Someone said this to me on Tik Tok recently: “Mama always said ‘moving three times is like surviving a house fire.’” I didn’t get it at first, but when I Googled it, I found article after article about how psychologists correlate moving three times in a relatively short period of time to being equivalent physically, financially, and psychologically to losing everything you own in a house fire. It makes sense, and certainly tracks with our experience.
I haven’t been around this blog in a bit, but if you follow me on any social media platform, you know that’s because we moved. Again. For the third time, in exactly one year’s time. To be honest, it came about in a crazy way. Much like the second, and the first, I – at several points – believed I was losing my mind. How can this really, seriously, be happening? And in the middle of an unprecedented, and worsening, housing crisis in California, and historic inflation…
To recap: we have my husband, myself, our three kids, my 80 year old father, two dogs, a guinea pig, and a handful of fish. This would have been an undertaking in even the best of circumstances, and now – now that we are finally in secure housing – I am left wondering how we survived.
The real question is: did we?
On January 4th, 2022, we were notified that our landlord would be terminating our lease. This is a fancy way of saying “evict without cause.” There are reasons you can legally do this in California, and reasons you cannot. As it turns out, they did it for reasons you cannot: for friends to move in to the home, and the kicker was that the friends were somehow family friends of my husband’s now-ex-sister in law. I see photos of them on Instagram at our old house; it makes me physically ill.
Our second move came just four months after we had moved from the first. This house had issues that the manager of the property (the owner’s son) had done well to hide. Ultimately, they couldn’t be remediated while we lived there: black mold, water leaks, sewer flooding – we had to move again, which was fine because everyone was both miserable, and as it turns out sick.
We lasted the remainder of the year since our first move until the third back in our old neighborhood, just a few blocks from that house we had lived at so long and cared for as our own only to be evicted like yesterday’s trash. Everything there was fine, until it wasn’t; and here’s where the story gets crazy.
In November 2022, the homeowner’s son committed suicide by walking in front of two cars in downtown Fresno. A simple Google search verified this, and that it was likely because he was in the middle of a strike elevation case against the State of California for multiple convictions for felony burglary. He had put up several hundred thousand dollars worth of bail over the years, which we will assume came from the owner of our rental. Why assume this?
Because as soon as he was dead, the owner became desperate for us to get out so they could sell the home for its equity.
A series of events after this unfolded, which involved harassment by the property manager, people showing up at all hours, maintenance men banging on the front door and screaming in the window, and someone trying to cut the power to get us to move. They refused major maintenance things at the same time this was all going on, and suddenly every time we used some of the lights in the house, smoke filled the hallways.
People couldn’t believe we were thinking about leaving, but make no mistake about it: had we not started thinking about it after the holidays, we would have found ourselves evicted again when the one year lease was up in the summer.
Finally, by March 2023 (a couple months ago), it became too much for us, and the fear of competing with other people looking for rentals in the summer, with prices beginning to rise again, influenced the decision and we pulled the plug. We found another rental – this now being a third move, a fourth place to call “home” in just over a year. We contacted an attorney, who had absolutely no problem getting us out of our lease, although we were given only 14 days to get everything out.
Because that was the goal all along.
Already, less than two months since we left, the house has been sold. The owner looks to be recouping their hundreds of thousands in expenses they lost to the State bailing out their now-dead son.
And we, well now we’re here.
For many reasons, this place is safer. It’s technically a townhouse, built on three floors and almost the same amount of square footage as our last rentals. We lost the backyard, but gained the security of being managed by a major, national, apartment rental company. They’ve been very good to us, so far. There are no debates about maintenance, we simply put a request in the portal and someone texts to ask when they can come by within a day. There’s security on sight, everything is freshly remodeled, with new carpeting. The security deposit was not thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to some rando with an extra house; it was just $600. And because it’s huge, and owned by a large corporation, they follow the law, and we don’t have to deal with these two-bit maniacal slumlords that have one or two rental properties in abhorrent condition to fund their retirements.
