White Girl in the Hood
The last two years have been very unlucky for my household. First, Jeff (and everyone else in his department) lost the job which was the only reason we moved to overpriced northern Virginia in the first place. And my job didn't pay quite enough to cover all of our expenses here, so after Jeff's unemployment ran out we had to withdraw a couple hundred from savings every month to make ends meet. Then I lost that job last September (and didn't even get unemployment, since it was officially a contractor position). Meanwhile, Jeff's mother died, leaving behind a slew of past-due debt payments and a heavily reverse-mortgaged house; his brother experienced a slew of diabetes-related health problems resulting in the amputation of a leg; Jeff wasted an entire year struggling to short-sell that stupid house because mortgage-holder Wells Fargo kept screwing up the paperwork every time he found a buyer … Jeff and I fortunately managed to keep our health (mostly), but that's close to the only good thing I have to say about these past two years.
But finally, three weeks ago, came an improvement: Jeff got a job offer in Atlanta, starting July 18. Two weeks ago we drove down there (no flying, of course, not while the TSA still plays mandatory one-way grab-ass with American fliers), rented a hotel room and spent a few days looking for a house to rent. Before our drive I spent a couple of days looking through realty websites and found several nice-looking houses in our price range, but there seemed to be some problem with the website: anytime I'd click on the “more information” button in hopes of finding a rental agent's contact info, I instead received an application form, with mandatory per-person fees and occasionally even demands for credit card information.
Must be some confusion, I figured — I'm getting sent to the “apply to rent this house” page rather than the “express interest in simply looking at the house to determine whether you want to rent it or not” one. Nor was it just that one realty website, either: the same thing happened with Realtor, Trulia and Zillow dot com.
Jeff and I figured we'd have better luck once we actually got down there. After all: when we moved from Connecticut to Virginia four years ago, my Connecticut-based attempts to find Virginia housing also went nowhere; not until we actually got to the area in person did we make any progress. If nothing else, we figured, Jeff and I could surely do an Atlanta-based repeat of our Leesburg experience four summers ago: walk into a realty office, introduce ourselves, present our middle-class bona fides and have a realty agent drive us around to look at possibilities.
Nope. The Atlanta-area agents we spoke to wanted an upfront “broker fee” of anywhere from $400 to $1,500, to help us find a house. So we kept searching on our own, finding properties online, driving out to try getting a feel for various neighborhoods, and found a few houses in neighborhoods we thought nice enough … yet still faced an utterly baffling inability to make contact with an actual human real estate agent with whom to discuss the possibility of seeing the inside of a house.
I called a property management company about some houses on their website, and the man on the phone was extremely friendly and told us that yes, most of the addresses I mentioned were still available for rent – just as soon as Jeff and I paid application fees and submitted to a credit check and gave them a valid credit card number....
I posted an exhausted rant to some friends on Facebook:
You know those frustrating Sisyphus dreams where you keep trying to perform some absurdly simple task, yet fail every time? That is EXACTLY what trying to find a rental house in Atlanta is like. Every place I've ever rented before, I always had to pay an application fee and submit to a credit/criminal background check -- AFTER I'd looked at the property and decided I wanted to rent it. But it is apparently impossible to look at houses in Atlanta unless you pay the application and background-check fees FIRST.
Three days later I posted another Facebook status:
Q: Why did the gods condemn Sisyphus to spend eternity futilely trying to roll a rock uphill?
A: Because condemning him to try finding decent, affordable rental housing in the Greater Metro Atlanta region was too cruel even for THEM.
But finally, after over a week of frustrating aborted attempts, I figured out the problem: Apparently, the New Big Thing in the rental-house market (as opposed to renting apartments) is self-guided tours: rather than have a realty agent show you a house, after using his or her Realtor's master key to unlock the lockbox holding the keys to said house, you tour the house by yourself, using a smartphone app to unlock the lockbox and access the housekeys. But of course, before they'll let you do this, you must go through a complete background credit/criminal check, and offer your credit card number (presumably so they can bill you if they later blame you for any damage in the house). And that also is presumably why evermore realty agents, at least in the greater metro Atlanta area, won't take you to look at houses unless you pay them a hefty broker fee first.
Forget houses, then. We'll focus exclusively on apartments. But finding apartments online wasn't much easier: a standard Google search for “Atlanta apartments” (or “Decatur apartments,” or any other nearby suburbs) mainly shows hyper-luxury high-rise rentals at prices giddy enough to make northern Virginia, or even San Francisco, look downright cheap.
We found a couple decent-looking apartment complexes online, but when we toured the complexes and got the application forms we discovered the advertised price was something of a bait-and-switch: the listed rent itself was in our range, but it didn't include the monthly fee the apartment complex charged for water and sewer, the monthly trash pickup fee, the monthly maintenance fee … add all those unadvertised fees to the rent, and we'd end up paying as much if not more than we pay now in the expensive suburbs of Washington, DC.
