Rent control is a cruel mistress.
There are 353 days each year I take extreme gratification knowing I pay half the market rate for my apartment. When I started apartment hunting two years ago, I looked at 350-square foot studios that cost more than my current two bedroom.
Granted, the second bedroom can’t be more than five or six feet wide; and granted, there’s a water heater in the center of my kitchen; and granted, I have NEGATIVE amenities including basics like a garbage chute, doorbell, or garbage disposal. And for those of you curious as to what the depths of hell truly feel like, create two cookbooks in a kitchen without air conditioning.
But it is one hell of a deal, and most days, I am extremely grateful.
Other days—roughly once a month—I wonder if I would benefit from living in an apartment built after electricity was invented. One was Christmas day, when a pipe burst and flooded my bathroom and the Chinese restaurant I live above. Another was Tuesday.
For months, I knew something was wrong with my door handle. Sometimes I just put my key in the slot and the handle blatantly wouldn’t turn. If I left it alone for twenty minutes it magically fixed itself, so I didn’t worry about it. Until Tuesday.
My next-door neighbor, Michael, has lived in this building for over a decade. It’s incredible. He knows every way to break in, every way to get my less than amicable property manager to actually send maintenance, and every way a former tenant has illegally modified, painted, or at one point, rewired one of four units in our building.
So when I heard, “Hi Kara!” on my twenty-fifth attempt to unlock my own apartment, all I could do was turn around and say, “Please help me.”
Since the two of us have separate entrances to the street (the broken handle is to the building, not my unit), and he couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on with my lock, I went through his door, up the steps, into his apartment, and out his bedroom window. I walked across the fire escape and broke into my place through my living room. Thank God for window units.
I did that twice.
Twice I went through a second story window to get into my apartment, once twenty minutes prior to a torrential downpour.
And since I work from home, I was on a twenty-four-hour house arrest so I could let my upstairs neighbors into our building once they returned home from work.
It took two phone calls from my neighbors, three phone calls from me, and one call to OTA (Office of Tenant Advocate) to get my door fixed. I dropped more F bombs on three phone calls than every blog post on this website combined, to which my neighbor kindly said, “Kara….perhaps that isn’t the best way to get things done.”
I resigned a lease twice in my life.
Here, and one apartment in Pittsburgh (where I didn’t even stick out the second term). And I’m twenty-nine.
I lived in beautiful apartments (hold your applause); I lived in one I thought would certainly burn to the ground. A lot of people in those apartments made rentals feel like home. My college roommate, Michelle, is by all means of the word, perfect; and there are a slew of others who remain lifelong friends and continue to crack my shit up via text messages.
But I never really had a neighborhood.
My parents have neighbors. For those of you who have never lived in (or visited) a rural area, and actually think my childhood on a farm consisted of raising baby goats, this might blow your mind: My parents’ closest neighbors live one mile away. I think one mile is the diameter of my current zip code.
My parents consider families who live like, three miles away, their neighbors. Imagine that in metro stops. And these people just love each other. Family member gets sick? Neighbors bring food. Going on vacation? Neighbors bring your pets food. Property damage due to wind, hail, or natural disaster? Neighbors are probably dealing with their own shit, so maybe the two families swap food.
I never thought I would have neighbors in a city.
It’s just too transient. You have a lot of me’s walking around, staying rooted for no more than a year before picking a new spot.
But I have my neighbor, Michael, who is more than willing to let me crawl through a window when I get locked out. I swapped cell numbers will my mail lady, because it’s really hard to Amazon Prime without a doorbell. And the Chinese restaurant owner I live above says hi to me—I shit you not—EVERY SINGLE DAY, even though I cost him thousands of dollars in property damage to date.
And before I wised up and distributed four spare keys to various friends, I once wrote THIS IS KARA, CAN YOU LET ME BACK IN? on a big sheet of paper and slid through my mail slot, which my upstairs neighbors somehow found. Both times.
When you live in a big city in your twenties and thirties, your friends become your family. They’re there to host Thanksgiving because no one wants to travel in that shit, and to listen to your relentless bitching about your boss, client, or whoever made your life miserable on that particular day. I have been very fortunate to have really awesome people there for me, particularly in DC, no matter how many times I pick up and move.
I think this is the first time I really have neighbors, which really gives me that sense of ownership even though I continue to make monthly rent payments.
They help me negotiate with a property manager who makes my blood boil, understand how to navigate endless Trader Joes lines, and strategize with me about how best to break into a building which, let’s be real, is made of brick.
The baristas at my coffee shop will hand me a to-go cup Saturday morning with ten people in front of me, and Shawn (my mail lady) will re-circle the block with my packages if I miss her phone call. And even though my blood-related family will never understand why I live here, I just can’t help but fucking love it.