The Rent Is Too Damn High

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The dream doesn’t always start the same way, but the fundamental story is constant: I unexpectedly discover that the tiny San Francisco apartment I share with my husband and our cat contains previously undiscovered rooms. It could be that I find them through a hidden door, a closet I’d never bothered to open, or a separate entrance I’d never used. Whatever the path, all of a sudden my living space doubles or triples in size, and I don’t have to move or pay more in rent. I’m so relieved, I think. This is great.

I’ve had this dream probably a dozen times. The fact that it is recurring and so literal makes me laugh, but warily. I really do want more space, but I can’t bring myself to make the sacrifices it would take to get it — either putting more of my income toward rent than I feel comfortable with, or leaving San Francisco. At least not yet. This is the huge, looming question facing many of my friends and people in my peer group who live in expensive cities: what are we going to do when we finally decide that the rent is too damn high?

It’s not as simple as moving to a cheaper city, because we’ve invested so much into the ones we currently live in. Many of us have spent the past five, six, ten years putting down roots, growing our professional networks, and advancing our careers. We have strong friendships, jobs we’re attached to, and often a sense of geographic identity that feels hard to give up. We don’t want to leave. And even if we did, where would we go?

We asked 6 non-millionaires living in expensive cities how they’re handling (or have already handled) this dilemma. Here are their answers.

 

Lizzie

We recently bought a house in San Rafael, CA. We moved from Oakland. Our monthly mortgage is actually cheaper than what our landlord rented our apartment out for after we left. Our cost of living now is manageable only because we were lucky enough to have help with a down-payment, and because we have a fixed mortgage.

Had we stayed in Oakland, and had we been unable to buy, we probably would have convinced ourselves to stay in our rental and “ride it out” until the market collapsed/bubble burst (or at least deflated!). Before we bought I recall feeling a sense of injustice about it all– a sense that we lived in the new gilded age, and I was angry that two people with advanced degrees who worked in public service couldn’t “make it”. Of course, “making it” is all relative, but both my husband and I grew up in the suburbs with houses and yards, and after having a baby, all of a sudden life in an apartment seemed way less glamorous. We just wanted a small house with a small yard and for a while we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to get that.

My whole family moved to the Bay Area from the Midwest. On a number of occasions I actually said out loud “if only my family still lived in the Midwest, I’d move back there! It would be so much easier!”. But of course, we couldn’t really imagine moving back to the Midwest– I hate winter, and we’d fallen in love with the Bay Area. We finally had found a great group of friends (also with small children!) and so we would likely have justified the “hustle” to stay here as renters. Or maybe we would’ve moved to a less desirable “up-and-coming” neighborhood… hard to say, but we likely would’ve found a way to stay.

I feel grateful every day that we found a house that we love, in a great neighborhood, near my work and where there are good schools. We always talk about how we feel like we caught the last rope on a hot-air balloon rapidly ascending into the realm of untouchable (i.e., the housing market). The privilege of our situation is not lost on us. While we feel a huge sense of relief, it feels terrible to live in a time and place where rent and housing costs are so astronomical. This inequity isn’t healthy for anyone– as individuals or as a society.

 

Lauren

Shawn and I decided to move out of Northern New Jersey during the winter of 2013. The decision to leave NJ was not one that we made lightly. I had lived in and around my hometown for nearly 30 years and I was hesitant to make such a drastic move. However, NJ was becoming too crowded and too expensive and Shawn and I knew we one day wanted to buy a home and raise a family and we didn’t think we could comfortably do that in NJ.

We had looked a bit at homes in the area in which we were living and we didn’t think we could even move into a condo for anything under 250k in a school system that we were not thrilled about. It seemed so crazy to us that we both had good paying jobs, were making over 6 figures in a combined income, and still couldn’t afford to live where we wanted. We contemplated the idea of moving further south in NJ and even into Pennsylvania, but we finally settled on Portland, Maine as it would get Shawn back to his home state.

It was a drastic move and one we did with relatively little planning but it has truly been one of the best decisions we’ve made. Although we miss friends and family back home, we’ve improved our quality of life. We were able to afford a nice home in a suburb of Portland and we now enjoy an overall slower pace of life. I wouldn’t say that we would never move back to NJ but it would certainly take some serious consideration.

