Rental Insanity

You know what’s insane?

Renting a home. It makes no sense at all. The basic concept of the capitalist exchange doesn’t work, here, because you’re not exchanging money for goods or services: the tenant does not own the home, and the landlord is not doing anything for the tenant. Yes yes of course, the landlord is selling the right to live on his property; but he’s not really selling it, because there are stipulations. (And how does one sell the right to live, anyway? I swear I read something once about inalienable, or some such.) Stipulations are only possible when ownership is not exchanged: a landlord telling a tenant he can’t have a dog is like someone selling you a car and saying, “But you’re not allowed to use Reverse. You can only drive forward.” That would make sense if someone was borrowing your car (and you had a pathological fear of moving backwards, or of mirrors, or of the letter R), because you still own it, and you can tell the borrower how to drive it. But that isn’t analogous to renting a home, either: because borrowing is done on a single-use basis, and only with people who know and trust the owner. I have lived in many homes whose owners I have never met, not even seen or in some cases known their names. Nobody would lend things like that. You’re giving someone a valuable thing (Because if it isn’t valuable enough to give back, then it isn’t borrowing — as we all remember from that guy in school who used to ask to “borrow” a sheet of paper every class, and who used to get crap for that verb. “Sure, Tad-Biff — you gonna give it back when you’re done?”) with the expectation that you will get it back after it has been used — generally used once. The borrower reads the book and gives it back; watches the movie and gives it back; makes punch and serves it in the bowl and then gives the bowl back. Unless you’re Ned Flanders and you’re giving your stuff to Homer Simpson, that is. But that just proves my point, because the Simpsons is a satire of modern life, with Homer as the man who does not ever abide by the social contract.

What does it say about landlords when their basic transaction makes them like Homer Simpson?

The real divergence, though, is in the money: if you let someone borrow your car, that person should certainly be responsible for the gas they use and any damage they do; but what kind of full-bore jackass would you be if you charged money just for the simple use, on top?

“Sure, you can use my car while yours is in the shop. Cost you $20 a day.”

You’d be a landlord kind of jackass.

Of course I’m oversimplifying in some ways. There are plenty of businesses that lend use-without-ownership of something valuable in exchange for money — cars, power tools, DVDs, electronics, furniture, even money; but a home isn’t a thing you “use.” Living somewhere is not using the home; we don’t say “Last year I used outside of Denver, but now I use in Colorado Springs.” It’s much more than that. A home is the place where we live: a home is where we spends time with our family; a home holds and protects all of our possessions, which shape and define our time, and therefore our lives, in all the spaces our families don’t. A home becomes a touchstone for almost everything — it’s where people find us, where they send things to us, where they bring us when we’re too drunk to get there ourselves. A home defines a person, in many ways, because it allows you to do the thing that defines you — you can’t be a gearhead without a garage, or a cook without a kitchen, or a gardener without a garden. You also can’t survive at all without shelter or safety or sleep, all of which become extremely difficult to acquire without a home — and therefore a home makes you human. Home is where the heart is, where life is.

How can I live in a place that doesn’t belong to me?

The answer is, I can’t; that’s why the laws defend the resident, the tenant, and even the squatter much more than the owner. Possession is nine-tenths, and our society recognizes that — though that last tenth, in the hands of the 1%, means that our government has done quite a lot to protect the landlord, too. But in essence, we know, deep down, that the person who lives in a place has some right to it, has some claim of ownership on it. It’s just too bad that we don’t actually live according to what we know to be right.

All right, enough: let’s pretend the basic concept is sound, and discuss the jagged little pieces of insanity that come with renting a home. First, landlords lie. The photos online do not in any way resemble the actual property; at best, they choose the one flattering angle and then stand on the garbage can in order to crop out the broken fence, the tumbleweeds, and the rusty nails and shattered beer-bottle glass spread across the yard like tinsel on the world’s worst Christmas tree. Why do they try to change the way the house looks in the pictures? Do they think we’re not going to see the place when we show up to look at the inside, or to rent it, or to take possession? Are they going to stand directly in our line of sight, holding up an enlarged copy of the photo from Craig’s List, saying, “Here, see? Here’s the house, you can see it right here. NO! Don’t turn your head. Close your eyes for a second and I’ll show you the other rooms, one at a time.” Or do they think that we’ll show up, see the reality, and think, “Well, it sure looked better in the pictures. Maybe this is just an off-day. Maybe the light is bad here. I’m sure once I’ve given the landlord money, it’ll look like it did online!”

