Hey Boston, who can live here, anyway?
The voice is thick like day-old black coffee.
“Where you from?” the woman asks, her accent deep. Maybe Slavic?
“We’re from Puerto Rico.”
“Ohhh, I don’t know I like,” she says.
“You go and put many people in house, don’t like.”
“Um, okay? I’m not really sure what you’re talking about there. It’s just me and my wife.”
“Oh. Well … don’t know. If husband say yes.”
“I don’t even like having people over,” I lied. And no thanks for the casual racism, I should have added.
Welcome to apartment-hunting in Boston!
It’s well-known that the city has among the most expensive rental markets in the country. But that’s not even the greatest problem. The big issue for someone whose college days are long over — aside from the curious landlords — is the quality of housing stock.
When looking for rentals back in August, the first place we visited was a multilevel brick building in Somerville. After maneuvering up the rickety wooden stairs in the back, we came up to an apartment kitchen where two older dudes sat on bar stools. Looking like a pair of hard-luck fishermen, the guys were already a couple of beers deep. It was 10 in the morning.
Besides Gilligan, his pal, and the stools, the kitchen consisted of a sink atop a small, dilapidated cabinet. There must have been a refrigerator too, but I was too busy wondering where the smell of gas was coming from.
A dirty curtain separated the kitchen from the rest of the apartment — not that the “rest” consisted of much else. What probably used to be the living room had been converted into a bedroom, with the paint neatly peeling from one of the walls. Off to the right was a thin door that led to an interior stairwell. It was eerily dark, the steps covered with a ripped, red felt rug, and you couldn’t actually see where they led down to.
The toilet? Is that where the smell was coming from? And surely one couldn’t actually sit on the thing?
So fine, maybe the price was right, you say. Who’d mind paying $1400, maybe even $1500 for that? It had off-street parking, after all. Well, the rent was $1800.
We weren’t exactly enamored. But it appeared the landlords would have little trouble finding a tenant. As we were leaving, a couple of college-age women, checkbook in hand, eagerly asked when they could move in.
Another day we went to a double-decker home, also in Somerville, that looked promising from the outside. It was painted a horrible Big Bird yellow, but at least it seemed to have been worked on within the last 25 years. The Craigslist ad promised great exterior space and, yes, it had an ample patio off to the side. But it was overrun with weeds, the tall, crazy grass surely hiding makeshift graves.
The same horrid, thick paint had been splattered inside the house, an unfortunate framing for the attractive wooden floors. The windows were new, which made the six-inch crack on one of them very unfortunate. It all felt a bit odd, though. Maybe it was the nervous landlord who followed us intently through the house and kept repeating he was looking for “responsible” people for his brother (the owner), a “renowned” professor. All the while, I couldn’t help hearing a persistent, metallic clanging coming from somewhere beneath the bathroom.
I am dating myself here, but do you know The Burbs? There’s a scene in which one of the mysterious neighbors calls out for his brother, “THE DOCTOR!” to come meet Tom Hanks and the rest of the panicked suburbanites. Rising slowly from the bowels of the dark house, in walks the late Henry Gibson, his gloved hands caked in blood. I kept waiting for that to happen at that weird Somerville house, especially when the guy stared at us creepily and declared that yes, his brother would definitely like us. We thanked him and shuffled out of there before he could show us the basement.
Since then we’ve visited overpriced rental communities that charge for amenities such as pools that open three months out of the year, less expensive places that would be ideal not merely if you own but are a household pet, and pads that don’t bother with such extravagances as a window. Which is why we currently live in a place that’s never going to appear in a list of the top 20 streets in Greater Boston, but at least it’s not falling apart. Yet.
There are more than 250,000 college students in the Boston area. This constant turnover of temporary residents makes it unnecessary for landlords to update their properties, because these kids will live anywhere. I know, because I did.
My senior year at Syracuse, I signed a lease with four other guys for a creaky two-story house off campus, having never step foot inside it. I slept on a twin mattress with no box spring or platform, wrote on an unvarnished piece of plywood that served as a desk, and kept my clothes in a stumpy dresser that looked old during the Depression. I’ll not speak of the daily horror that was the bathtub. But I couldn’t have been happier.
Things become more complicated as we get older. It’s not even about the clutter, the things we dump on top of ourselves. It’s that a home becomes more than just a dirty mattress on the floor. It becomes a symbol of the life we want to lead — of the people we’d like to be. None of that requires luxury, just clean affordability. And that’s what’s missing in this city.
But it’s not going to get better any time soon, thanks to the pernicious lack of new housing developments in the area. Having lived in a city that overbuilt, I know the dangers of the opposite extreme. Those beautiful downtown buildings you see in aerial shots of Miami Heat games are mostly empty. But you cannot expect to grow and remain vital as a city when young workers don’t have affordable places to live.
In the meantime, we’ll keep walking the streets, scanning ads, fending off pushy realtors, wondering if finding a one-bedroom city apartment in Boston that’s merely clean for under $2000 is too much to ask.