 

Jane

I live on the border of the East Village and the Lower East Side, practically in the East River. I live in a new apartment complex (definitely contributing the gentrification and rising rents of this area) and I currently spend half my paycheck on rent.

However, it is important to note that while I spend half my paycheck on my portion of the rent, my boyfriend pays the other two thirds. Having more people than you do bedrooms (in this case two people in a one bedroom) seems to be the only way to live anywhere near your preferred neighborhood. As a teacher, my salary is essentially determined for the rest of my life, so I imagine there will come a day when the rent surpasses my income and we will have to move on, or maybe I’ll want a dog and that will also trigger a move. It will be challenging though, as I love New York and all it has to offer.

I think if I were to leave New York, it would be upstate, somewhere off of Metro North, so I could still access the city and its amenities regularly. Despite growing up in Maine, I have no desire to return to a life of isolation. I find people too interesting. Leaving New York scares me a lot. Will I get bored? (yes.) Lonely? (probably.) Depressed? (maybe not.) Out of shape? (hope not.) What I like about New York is that it’s challenging, and the constant need to keep up with the rent is part of that, so on second thought… Maybe I’ll never leave New York.

 

Kat

Do I personally think Bay Area rents are crazy? Yes, but it’s all a matter of perspective. When it comes to renting an apartment, I think it depends on your priorities. At this point in my life, I want to pay at most 1/3 of my monthly income (after tax) for a reasonable one-bedroom, and I want to commute to work in less then 20-30 minutes. Now, I’ve stretched those ideals from time to time in the past, but that’s what feels right to me today. Thanks to luck and rent control, I was able to pull that off in SF for a few years.

Unfortunately, the quality of my crappy studio and my neglectful landlord finally got to me. That was a big factor in my decision to leave San Francisco because I only had two other options. I could have moved to East Bay (more like east East Bay) or I could have looked for a new room in an apartment with 2-3 roommates. The former would have increased my commute to 90 minutes both ways and the latter would have broken my budget.

After a lot of thought, returning to Texas felt best, and I love my new apartment. It meets all my criteria and some. With all that stress gone, I have a lot more energy for the rest of my life. That said, I’m not the only one who’s left California for Texas, and Austin is starting to worry about the future. Rent has gone up a lot, and it’s still going, much to the frustration of long time locals. A lot of us would like to buy a house someday, and we wonder what that looks like. Did our parents face the same issues or is this so-called “housing crisis” really the new norm in every city? Maybe Austin will become the new SF in five years. Hopefully, not. For now, it’s heaven.

 

Allison

I live in Maplewood, NJ and have been here about 10 months. We relocated from the Upper West Side (where we had lived for 6 years) because we had a baby who was rapidly taking up space in our apartment and moving about that space in new and exciting ways. In fact, we moved a few weeks after his 1st birthday and he began walking shortly after that.

The first 2 months after the move were difficult. More for me than my husband, because he was still going into the city every day for work. It was overwhelming for me to feel out of sorts in a place where I knew few people and just didn’t know my way around. My husband had two friends out here already and both of these friends were so welcoming and helpful. One of these friends was part of playgroup of moms who all had children born around the same time and it was a wonderful way for me to meet other women who had been in the community for a while and to make some toddler friends for Walter. Additionally, we became members of Midtown Direct Rep (MDR) , which is professional, ensemble-based theater company in residence at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) in South Orange, NJ.

Once the initial growing pains subsided, I have to say we are extremely happy in our new home and having so much space still feels like a real luxury. The community in Maplewood is full of Upper West Side and Brooklyn transplants and made up of so many artists. It’s a diverse community and a “stigma-free” town with an adorable downtown village but also extremely close to suburban delights like malls and a Target which really does help keep costs down.

We pay a mortgage now instead of rent which is substantially less than we had been paying in our last apartment. There are other hidden costs, however, with the house upkeep that we hadn’t planned on, such as having to fix the basement after it flooded. We definitely have all those first time home owner problems which can be frustrating to navigate at times. I think our plan would certainly be to stay in Maplewood for at least a good chunk of time. We have made some lovely friends and love the opportunities for our son. The schools are wonderful, the parks are beautiful, and there is so much to do for families out here. And, the commute is really easy, about 35 minutes to Penn Station. If we ever left the NYC/NJ area, I imagine it would be to a place with a beach and sunny weather as I grew up in Florida and still have trouble dealing with winter, but that seems more like a late in life move rather than one we’d actively consider since our work is specific to the NYC theater/music industry.

