Four years ago, my wife and I found a modest little apartment at the top of a hill by luck. Last spring, they started refurbishing the apartment above us, but we were so busy that we hardly noticed. My wife has a pair of jobs, and I'm usually either at work or at school—so most of our time at home, we're making dinner for each other and falling asleep on our little green couch. At the start of the summer, on Memorial Day, we had our first day off together in three months, and we decided to make a date of it. We were on our way to the ship canal to feed the ducks.
As we opened our apartment door to leave, I saw something taped to it.
It was a notice of rent increase. Our rent was going up by $300.
They might as well have evicted us.
We moved here from California four years ago, just in time to witness Seattle's construction boom. When they began working on the other apartment, they also installed floodlights outside our building to emphasize the subtle charisma of our building—floodlights that shine into our bedroom window at night. So we weren't exactly surprised by the notice of rent increase. But it was a depressing development, to say the least, and we ended up canceling our ship canal date and spending the day in our car. Driving around. Looking for apartment vacancies.
We had no idea how much harder it would be to find a new apartment this time than it had been last time. We drove around looking for "For Rent" signs, and we called the numbers and left voice mails. Then we went home and looked at a bunch of other apartments on the internet, and made more calls, and waited.
Here's a question for you: Someone with a sign swaying outside in the summer breeze, someone who's taken the time to photograph an apartment for Craigslist—how on earth do you get them to return your calls? Is this a secret? Landlords with vacant apartments for rent want people to call them... right? Or do they not? Are there so many people calling every day that it isn't worth their time to call people back?
Finally, one did. But the place he showed us looked like the dust was still settling from a police raid on a family of incontinent squatters and their goats. The carpet was so nasty, I wiped my feet on my way out. I remember barely being able to open any of the windows. Flaky, grimy walls—the kind you couldn't scrub if you wanted the paint to stay. But it was still early days: We weren't panicking yet.
A few months back, my wife had seen a cute little place for rent nearby that was $975, but when we looked into it again, we discovered they'd adjusted the rent to $1,595. The grouch on the other end of the phone made it exceptionally clear that they were performing a charitable act by putting up with any questions.
Three days and 47 calls later, my wife met a landlord for an open house in Greenwood. He was late, and the open house, originally scheduled for a generous 15 minutes, was less than five. I went straight from work on Metro's "rapid" D Line, got lost, and had to take my wife's word for it that the Greenwood place looked like the inside of an abandoned car. But I got to see the other place this same landlord was renting, over in Interbay. Nine hopefuls there, including myself. I shook his hand and took a look around. My wife and I paid the application fee online. After three days of waiting, the apartment was given to somebody else. "But you guys were a close second," the landlord said. "I'd rent to you guys in a heartbeat."
Then there was a woman I'll call Charlene, who sounded all business on the phone. The unit in question was a reasonably priced, attractive one-bedroom apartment in Fremont. Charlene's poise turned out to be entirely telephone-based. In person, she was wearing cargo shorts and perspiring uncontrollably. She had a stain on her shirt. Come to think of it, the Interbay landlord's shirt had stains on it, too. But the apartment Charlene showed us was 1,000 square feet with a patio that looked onto a quiet street. An older couple and their kids arrived when my wife was halfway through filling out an application. The kids were just back from overseas, and their mom and dad wanted to give them a fresh start. When the parents volunteered to cosign, Charlene all but tore up my wife's application in front of her. "I'm not going to bother running your credit," she said.
We didn't get too sad, though, because we had successfully scheduled another appointment at 2:30 p.m. the next day. Yes, we'd actually found a third landlord to call us back! Holy shit! Triumphant, and desperate not to mess this up, or to arrive at the same time as someone else, we got there early. At 2:15 we got a voice mail. This landlord wasn't going to be able to make it after all. She also said that somebody had just turned in an application for the unit we were, at that very moment, sweating in front of.
The constant anticipation and rejection, set against a backdrop of deafening construction in our own apartment building, tested the margins of our sanity. The banging and the electric saws, the giants in lead boots tearing out cabinetry in the kitchen above us, the sounds of shattered lumber and masonry traveling down a chute into a dumpster—all for the purpose of improving a building that no longer wanted us. We searched every website we could think of, poring over listings, leaving so many unanswered messages that our phones were dead by dinnertime. We attended another seven pointless open houses.
And then we met Bob.
A nice old man, Bob was showing a one-bedroom in Ballard, and my wife was the first to see it. An older building covered in ivy, it was perfectly suited to our needs. According to Bob, both potential new occupants had to view the unit, so I left work early and my wife came to get me. He insisted it was just a formality, which we thought meant that our application, first in line, was staying first in line, but when my wife and I got back, there were two other couples waiting. What we thought was a private showing turned out to be a second showing—and he was still accepting applications. The floors were clean and the windows openable. The water heater was small—oh well, we could do without baths. It was the best place we'd seen yet, but when I asked about a lease, Bob wouldn't look at me. "Uh, well... I don't normally do leases," he muttered. "But you can take it on my word I won't raise your rent." Days passed, and we left him the usual follow-up messages.
I do not know how to explain this.
So many of the landlords we met over our summer of searching have been these confusing, weirdly dressed, introverted freaks, like escapees from some human pain-tolerance experimentation facility. Most of them were late to their own appointments; all but one behaved as if they were doing us a favor showing up at all. Avoiding eye contact, they offered vague replies and cold handshakes.
And the more desperate we became, the further our standards fell. A studio—with somebody already living in it? Can we apply? A cat carrier—is it cable-ready?
Bob finally got back to us with the news that he accepted the application of the girl he showed the apartment to while my wife was on her way to pick me up so we could satisfy his formality.
What began as a slowly escalating cacophony of construction and destruction—famous local record stores becoming banks, every street obstructed by people in orange suits—is spreading like herpes into the living spaces of Seattleites not wealthy enough to get out of its way. The naked, bashful truth is that you shouldn't have to be rich to live in Seattle. Or, I should say, that you didn't used to have to be rich to live here. Why haven't we legislated some form of rent stabilization by now? Or is Seattle just going to become a playground for new-to-town software engineers and their freshly painted BMWs?
After our summer-long slow-motion anxiety attack, my wife and I finally found something by luck. Sheer luck. A storefront in Ballard that had been converted. The landlord seemed nice, and he wasn't dressed in filthy sweats he'd pulled from the bottom of the hamper. When he called us back to tell us we could pick up the keys to our cozy little triplex, a place with a flower bed and a stoop and a washer and dryer, I thought I might still be dreaming. After typing up our notice of intent to vacate, my wife and I walked upstairs that last night in our old place, hand in hand, and I knocked on our landlord's door. No surprise, he wasn't around. We waited, slid the envelope under the door, and headed back downstairs to watch TV and fall asleep together on our little green couch.