Maybe landlords just do a lot of internet dating, and got into the habit of using fake pictures and hoping the other person doesn’t bolt when they see the truth.

Now, Toni and I have in fact rented two different properties from a distance, once when we moved to Oregon and then again when we came to Tucson; but for the second one, we had a local connection, a good friend of mine from high school who lives in Tucson, who went around and scouted out our prospects for us. This means that out of the times that we have rented a house, there is exactly one time that deceptive photos online would have taken us in. So then why?

It’s not just the photos, either. “Single-family home” in the ad becomes “Broken-down dirt-crusted center unit in a triplex” when you drive by. “Fenced yard?” Sure, if you think the row of old bent croquet wickets lining the dirt patch qualifies. “Great neighborhood” if you intend to get jumped into the local Crips — is it called a lodge? A chapter? Crips Country Clubhouse? Anyway. “Off-Street Parking” means you can park on the sidewalk between the dumpsters and the rats’ nests. “Cooling system” means you can open the windows and hope for a breeze. We all know the buzz words: “cute” and “quaint” and “cozy” all mean “small;” “character” means “old,” as does “traditional;” “easy maintenance” means “it’s already broken.” Sometimes things just vanish: the included washer and dryer, the recessed lighting, the covered patio “great for entertaining.” And in every case, I wonder: did they think we wouldn’t notice? It’s one thing if you sell a kid a toy in a cardboard box, and it’s only when he gets it home that he discovers that his new G.I. Joe Attack Helicopter doesn’t actually fly by itself — thanks for that emotional scar, Hasbro — but this is a home. The customer is going to live in it, for a very long time. They will notice that the front door is missing, and they will say something about it to the person who still legally owns the home.

But let’s say you find a place. The ad looks great, you drive by and the neighborhood seems acceptable — you know, drug deals happen in a BMW instead of a burnt-out Toyota shell, the graffiti is aesthetic, the local hoarders keep their piles inside instead of in the yard — the place has what you need. So you call: Sorry, that was rented seven years ago last July. Yeah, I need to remember to take down that Craig’s List post.

A moment about Craig’s List: all websites have their problems; some don’t filter well, some have too many ads or not enough information, some don’t have a good map or the photos are too small; but Craig’s List is special. Only there can a month-old listing be automatically renewed and then get labeled as “Posted six hours ago.” Only there can one person list the same property seventy-nine times, so that your search for a place turns up just that one freaking condo. Only there can people post an email address as their sole contact information, and then fail to return any and all correspondence. I’m glad that Craig’s List exists, because I prefer renting from individuals rather than property management companies with their own professional, polished websites; but I really wish someone could keep some individuals from using it.

But as I said, all websites have their problems. No pictures is one. That’s just absurd. Am I supposed to fall in love with the place based on your turgid prose? What is this, the nineteenth century? At least show me an etching. Another problem is failing to give particularly vital information — like the cooling system, here in Tucson. I don’t mean to be single-minded in my housing criteria, but you better believe I want to know about the air conditioning when the summer days regularly reach 110. (Side note: why the hell do all these houses have no air conditioning? Are you aware you live in the desert? And that extreme heat is uncomfortable? What is this, the nineteenth century? Shall I just sweat into my waistcoat and then bathe after a fortnight?) Another problem is when they don’t give the address unless and until you contact them and listen to a spiel about the place. It’s the same thing as the lies: you can say what you want, but I’m still going to drive by, and then insist on seeing the inside, before I give you a dime.

That brings me to a new problem we encountered on this search, but not in the past. There is a company here in Tucson that has two businesses related to rentals: they manage some properties, and they also offer a listing service — meaning they will sift through the dozens of websites and find listings that match your criteria and then send them to you, for a $60 fee for three months of emails. Fine and good. I don’t want to use the service, but I can see the value of it, particularly for very busy people, or those with the time and inclination to look for that one perfect needle in the haystack. The issue I have with them is that their listings, the properties they actually manage, are used as bait: they set the rents low, post listings on all of the regular sites, and conceal the addresses, offering their phone number for more information. Then you call and ask about that one place you saw online, and what do you get? A sales pitch for their listing service, which you need to sign up for before they will tell you a single thing about that one place you called for. Most annoying business model since the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

And by the way: did someone say rent? Did someone say the rent is too damn high?

