I was 4 years old when my parents became homeowners. Our house was on Woodgridge Avenue down the street from Metro Hospital where I was born. There were 2 floors, with an attic and a basement. The backyard was big; my father planted pine trees, put up a fence, and purchased a swing set and above ground pool, and there was plenty of room to play Frisbee with our dog Bo. The front yard and tree lawn were small and we eventually fenced the area. In the summer we would plant vegetables and flowers.
But I digress from the most important part of the house, my room! I don’t remember moving into my first bedroom, but I remember growing up in it. The room had blue carpet, it was on the second floor overlooking the back yard and even had a balcony that I could use with permission. The room was larger than my sisters, and had an odd shape as one of the walls was cut short by a diagonal ceiling. My mom and I always talked about painting stars onto my weird ceiling but I was never creative enough to fulfill that dream, although I did add a Winnie the Pooh wall paper border around 3/4 of the room. My room was my sanctuary, it was where I spent most of my time when I was at home. I lived in that room until I was 19, and then it was time to move.
Time to move…
As a sophomore in college I was ready to move out and experience dorm life, I left my room at the age of 19, excited to make my own rules. While I wasn’t a fan of my fathers rules, I learned quickly that no rules come at a price (financially speaking that is). I decided to move back in with my father during my last year of graduate school, and I quickly came to remember the price rules came with in the first place (no offense dad). It was time to move again, into my first room as an adult.
My first place…
At 23 years of age I moved into my first apartment with a roommate. The room was in a house owned by a friend and her husband who occupied the downstairs unit. The arrangement was perfect socially and financially. My friendships with my roommate and “landlords” made our house feel like a home. Although I loved living with my friends, I did not enjoy the feeling of continuing to live in a one-mile radius of the street I grew up on, and at 24 years old I found myself once again ready to move. After a short conversation with a friend who lived in New York City I applied for a job, was hired, and made the choice to relocate. It’s true what they say; life really does happen fast.
Like I said…moving is hard
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I decided to move from Cleveland, Ohio to Manhattan, New York. Apartment searching in New York City is like nowhere else in the great United States of America. I wasn’t sure of the neighborhoods, but thanks to my friend Lisa, I was able to locate an apartment in close proximity to my job and my only friend. I spent a year finding my way around, making new friends, and learning lessons the hard way while visiting home often.
Moving isn’t so hard after all! Or is it…
One year was all it took to realize I couldn’t afford the lifestyle I set up for myself. Monthly I was spending over $3000 and earning only $2000. Once I exhausted the plastic resources I realized it was time to move to a more affordable apartment in a more affordable neighborhood. I began my search in November 2011 and started by e-mailing friends hoping someone would have a coworker/friend/family member that was looking for a roommate. To my surprise I immediately got an e-mail from a coworker of a friend, she sent photos of an amazing 3 bedroom apartment in Spanish Harlem on the other side of Central Park (my first apartment was in Manhattan near Broadway and West 110th), and the best part was the rent, it was $200 less than my current apartment with $50 less in utility expenses and the commute to work was reduced by 20 minutes! There was even a backyard for barbeques! It was perfect! Or so I thought. Before moving in I was aware my friends coworker and I would be taking over the lease and that the current lease holder was moving on March 1st. We agreed to find the third roommate together to replace the lease holder. After I agreed to move in I was introduced to the current lease hold who collected rent for January and February. It was through the leaseholder I met the roommate I was to replace. The leaseholder suggested I pay January rent to her and collect from the current roommate money for days she remained in the apartment. This seemed perfect financially and I agreed assuming the money from the current roommate could be used for moving expenses. The roommate I was set to replace postponed the move in date several times, then finally in mid-January we agreed she’d move out on January 20th. I visited the room the day of her move to collect $400 for the 20 days of January she lived in the room, but there was no money order on the dresser as agreed. I later realized this roommate often didn’t pay rent, and I was recruited for January and February so that the leaseholder would be able to cover rent until her move out date of 2/29/12. Not only did I realize there was no money order, I was also left to clean a filthy room and apartment. I spent that Thursday night cleaning, Friday painting and packing, and moved on a snowy Saturday morning. The moving company, 2 guys and a van, took care of everything for $325, and by Saturday night I was unpacked and ready to enjoy my new apartment and upcoming birthday.
This is going to be harder than I thought
Shortly after my move the acquaintance roommate became ill and was hospitalized. I spoke rarely to the leaseholder roommate but began to take action on the lease after the other roommate remained hospitalized. I imagined taking over a lease would consist of providing copies of my identification, paystubs, and maybe paying a fee for a background check/credit report. WRONG. For this $2,300 Spanish Harlem apartment with no upkeep and repairs for 4 years required a guarantor who earns $161,000 annually (or several guarantors equaling that amount), an over $3000 brokers fee, and a possible rent increase of $200 a month. The apartment quickly became too good to be true. In the middle of the shortest month of the year I realized I had to move, AGAIN. Initially I fought by researching housing laws in New York City, contacting legal assistance at the local Lenox Hill Neighborhood House and the Legal Aid Society, and even through personal contacts with the New York Public Advocates Office. Every source agreed: because no written lease or sublease was signed, and because no rent was accepted by the management company, myself and my other roommate had no legal right to live at the property. I knew from work at the shelter that there were other ways to remain, like evoking squatters rights, but I decided it was less stressful to begin searching for another apartment than to navigate housing court and fight an eviction (a lengthy process which would force me to take time from work where schedule flexibility is not offered).
Great…I have to move…again.
I searched and searched, taking trips to Queens, Washington Heights, Hamilton Heights, and the Bronx. I saw tiny odd shaped rooms, met nudists, walked through rough neighborhoods, waited for countless buses, got lost, walked up/down stairs, made hundreds of calls, searched craigslist postings all day, and got nowhere. Apartments were dirty, people were odd, neighborhoods were creepy. February 29th grew closer, and I grudgingly prepared to move what little I have into storage and sleep on friends couches until I could find a suitable apartment and save enough money for first months rent, security deposit, possible brokers fee, and moving costs. I was scared, I was stressed, this was not happening…only it was.
I’m going to actually be homeless
February 2012 was the month that brought me a little closer to the clients I work with each and every day at the family homeless shelter. Social work is a challenging field, but the lives of those we help are so much more challenging. I was for the first time in my life faced with the reality that I might not have a place to go to after work that I can call “home”. I am in no way comparing my struggle with that of residents I work with, it’s clear that I am immensely more privileged than many as I have family and friends willing and able to help, an education, and a steady job; not to mention I only have to look after myself and have no children to provide for. This experience awakened inside me a compassion that was forgotten, and opened my eyes to privilege I failed to recognize before. I can say that these last few weeks have been new, I feel more committed to work, while still feeling held down by the systematic failures clients face every day. I am thankful to have a place to lay my head tonight, and I am lucky that it’s safe, clean, affordable, and mine. I’m happy the search is over, and I now understand exactly why my family never moved throughout my childhood, and that’s simply because moving is hard.