As for the house fire…
We spent over $60,000 in the last year on this housing insecurity. It left us in deep debt, and threatened to leave us homeless at any moment. At the very least, it will take years for us to financially recover from this; though my concern with the way the things are in the world now, in the words of Joe Exotic, my biggest fear is that we: are never gonna’ financially recover.
(I suppose time will tell)
The trauma to ourselves and our kids is probably something that will come out over the coming years. Or maybe we somehow resolved it amidst all the packing and hardship.
We are definitely all guarded, especially after the property manager’s harassment at the last place. When the doorbell rings now, everyone still has a moment of tension before realizing it’s probably just Amazon or a GrubHub order. In the words of our primary care physician: “well, you’re all okay for now, but this has been a traumatic year and so we’re just going to hold some space and some grace for if there comes a point when anyone is… not okay anymore…”
While this has happened, the most eye opening thing has been how others have treated us. Make no mistake about it: we have been “othered.” What happened to us is what happens to “other people.” (The funny part is we used to think with that enormous amount of privilege too.)
Some people have acted like this is something we should be pitied for (maybe it is); others have turned their backs on us, because it makes them uncomfortable about the things they do to families like us (middle class renters). A lot of people simply pretend like it didn’t happen.
The last move, the one just a few months ago, was by far the hardest. It was conveniently timed in the middle of one of the atmospheric rivers that hit California. We had so little notice, and were so deep in debt at that point, that my husband worked at his second job the entire time, while for four days, one day after another, my two daughters (19 and 15) and I did the entire move. We would wake up, go to Starbucks, rent a Uhaul, load it with all of our belongings being soaked by the rain. Unload in torrential downpour. Spend the evening drying things off, distributing them, disposing of the phenomenal amount of things ruined by the rain, and then getting up the next day to do it all again.
My mother asked to help, but I was worried she’d get hurt. So on one day, I had her run all our errands for grocery pickups. Other than that, we learned the hard way where things stand on just about every relationship we’ve ever had.
“Mama always said ‘moving three times is like surviving a house fire.’” And so, it is.
For those that have been asking: some photos of our new place:
I remember it like it was yesterday. My kids were at a tennis clinic at one of the local clubs. They had played there for years; and while we never joined as members, the club was making a cool $650 a month from us in lessons, clinics, and other fees, spread out between my two, oldest kids.
Two, older gentlemen walked out of the clubhouse, and found a seat to watch their grandkids play in the clinic. I continued to sit there, reading my book while I waited for my girls; but immediately got distracted when one of them took a phone call, and afterwards said “well, that was one of my renters …his roommate moved out and he needs help finding a new one to cover all the costs. He’s been good to the place, so I’ll help him until then. He’s not like the others.”
“Oh, don’t get me started on renters. We just had to evict an old bitch after learning she had filed for bankruptcy,” the other man said to him.
“She keep paying?”
“Yeah but you know we don’t want those problems. You know renters. They’re all scum.”
As of 2019, just over 45% of Californians identified as either renters or homeless. This group – representing nearly half of all Californians in a state of nearly 40 million people – is seen by at least a fair number of the other half as “all scum.”
A renter myself, I’ve seen it – the so-called scum – over the years; the vast majority have been people like us – young, middle class families with not a large enough income, or interest (or, in our case: both) to buy. Others among the lower class: seniors on a fixed income, people that fell down on their luck or who never had luck to begin with. Naturally there are the occasional bad renters you hear about – that trash the apartment, leaving holes in the walls and meth in the carpets. But for every bad renter story I’ve heard or seen, I’ve come across probably ten times as many who were just average people, trying to get by.
To be honest, in my 20 years as a renter, I can actually only think of one renter I knew of that I would call “bad.” On the contrary, it’s usually the landlords that are the bad ones.
