Between 2005 and 2008, I rented a one-bedroom apartment in The 301, a magic-less, three-story building in the south part of the Central District and close to a supermarket that is still popular with black Americans, the Promenade Red Apple (it's soon to be demolished by the city’s prince, Paul Allen).
My rent was $650, and it never rose during my three-year stay.
The apartment had a tiny bathroom, a smallish bedroom, an average living room, and a kitchen that reminded me of the cramped and cave-like kitchen in Star Wars—the one where Luke Skywalker's Aunt Beru prepares blue milk. The apartment’s ceiling made it a point of informing me of every step the renters above made. Some of the steps were Lilliputian; others were like those of Bigfoot lumbering through a forest. At night, I would hear gunshots followed by police sirens. In the morning, I would spot a gaggle of crackheads on the corner of 26th and Jackson, which was visible from my window. And the air was often filled with the crackling smell of flightless birds getting deep fried at the Promenade.
But the place cost $650, which, at the time, was under 20 percent of my monthly income. In short, I was far from being rent burdened. And the place was managed by a charming Russian couple who entertained my love of Russian literature. At the end of the month, when I gave them my rent check, we would spend a few minutes in their apartment, which always smelled of boiled cabbage, chatting and nodding about Gogol and Sologub—I would do all the chatting, and they the nodding. Best of all, if you paid the Russians your rent on time, they pretty much kept out of your business.
Today, a similar room in this apartment building, which is now managed by Maple Leaf Apartments (MLA), demands between $1,200 and $1,300 a month. I was told this over the phone by a representative of MLA. “The rooms have been remodeled,” she said with some pride (she knew I had lived there during those dark times, the affordable times). “The apartments look much nicer now.” I asked to see one of these improved apartments, but she couldn’t show me one because every one was taken.
The following day, I walked over to the building to see if its exterior had been touched up, made to look more with-it, more appealing to the eyes and sensibilities of the leading figure of our rental market, the techie. But, no, the building is very much the same as when I left it. I tried to reconnect with the Russians, but no one answered their door. I walked to the south side of the building and looked at the west-facing window of my old place, which is on the second floor, but I failed to find anything that had changed for the better. An online image of one of MLA’s remodeled apartments gave me the impression that the differences inside are as noticeable as those outside. The only big change in all of this seemed to be in the rental price. A person who earns today what I earned in 2006, and wages have not risen by much, would have to commit more than 30 percent of their income to a one-bedroom apartment in The 301. In short, you would be rent-burdened.
To make matters worse, this place is actually cheap for its neighborhood, Atlantic. Here, the average one-bedroom apartment for January, 2017, is $1,500.