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All Winners and Losers
By Christine Stoddard
A lease lures no one, but the perfectly phrased rental ad does all the time, every day. No matter the city, there's always someone looking for shelter. Some people want a palace. Some people simply want four walls. Some people don't even ask for that much; they're satisfied with a sofa or a place to throw down a sleeping bag.
With the Great Recession, I doubt there's an urban-dwelling twenty-something alive who doesn't know at least one person their age who's turned couchsurfing as a means of avoiding the rain and rent at once. Usually it is a matter of money. Sometimes it is a matter of logistics. Not too infrequently, it is a matter of both.
When an older friend graduated from college my sophomore year, I later learned that he had spent his last semester at the mercy of friends and classmates. On the nights when they closed their doors to him, he slept in his car. As the temperatures began to fall, he kept himself warm by burrowing deep into the pile of his belongings, nestled like a mouse. His mother had fallen gravely ill and the money that would've gone toward his college apartment went toward her health expenses instead. With only four months left in the city, it made little sense for him to sign a lease.
I once met another young man who suffered a similar situation. In hushed tones at a party, he divulged his secret of living in his car for a whole semester. After a couple of nights worth of couchsurfing, he decided not to bother anyone any longer. Every night after that, he would pull up onto dark streets in the scummiest sections of the city to escape notice. He'd close his eyes and let the sounds of gunshots and police sirens lull him to dream land. He rightfully assumed that the cops had more pressing matters to attend to than an innocent overnight parking violation. One night, that assumption made an ass out of him. He woke up to the clicks, clacks, and whirs of his car getting towed. He jumped out of his car, pleaded with the tow-truck driver, and evaded a huge fine because of his desperate state.
Yet for every person who can make do calling his car home, there are at least a dozen more who demand a castle with a moat and high-speed Internet. About a year ago, my then-roommates and I made an evening out of penning the perfect Craigslist ad for a vacant room in our house. The trick was to be honest about the room, the house, and ourselves while still making the whole deal sound attractive. It was a challenge. We lived in a dump. We were three very different people with different expectations. Roommates' attitudes ranged from mine—hardly caring because I was hardly ever home—to those of one who insisted on having family-style dinners together every night. The room's greatest virtue was its sticker price: cheap enough for even the most frugal monk. After a lot of groping for buzz words, we wrote a winning ad.
Within the first day of posting our ad, we had received more responses than I could keep track of. I became delirious trying to respond to all of them. Sometimes I could've sworn I had replied to a message, only to see that I had never even opened it. Shortly thereafter, my roommates and I agreed to contact only the people who interested us as potential roommates. Then came the tedious process of scheduling roommate interviews.
Lo and behold, the weekend of interviews fell during a time when I had to travel. Needless to say, my roommates attacked me with stories upon my return. The common refrain? Most of the interviewees had not really read the ad and wanted far more in the ways of favors and amenities than we could offer them. No, we could not let you live with your fiancée when the room would barely be comfortable enough for one. No, we would not be comfortable with your sister coming over unannounced to do your laundry. No, we could not allow your dogs—plural. My roommates ended up going with a girl who possessed basic reading comprehension skills and a low-key approach to life. We became fast friends.
I've been a nomad and see myself remaining that way until I'm ready to buy a house. In the past year, I've lived in six places, signing only one lease during that time. Combing through all the legalese of the lease proved to be more of an ordeal than I would've liked. Later finding someone to sublet that lease gave me a headache, too. Over the course of that year, my rent ranged from $300 to $850 a month. When I later discovered an acquaintance living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan was paying the same as I was to pay in a suburb of Washington, D.C., I felt like a fool. Months earlier, I had felt clever for paying hundreds of dollars less per month than my acquaintances living a month away from me.
The greatest stress for me is finding a place, not actually moving. I know how deceptive Craigslist ads and leases can be. I mostly fear the ones put up by small-time criminals. I've toured places where tenants are not allowed to use the kitchen or where overnight guests are strictly prohibited. I've even toured two hoarders' homes. While they advertised an available room, they had no room to spare.
This weekend, my sister moved to a historic neighborhood that's just now shedding a stigma it has held for decades. One day soon, I hope to read through all the Craigslist ads for her neighborhood, look up neighborhood demographics, and check who's sleeping in the parked cars at night. I'd like to know who's winning and losing the moving game around those parts.