A friend of mine, whose name would be best not to share for fear of retaliation to her, has run the gamut of horrific renter stories over the years. This isn’t to say she, as a landlord, had terrible renters; it’s in her own experiences renting from others that have been the stuff of nightmares. As recently as last Thanksgiving, she told me about her landlord refusing to allow her to use the kitchen in the home in which she rents a room. Today, she tells me it’s been months since she’s been allowed to use the kitchen. Her landlord routinely bullies her, makes fun of her with other family members to her face; and on at least one occasion has had the rent arbitrarily raised mid-term, in spite of an existing and legally enforceable verbal contract.
In my own recent experience as a renter, we’ve had our own fair share of being treated like “renter scum.” Most often, it’s been at the hands of predatory property management companies – like the one we just left; or by slumlord owners that believe they have no obligation to provide a livable environment. Between the last two homes we have lived in (the one we just left, and the one we live in now) we have had untreated rats in the attic, an oven that did not work for a whopping 3&1/2 months, sewage spraying out of the toilet and into my 5 year old’s mouth, faulty electrical wiring leaving us with less than 50% of working electricity in the house for more than a week, and a psychotic neighbor banging on our door in the middle of the day, screaming that my children need to stop playing in their own home.
Of course some will say this comes with the territory of renting, whereas I always thought of renting as being us paying more for the luxury of not having to deal with maintenance and the like. I suppose I was wrong, just as I was incorrect of the old-time idea that you could rent a home and if you treated it well, took care of it as if it was your own, the landlord would let you stay indefinitely – something I learned this year when our lease was terminated so the owner could sell the home while the housing market remained hot. And even under this care and love we treated the home with, we were still treated and considered no better than this colloquially false narrative that all renters are scum.
As you do with so-called scum, the landlord gave us the boot this January, rejecting requests for us to stay through the school year for our kids to remain in the school district; then effectively stole our entire security deposit along nefarious accusations and claims really meant to grift and profit as much as they could from us until the bitter end.
It became clear to me that we were not getting our deposit back when they accused us of stealing our own refrigerator (they had forgotten that the home rented did not come with one). As if this were not enough, we were then expected to repair minor cosmetic issues that fell under standard “wear and tear” clauses of California tenant protection laws. Minor scuffs to the floor boards, and regrouting due to the discoloration that comes with a home over 30 years old, was referred to as “abuse.” They charged us twice for cleaning the same areas. Then, they expected us to pay for major renovations to issues that pre-existed our tenancy, to make the home sellable for a higher price.
The most egregious issue – as if accusing us of stealing our own refrigerator was not bad enough – was the laundry closet. The closet, which was situated between the door from the garage to the home and the half bathroom, needed major renovations to make the house ready to sell. This had nothing to do with us; as I said, it was an issue that pre-existed our tenancy, and which we lived with for all those years. The washer and dryer that the landlord had put in prior to us moving in – back in 2016 – were just too large for the closet. Quickly this was discovered when the gas line broke because of this miscalculation in size, and toxic gas and exhaust leaked into the house – threatening to kill my family of 6 (myself, my husband, my elderly father, and our three children). The immediate response at the time by the landlord was to repair the exhaust pipes and gas line, and to then remove the doors from the closet. We put up a nice curtain, and lived with this situation for more than 5 years, only for the landlord to then expect us to pay to completely re-design the laundry room and plumbing so the doors could be put back on for the sale of the home after we left.
And what recourse did we have to any of this in the end? Hire an attorney with all that savings we were forced to spend to move? Take them to small claims court, full knowing that the landlord was a retired attorney himself? As most renters do, we cut our losses and figured there’s little we can do.
This class war in California between renters and owners has developed into a crisis of apocalyptic proportions. It is like the Battle for Helm’s deep in Lord of the Rings: on one side are the unrelenting and opportunistic orcs (slumlords); on the other, everything that comprises Middle Earth (renters – the middle and working classes) just living their lives, many there for different reasons, being attacked. The pejorative attitude that anyone not in the position of owning a home is scum is so pervasive to our culture and our leadership, that it’s made its way into public policy, profoundly impacting markets, cost of living, quality of life, and a host of other issues – including homelessness. This is to say that, as I see it, homelessness is not as simple as someone being sick or an addict, rather the unhoused are a nuanced group of people that have little to no control over their living situation, even in the best of circumstances.
