. I am not interested in airing our entire financial circumstances to the world, but in loose terms, depending on the unit at least one of the following always proved detrimental to us: combined income, combined credit, combined employment hours, employment type, and similar. And, though I don’t have confirmation, in one case possibly the fact that it said “M” on my driver’s license whereas I had otherwise been read by everyone involved as “F.” This was the case even after a solid month of top-to-bottom listing searches to which I dedicated hours and hours of every single day.

We were rejected from three units before being accepted for one. For various reasons I will not name our new property management service, but I will say that compared to everything else we faced, they showed sane, flexible tenant criteria, and the unit itself is so far everything we could have wanted in a 1-bedroom. We are content with the result. In the meantime, though, as hard as the three rejections were to bear, we could have faced more; the equal if not greater difficulty arose simply in finding anywhere that was worth the application. This made every rejection chill me, nauseate me. It would have been easy to shrug off each “no” if there was the assurance that we could rapidly find somewhere else where we wanted to be told “yes,” but about half the showings I arranged did not result in an application, a very small fraction of the inquiries I made even resulted in a showing, and a very small fraction of the listings I searched even resulted in those inquiries.

Our needs did not seem substantial. A few tiers higher than “categorically desperate,” yes, but very reasonable for the region, very reasonable for our lifestyle, very reasonable for people with our particular psychologies.

  • T or bus access. As mentioned, living in commuter rail land means you should just as well own a car, unless your income is already extremely flexible. Meanwhile, living inside of the zone where commuter rail no longer matters, a car can have some meager benefits, but Boston and its adjacent municipalities have obscene parking fees, obscene roads, and obscene traffic.
  • Pet friendly. Many, many people in Boston own pets. This is not a novelty. And it is my not-exactly-minority opinion that when you welcome a pet into your home, it is your obligation to provide them with that home as long as you both shall live, unless some situation causes a dire case of incompatibility.
  • Rent we could afford independently of official income requirements.
  • Utilities included with the rent, if the rent was over a certain amount.
  • Ideally, no broker fee, but if nothing else, not too many up front expenses on the whole.
  • A dishwasher. I could go on a long tirade about how a dishwasher is not a luxury, it is a general 21st century necessity, it is extremely important for people (myself included) whose bodies do not put up easily with standing in front of a sink to wash dishes by hand. Instead, I will leave it at “a sink full of unwashed dishes” being an actual trigger for me vis à vis my abuse history. I have very few triggers, but triggers for many people are unusual, and this is mine. I need a dishwasher. I need one.
  • In-building laundry. It’s common enough these days, and it’s still troublesome to haul laundry up stairs, but less so than taking it outdoors.
  • No roommates apart from each other. The reasons for this are endless; the most succinct one is that there are very few people on the planet with whom either of us can live.

Of course I wanted hardwood floors, a great deal of space, more than one bedroom, highly modern appliances, excellent lighting, in-unit laundry, a balcony, and much beyond that. Ultimately I just wanted a home to call completely my own, to do with as I pleased, and it is indisputable that up to a certain price point we would be paying less on a mortgage and utilities than on rent and utilities, so we have even explored this option to a limited extent. But we had no hope of affording a down payment for any house, particularly not on short notice. And the things we considered a basic requirement for our new home— they truly were the only requirements.

They were still too complicated, apparently, for the city of Boston and any city or town directly bordering it. With very few exceptions— those being the ones I/we toured and applied to, and I will note that most still indirectly bordered the so-called Hub— it was possible to live less than a mile’s walk from public transit, but largely not for the rent we needed, largely not with a fair number of utilities included, largely not without grotesque fees, and oh. Pets? The rental market might reduce to 25% of its regular size, if that, when you want to have pets. Make it smaller still for more than one pet, never mind that many pets are much happier when they get to live with another of their own species. Make the number of available units even smaller for more than two pets, even though pets of a certain size and pets of nearly all temperaments are not going to cause any more inconvenience or property damage when there are three or four instead of two. We have three cats. You see the sport we were in for.

Dishwashers in this city sometimes seem like devices used on Mars. I understand perfectly why some buildings don’t install them and don’t allow tenants to install them. Water use, electrical use, etc. But here is the part where I do say this is the 21st century and this is a problem of universal accessibility. Of course, they are very common when you reach a certain bracket. Poor people, however, apparently don’t need them. It is people with leisure time who need even greater leisure of this sort. I could find “cheap” units with in-building laundry at perhaps three or four times the rate of equivalent units with dishwashers.

Most brokers I dealt with were rude, dismissive, and/or ultimately scamming. Most people I contacted didn’t get back to me, even when they seemed entirely legitimate. Regarding the brokers I worked with for a little while, most still could not give me straight answers to basic questions that I asked repeatedly, most were transparently working to fill their/their clients’ units and not to find my household a home, most were bad at answering e-mails or texts or phone calls in a timely fashion. By “timely” I mean that they were really not so slow, but for the rate at which the market allegedly moved, they were always the ones dropping the ball while I, the person potentially paying them, was working at the speed of light. Some brokers convinced me to visit or hear about units that transparently failed our criteria, which I had plainly communicated.