I can’t go into numbers, because they vary too widely from place to place, but the fact is, the amounts we are expected to pay for housing are just absurd.

A recent report from the Joint Center for Housing Studies (JCHS) at Harvard, puts some numbers on just how bad this problem is: About half of all renters in the U.S. are using more than 30 percent of their income to cover housing costs, and about 25 percent have rent that exceeds 50 percent of their monthly pay.

from The Atlantic

How some of these people can stand to demand this much money for the broken-down shacks they offer is beyond me. I am extremely happy that we have moved to a place where there is enough inventory, and enough vacancy, to enable us to find a place for a decent price — which occurred partly because it was empty long enough for the landlord to bring the rent down — but sadly, the state where we live is one of the worst for paying teachers, so even with reasonable rents, the rent is still too large a piece of our income. But I know I am saying nothing that people don’t already know, and already bewail. Allow me just to point out that in Jonathan Swift’s famous essay A Modest Proposal, the one about eating Irish babies, the villains he names specifically are the landlords who take every penny that the poor Irish could earn or beg, leaving them no choice but to starve:

 

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Source

The rent has always been too damn high. Always.

Let me move on to something that not everybody will know about: renting with pets. The first problem is that this cuts your choices in half, if not by two-thirds — although (and this is even more annoying than the number of landlords who won’t allow pets) several of those just don’t have it listed as an option, but if you call them, they don’t mind pets at all. Jerks. The second problem is the types of pets that are allowed: cats OK, but not dogs. Dogs OK, but not cats. Dogs and cats OK, but not over 25 pounds. I had a landlady turn us down once when I told her I had an iguana in a terrarium. The biggest problem, though, is that owning pets seems to be seen as a license for landlords to demand stuff: additional clauses in the agreement. Pet deposits. Pet rent. I mean, pet rent? Are you assuming that my pet has an income, and therefore you deserve a piece of it? Let me tell you: he doesn’t. Nobody pays him to be cute. He gives it away for free. Which is what makes him a better person than you. Let me also note that this whole scheme is bunk: would you charge me different rent based on the number of people living in the place? What if I had two jobs — would I pay two rents? The whole thing is ridiculous. An additional pet deposit on top of the security deposit presumes not only that my pet will do damage to the home, but also that said pet damage will be on top of the damage that I will do to the home, which will consume the entire security deposit. Same thing with additional pet clauses in the agreement: can’t you just leave it at “Don’t mess the place up?” Do we need to describe the ways I am not to mess the place up? Thank you for your trust. Here is all of my money.

All of it, and not just for rent. I’ve seen places that want first and last and a security deposit and a cleaning deposit and a deposit for each pet. A new one this search was a place that actually said the deposit was non-refundable. So does that mean they’re just going to keep it when you move out? Not surprising, that happens more often than not, but to just say it like that takes a lot of brass. Then they want fees: application fees, up to $80 per adult (And again: why do you need both of us? If I can pay the rent with my income, aren’t we done talking?). Just to apply for the opportunity to give you all the rest of my money. They want a credit check, a background check, proof of income (which must be three times the monthly rent), proof of employment, rental history going back five years, references from your last landlord and from three trustworthy individuals who know your character. It’s insane.

Look. I just want a house. Not a big house. It doesn’t have to be brand new, and it doesn’t have to be in perfect condition, and it doesn’t need to have nine bathrooms and a spa and all chrome-and-platinum appliances. I just want a place where my family can sleep at night, and then get up in the morning and go about our day. A place where I can write, and my wife can paint, and our dog can play with his Wubba. Somewhere that has rooms that fit our furniture, with enough space left to walk around and between things. Somewhere I can put my books on shelves, instead of in plastic tubs in the storage shed in the backyard. A cute place would be nice, but I’ll take a place with potential. Somewhere we can feel safe. Somewhere to live.

Is that too much to ask?

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