The Truly Unhoused
Unhoused is a term now frequently used to describe people that are experiencing homelessness in an effort to be more sensitive to a group of people that find themselves on the streets, in encampments, in shelters, or in their minivans. And yet, it is worth considering, that anyone not owning a home in California (or anywhere, for that matter) is – at least technically – unhoused, or on the verge of being so.
One of those was in the case of a local journalist – local to my community – who, only after he moved across the country, made public the fact that the cost of living, coupled with the stagnant wages and grim conditions of local journalism, led him to choose to live in his Ford Econoline 250 for two years. In this poignant and brutally honest piece, he says: “I’m one of the thousands of people who have responded to the challenge of living in 21st century America by choosing to become houseless;” and this is where the nuance of dealing with homelessness, and the class war between owners and landlords, must recognize that the issue is not solely one of mental illness or addiction, or of all renters being scum.
And in fact, one study out of Los Angeles – the epicenter of California’s homelessness crisis – found that roughly 30% of people living on the streets were suffering from serious mental illness or addiction. And while this figure is striking, and creates a call to action for leaders across the state that is quickly looking to become this year’s hot button election issue, it largely perpetuates a co-narrative to “renters are all scum,” that being that “homeless are all mentally ill.”
But what about that 70%?
Made up of people like the journalist mentioned above, Ian Bradley; hundreds of thousands of seniors couch-surfing while waiting on years-long Section 8 waiting lists, people that simply fell down on their luck over the years, and so on…the list of nuance that makes up that 70% is long. And yet when we see people living out of a tent, or a trailer, we immediately peg them as sick, when the truth is: it is our social structure, dirty politics, and unchecked capitalism, that is the problem.
Of course everyone knows that California’s cost of living is exponentially higher than most other areas of the country, but – again – the nuance of it is what largely goes unseen.
This is because what makes the cost of living so difficult in the state is that (1) wages have not kept up with increases in cost of living, causing more Californians to fall into poverty now than at any other point in California’s history, (2) supply and demand of housing have been bottlenecked by special interests and paid-off local elected officials, and (3) opportunistic slumlords have been allowed to abuse tenants for far too long, making it virtually impossible for tenants to ever better themselves, always finding themselves stuck in the cycle of moving expenses and lost security deposits.
Cal Matters reported last year that roughly 7.1 million Californians are now living in poverty as a direct result of the cost of living. This is a staggering 18% of the state’s population, and it has certainly only worsened through the course of the ongoing pandemic. To make matters worse, 56% of Californians spend more than half their paychecks on rent, alone; with the average housing price in the state coming in at 7 times what the average resident of the state earns.
Simply put, the cost of living has far outpaced in growth the average incomes in California. The state has the highest level of poverty in the nation, and the second-highest level of homelessness; both of these figures, though, are attenuated to wages as compared to cost of living. This is to say that while incomes are generally higher in California, because living costs disproportionately more, poverty is a condition presented to a far larger group of people simply because everything costs so much.
Pre-pandemic, roughly one-third of Californians lived at or below the poverty line. Today, more than one-third of Californians make $15 an hour or less – a wage that may seem high to people in other parts of the country, though is abysmal when considering that our cost of living is between 4 and 12% higher than any other state in the nation. In my own county, ranked as one of the least affordable rental markets in California, renting a two bedroom apartment comes in averaging $38/hour, meaning that a minimum of 2.8 jobs is required to just meet that need. The city from which I just moved? The average job makes minimum wage, while the average home price now tops $800,000.
Wages of course haven’t done anything to impact the housing market. The rising cost of living is no problem for people that have the security of a fixed mortgage, or an investment that pays for itself. With 55% of Californians owning at least one home, the rest are owned by private investors, property management companies, and big corporations looking to make money off the misfortunes of others. Home owners and investors, alike, have only made the problem worse by playing games flipping homes for profit, while at the same time influencing public policy to shackle developments from driving down rents by creating a more competitive market for renters.