I entered this hunt in a preemptive state of paranoia and despair. I was already in the grip of the depression symptoms that had been resurgently ruining my emotional life since August of 2013. There were enough economic and domestic pressures for my husband and I, and I had enough gender pain to sort out on a separate level. I knew the search was going to be bad before I started. I knew we might have to settle for something very much less than ideal. And yet I had no idea just how many options would disqualify us out of hand, just how many options we would have to disqualify out of hand.

I will remain eternally grateful that a good unit finally fell into our laps. For a solid month prior to that, however, I grew convinced for a time that “our” studio would sell to some new owner before we could find a place that would not require the breakup of our feline family and would not bankrupt us, and thus we truly would become homeless. I know that to some degree this was a very irrational fear, but there was a kernel of truth in it, and if it was not truly homelessness itself that I feared, it was the prospect of having to compromise on a new home in awful, horrible ways that would prove psychologically damaging to us over time, whether that be in terms of the commute, the cost of living vs. amenities provided, the forced separation for any/all cats, the prospect of couch surfing and dealing with other humans in a domestic setting. Gradually, it became apparent that the studio would not easily sell, and this comforted me, but the mere possibility remained a source of distress. We were still frantically packing up our belongings so that we could move quickly, either as expected by any new unit or as demanded by any quasi-eviction. And even if I should not have worried too greatly, I did need to be working as hard as I could on the housing problem, so as to best stave off any worst case scenarios.

I had to put almost my entire life on hold to address this one facet. I was resentful.

For several weeks, I was fixated on suicide. My husband and I already struggled so much to make money, to be happy, to improve our lot, to prepare ourselves as needed for the enormous top-level goals we had for our lives together. Over the past year we had reached a few conclusions about how to accomplish some things, and we were continuously developing more plans, and suddenly we weren’t allowed to work on these things anymore because we had to do something utterly critical. There was no timeline for this hiatus from getting ahead. It could have taken us the month that it did, or it could have taken us many more months, depending on our luck. Facing this uncertainty, I did not objectively desire death, but as has happened to me on a small handful of past occasions, and as has happened to me more often for the past two years due to poverty in particular, all but daily I thought of doing myself assuredly lethal bodily harm. Death was not for me, but life was also not for me, and maybe death would be different. If I failed, maybe the people who could have done something about my plight would take pity on me once they knew I was in a hospital on life support. As if somehow all of those people would hear about it.

I am embarrassed about these feelings now, and I was terrified of them then. I cried almost constantly, some days. It shattered me. Half the time I would cry from sheer stress and frustration. Half the time I would cry because I had thought about slitting my wrists again and I didn’t want to be thinking about that. My face and my eyes and my throat hurt from this after a while. On days when I did not have to be at work and did not have boxes for packing, I was a listless, useless, sobbing sack of flesh. Unless I got onto a listing site and started perusing new places, sending out new queries. Then I became a perfect machine. But then I would eventually run out of units to investigate, and I would start worrying about the places I’d looked at, and I would melt down again. My lifeline was also my madness.

I have already written too much about this, too much to bother explaining how we found our new home, how we were approved, how we made the arrangements, how we moved into it. It is enough to say that it happened. But a month and a half after I finally received that blissful message of you’re approved, I find myself still looking back at the state I was in just prior to that moment. I was driving myself into, I suspect, a borderline psychosis, but I would ascribe equal blame to the normal situation of an average tenant in Boston. I think I was merely in a less resilient mental landscape for surviving the tumult, compared to some who have been in my/our precise position. On the whole, the city’s masters did not want me to be there anymore. Not in a conscious, deliberate way, perhaps, but in a meaningful way. They especially do not want even poorer people, they especially do not want people of color, they especially do not want undocumented workers, they especially do not want people with visible disabilities. But then there are many other sorts of people they don’t want there, and they don’t want them in Cambridge, they don’t want them in Somerville, they don’t want them in Brookline, they don’t want them in Quincy, in Watertown, in Newton, in Charlestown, in Malden. The city of Chelsea took me instead; it’s a city that takes a lot of people, and it’s a vibrant and interesting and good place, so far. In my reckoning.

I suspect, admittedly, that our stay in this new, tiny city will be comparably short, at least in this apartment. We do want to eventually switch to a mortgage, and we don’t plan to stay even in the Boston area forever. The landlord knows we won’t be there forever, too. So our departure, our self-expulsion, is somewhat guaranteed. I can only hope that not many in our new city don’t have to face what we faced in our old one. It’s quite possible they may. Property developers and real estate agents are speaking now of Chelsea as a hot spot, and people who do want to save money are moving there on a regular basis. White people. Affluent white people. I didn’t have very much of a choice about moving where I would be permitted to move, but I cannot overlook the larger pattern into which my action may have taken place, and even if it was harmless on its own, who can tell how long it will be before someone looks at Chelsea and decides to make it a place for the affluent alone, just as Boston has now become?

DLJ

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