Looking for apartments on standard realty sites wasn't much easier – I'd call about certain apartments listed as “available,” only to learn they wouldn't have any vacancies until September or whenever.
Then Jeff suggested we pick up an apartment guide. In northern Virginia, and also in Connecticut, the lobbies of most supermarkets and big-box stores have stands offering various free advertising newspapers and magazines, including guides to apartment-complex rentals in the area.
So we drove to a nearby Walmart, and Jeff pulled up to the front of the store while I dashed out, hurried into the lobby, scanned the offerings of free newspapers and local-tourism pamphlets and determined that no rental guides were among them. Drove to the nearest supermarket and did the same thing – Jeff pulled up front, I scanned the options in the store lobby, and this time, hooray! I saw a stand dedicated to something called “Atlanta Apartments” magazine! Reached out to grab a copy, and my fingertips hit the shiny plastic backstand illustrated with a picture of the magazine's front page-- Kroger stores do indeed offer apartment guides in their lobbies, but this particular Kroger had run out.
Luckily, I did succeed in finding an actual copy of the magazine at the second or third store we tried. Then back to our hotel room, to go online and research various complexes in the magazine.
Some were far more expensive than we wanted to (or could) pay. Others had no vacancies in the size we need. Still more looked promising in the magazine, except when I checked their websites I learned they were income-restricted “affordable” housing, and Jeff makes too much money to qualify unless we have multiple kids first.
But finally, we found what looked like a nice place, in a large apartment complex in Decatur. Straight rent with no additional fees for water, sewer and trash pickup. The apartment would be vacant on July 1, but the complex would need a few days to paint and clean it before we could do the walk-through and get the keys.
We were the only white people in the property management office, but we've both grown up and spent most of our lives living and shopping in integrated neighborhoods, so we're used to being the local minority even if it hasn't really come up in the four years we've lived in this particular part of northern Virginia.
Toured the model apartment – looked nice. In our price range, large enough for our needs, and with ample storage too. We filled out the applications and credit-check forms (and paid the non-refundable fees), and the property manager told us it would take a few days for the background checks to be completed.
Next morning we checked out of our hotel room and drove back to northern Virginia, to start the exhausting process of packing for a move. A couple days later, the complex told us we'd passed the background check and could do the walk-through and get the keys anytime after noon on July 8.
As usual for us, moving would be a two-step process: first we drive down there with a one-way U-Haul rental plus one car, both crammed full of stuff (mainly boxes of our books and various odds and ends); then, we return to the old place and hire a moving company to move the big furniture plus other heavy things.
On Wednesday, July 6, we rented the truck and loaded it with help from some friends. Next day, Jeff drove the truck and I drove his car to a hotel in South Carolina, about three hours away from Decatur. Friday morning we left the hotel and made it to the apartment complex's rental office a few minutes before noon.
Side note – when we'd filled out the application the week before, I'd noticed an odd disclaimer at the top of the first page: something about how in order to live here you must have a minimum income at least three times the monthly rent, and furthermore, for multiple adult renters the combined income cannot be counted except for married couples.
In other words: if you're a low-income single who can only afford a monthly rent of $500, and you have a single friend who also can only afford $500, the two of you may not team up and rent a $950 apartment together unless you get married; the only way two or more unmarried people can rent that place is if at least one of them makes enough to swing the rent alone.
Jeff wondered if we'd have to show them a copy of our marriage certificate. After all, we have different last names and don't even wear rings, so that certificate is the only proof that we are indeed legally hitched. But it turned out to be a non-issue, because Jeff's upcoming salary alone is enough to swing the rent (though my current pittance of a freelance income most assuredly is not).
Thus, on Friday we got there to discover that the lease is in Jeff's name only; I am listed as a “resident,” but my signature is not required or even wanted on any of the official paperwork.
So while Jeff sat in the rental office perusing the documents, I went out to move the car to a new spot in front of our new apartment. On my way there I met a friendly man – maybe my age, maybe ten years older or younger – who introduced himself as one of the apartment complex's maintenance men, welcomed me to my new home, and then said “This IS the hood, you know. There have been break-ins. Make sure you get an alarm system.”
And that night, after we'd spent an exhausting day carrying heavy box after heavy box up a flight of stairs in sweltering 95+ degree heat, Jeff pointed out that the doorknob and deadbolt on our front door had both been plated. “That means that door was broken down at some point.”
And then, while moving a small bookcase into position in our new living room, I saw and Jeff killed a bug which we both suspect was a cockroach. (We had not yet carried a single particle of food into that dwelling.)
Granted I am a pessimist by nature, but: I have the sinking suspicion this does not bode well for our living arrangements, these next twelve months.