Just over half the state making life increasingly more difficult for the other half.
And again, the pandemic only accentuated this problem, with the working class suffering catastrophic wage losses, household wage earners dying from COVID, and upper-middle and upper class workers fanning out away from urban areas, gobbling up properties with their newfound ability to work remotely. And yet policy has not effectively caught up with this apocalyptic crisis at the speed with which it needs to fix the problem.
California’s Housing Apocalypse
As many have astutely pointed out: California is not in a housing crisis, we are in a housing apocalypse. The issue is not as simple as one issue, it is many. While many reporters have argued against conflating them all, I argue that conflation of them is critical to understand how they beget each other, and how it has reached apocalyptic proportions. More than 150,000 unhoused individuals living in tents on sidewalks is in large part due to the general unavailability of adequate housing per capita. Similarly, the cyclical de-evolution of millions of Californians falling into dire straights and eventual poverty is a result of the unmediated cost of living, stagnant wage policy, and a predatory property management and real estate market.
My friend Jordon, over at the 805UncensoredPodcast – a renter himself – is more optimistic than I am on solutions to this catastrophe, which he acknowledges average voters probably are not very well versed on. Among his most promising ideas to at least partially solve the crisis is that California, or its municipalities, universally adopt a UBI, or Universal Basic Income. Some cities in the state have already started pilot programs like this, and it’s worth considering that the Child Tax Credit in 2021 was something of a UBI – all of which irrefutably proved successful in lifting people out of poverty to give them the means to then address their own, personal housing challenges. And yet, special interests and petty politics has all-but destroyed the promises those 2021 programs offered.
Another solution Jordon and I discussed recently was the YIMBY-California group’s advocacy towards a massive influx of new housing being the solution to the crisis. Another couple friends, Max, Jackson, and Rebecca, over at my local branch of YIMBY have been staunch advocates of massive housing builds around our county, and in fact the group endorsed my candidacy for city council. So I was already familiar with their mission when our own tenancy was terminated, at which time I learned first hand just to what extent housing is urgently needed, and yet at the same time criminally being bottlenecked by local politicians and homeowners.
Around the time we started looking, California State Senator Scott Wiener posted a graphic to Twitter citing Ventura County (the county in which I live) as the second worst county in California for seeking a rental, with 1 unit listed for every 1,358 families. Within days of looking, the aspect of competition became evident, as did the fact that many landlords were taking things into their own hands – legal, or not; including encouraging deposit bidding wars and outright discrimination. For some properties, we found ourselves competing against 40 or 50 other families, and people offering 6 times the legal limit in a security deposit. On this, we could not compete.
Of course my friends over at YIMBY, like Jordon at 805UncensoredPodcast, are far more optimistic than I am on legislative and policy decisions solving the housing unit availability issue.
For my own part, I again boil this down to election reform, including in the area of campaign finance. In my own election, when I broke down my opponent’s largest donors, they were largely made up of property managers, realtors, and landlords. These are the people that are driving public policy at the most local level, which impacts our lives in the immediate term. Of course those entities are going to want local politicians to bottleneck and slow walk developments – it keeps them in the position to subjugate the renter class, and profit off the misfortunes of the 45%. Even when the state steps in with legislation like 2021’s SB8 and 9, unchecked and corrupt local politicians are still able to shackle those statewide policies with local moratoriums – something that happened in the city from which I just moved, and which directly contributed to the personal housing crisis my family is in today.
Whatever the solution, or solutions, ultimately may be in the end, it is a matter of fact that the problem is to the extent of apocalyptic proportions. And what do we know about an apocalypse more than the fact that it is the utter end, the total destruction, the denouement of society as we know it? Some argue that American society is falling apart because of partisanship, terrorism, the pandemic… I believe it’s actually in California’s Housing Apocalypse that the end is nigh. The unhoused in California is a broad group of many people, in many situations and living under many different types of roofs; and the situation for them is unsustainable. When it crumbles, the ripple around the country will be unavoidable.