 

Sherri

I live in Oakland, in the Piedmont Avenue/Rose Garden neighborhood. When my now-husband and I moved here from Chicago seven years ago, we drove across the country, showed up at the apartment that looked the best online, signed the lease and moved in on the spot. We haven’t left. We consider ourselves very lucky because our apartment is rent controlled, and the rents in Oakland have since skyrocketed. But the flip side of the coin is that we’ve outgrown the space, yet a move to an apartment with just a few more amenities–a second bedroom, a dishwasher, etc.–would require a huge jump in rent for us now, and our nonprofit salaries have not kept pace. So in our current situation, the cost of living is absolutely manageable, but when we look ahead–and especially consider starting a family–the future is uncertain. Since we aren’t originally from the Bay Area, the prospect of leaving isn’t particularly scary and, indeed, is increasingly tempting. In all honesty, we haven’t found much in Oakland that we didn’t have in Chicago–the notable (and not insignificant) exceptions being the diversity and the weather. There will come a time soon when we will have to decide if those exceptions are really worth it.

 

Brett

My wife and I live in a cozy one bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side in New York City. Our cost of living is manageable right now, though we often discuss the changes we’ll have to make once we decide to grow our family or buy a home (the latter of which sometimes seems like an impossibility).

While our jobs and friends have kept us in New York (along with our favorite restaurants, neighborhoods, and all the other stuff we love about this city), we both feel a move to the west coast to be closer to family is a possibility in the near future. Apart from that, the cost of living in New York and the grind of living in a huge city are both factors that could inspire us to make a move.

The scariest part of leaving our home is the uncertainty of whether we’ll love a new home as much as we love this one. New York is full of particularly unique opportunities, people and experiences. Likewise, though, we’re excited for the possibilities of new adventures in a new home. We love where we are, but we don’t doubt that we can find similar love for another place.

 

Jessica

My husband and I have been living by Lake Merritt, in Oakland, for over a decade, and while we adore the neighborhood, the vibrant community that the Lake has become, the restaurants and farmer’s markets and cafes, we knew we’d have to move eventually to make space for our family. Three flights of stairs and a 24 pound child was getting irksome and if we had another child it would be even harder pregnant with toddler in tow. We realized it was a reasonable time to move in our lives, and that rents look to be going higher everywhere, so moving later might be more expensive.

We were looking in Oakland, Berkeley, Albany (hahaha), Alameda and San Leandro. Becoming parents makes moving complicated because schools are factor. Everywhere we looked rents have gone up considerably since we last moved, and our landlady is renting our place for $500/month more than we were paying! We lucked into finding a great 3BR house on a cul-de-sac that was bigger, nicer, had a garage and a sweet yard with roses and tomatoes, and it was in San Leandro.

I’m an Oakland native and Michael has lived on the same block for over 15 years. It took some intense consideration to contemplate leaving urban life for the suburbs, though we’re super close to Oakland and it takes more time to get through Berkeley than our new house. Nonetheless it is a psychic departure. Happily, since we moved the amenities of a larger, more convenient and family friendly space has made us very happy.

Image: Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Machines” (1963)

4 Comments

  1. Michele. Urvater

    Fantastic piece. Michael and I had the same dilemma at the time Alessia was born but we didn’t have the heart to leave Manhattan especially since I was born and raised for my first 8 years on the Upper West Side. We made due with our tiny apartment but decided we could not afford another child and made our peace with that. By the way, when we were raising Alessia, I had the exact same recurring dream as did Leda.

    • leda

      I often think about you when I mull over my future in an expensive city (which happens frequently). You really made it work. It’s inspiring!

  2. Hana Marritz

    HEY LEDA,

    I’ve had that very dream repeatedly, when we were living in an apartment on the Upper West Side. At the time I found these dreams magical. Like maybe the Witch and the Wardrobe magical. I woke up from them re-freshed and re-energized.

    But I think there is a more existential level to that dream. It has to do with expanding myself and finding those magical places within myself where I can find great excitement and expansion.

    And I guess I can say I have found that in my home in the woods and my expanding work. (btw I have not had that dream since.)

    • leda

      How funny – you are the second commenter (who lives in New York City) to say that. I’m at least glad to know I’m not alone.

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