My husband and I, we are lifetime renters. We love the perks of renting: we don’t have to deal with maintenance problems, we have the security of living under the wing of another entity, and renting in Southern California is – without a doubt – cheaper than owning. In the volatile market out here, the risks of renting as compared to the risks of owning are minimal. These are all facts.
What is also a fact, though, is that when you rent you live in constant fear that your rent is going to be raised come lease time. It doesn’t happen often, in fact my husband and I have only seen it happen once before when we lived in an apartment complex owned by a big, brand-name company. Otherwise, our rent has never been raised, unless of course it was because we moved up to a nicer community with more amenities. Which has happened a few times, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was of our own doing.
So in May of last year, we moved to what we thought would be at least a semi-permanent place. It has by far been the nicest place we have lived. Nice area. Gated community. Plenty of room. Quiet neighbors. Clean pool. The only complaint we’ve had has been that the parking situation is a little tenuous, but even so we’ve been really happy. Comfortable.
Almost too comfortable…
As our lease renewal has drawn near, I thought for sure they would raise our rents. It seemed a given – the economy has been rebounding in the last several years, and this is a nice place. But then again, the anxiety has always been quelled by common sense. Reason. Rationality – they can’t raise it that much. Can they? Sure, the economy is rebounding, but not to such a degree that we can’t justify staying here. There are constantly people moving out of there, so they must want to keep some people around…right…?
On Friday of last week, we received our letter in the mail. They were “offering us” another year here – oh how gracious of them – and for only a 16% increase in rent.
Sixteen percent increase. That’s FOUR HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FIVE DOLLARS A MONTH.
$485 a month. That would raise our rent to $3041 a month for 1400 square feet.
Let that digest for a moment.
Initially in shock, because I had never heard of anything so outrageous in my life, I asked around, emailed the company, and posted on Yelp and ApartmentRatings.com. I thought for sure this was a mistake. I mean, really. When we first moved in, the man who owns the other three-bedroom unit on the other side of the complex told me we were getting “ripped off” for what we were paying as compared to him. He is still here, and I included that in my emails and reviews.
I wanted to be reasonable and understanding, and honestly I didn’t want to leave. We like it here, we are very comfortable and happy. But we also live on the incomes of a freelance writer and a film editor who hasn’t seen a decent raise in his wages in as long as we can remember (in fact, we have lost benefits in recent years).
So I waited patiently, started looking around some more. And I figured that if we didn’t hear by the end of this week we’d have to get more serious about finding someplace else. Finally, after not hearing back from anyone, today I went on Yelp to find a response to my review. Here is the candy-assed response they gave me.
So basically: don’t want to pay our rent increase?? – SEE YA!
Renters forever, we find ourselves with no home.
As the day wore on, the reality of this situation started to really sink in. Not only are we completely unable to pay the increase of rent at our current place, rental rates in the area actually are around the same as we currently pay but there is nothing available – so far – in our time frame. I cannot even wrap my mind around that, let alone how many people I know that rent for cheaper than we do but that are holding on to their good prices for dear life.
It’s starting to sound a lot like New York City. I always knew there was a reason LA and NYC seemed so interchangeable.
We have family that owns property down the street from where we live and rents it out, but they don’t want to offend the person they are already renting to by giving them notice so we can take over the lease.
Let that one sink in a moment too.
So in just eight, short weeks we will have no home. Or a new home, but where or how I have no idea. The other alternatives are equally as terrifying: we move into an hotel until we find a place that is in our price range; or we finally decide that this is time to cut the ties of my husband’s career and move all the way across the country with no home and no jobs to speak of.
Nonetheless, I am left with this more philosophical mind frame of the times in which we live. Where no one is safe or secure. Own a home and the market could crash and you could wind up in foreclosure with nowhere to go. Rent a home and the market could soar and you could wind up on the streets with nowhere to go. No one is safe, the middle class is being squeezed out of existence as far as I can see it.