The Searchers

Where Is This Place Again?
Where Is This Place Again?

Between the time that we decided that we would have to look for a new place outside of the city of Portland, to the point that we moved into our new home, there was a long period of confusion and frustration. While I have moved a number of times in my life, I had only changed cities a few times as an adult. Prior to my sojourn in Portland (14 years), I lived in Eugene (6 years) and then briefly in Oregon City / Milwaukie / Globe / Cottage Grove (again) (2 years total between them, maybe?). Before that, all the moves were with my family, and the decisions were made without me. A quick review of these locations will not only confirm that for over 20 years I have been an Oregonian, but that my experiences within this state are also extremely limited.

M, on the other hand, is a much more experienced mover, having lived outside of the US, on both coasts, and in a number of large (and small cities) in-between. Where I have extreme difficulty overcoming the inertia that a comfortable home can offer, M is much more willing to uproot herself for any good reason of which she can think  Where I do not travel very well, and find the idea of leaving behind my records to be a challenge, M likes the idea of spending time elsewhere, and posed the idea of moving several times before it began to sink in as a viable option. Suffice it to say, in our relationship, I am the one that needs coaxing to get outside of my comfort zone, where M’s comfort zone is anywhere that she can live with either me or her cat.

That being said, we very quickly fell into a pattern with regards to house searches: M would troll the online listings until she found something, and we would investigate together to see if we liked it. If we both liked a place, we would apply for it, cross our fingers, and see what happened.

And for a long while, nothing was exactly what happened. It’s one thing to decide that you want to move. It’s another entirely to find a place that wants you. As different landlords would talk to us, it became clear that we had several strikes against us that made us unwelcome. While we both had full time jobs, our credit ratings are not stellar. We both have massive student loans under our belts, and without a family that we supported, it was difficult to win over the landlords that asked if we wanted kids. Running a credit check on me is always good for a laugh here and there, but at the end of the day, if it prevents us from moving anywhere, I become the joke in question.

Not far into the process of looking for a new home, we found an excellent place that met all our needs, and was not too far away from PDX. We met with the landlord, saw the place, and immediately applied. We waited patiently for a response, and the following week, we each received a notice in the mail, typed, explaining why we were not able to rent the house.

Initially, this was extremely disconcerting to M, and she dwelled on this for a while, suggesting that this was a sign that we wouldn’t have any luck finding a place. However, I went over the letter I received in a little more detail. One ding against me was, “Late Rental Payments: 10 + times in the last two years.” This was patently not true; I had only paid cash to personal friends for places I was renting over the last several years, and had no official rental agreements with anyone in the last two years, let alone was I ever late. Another mark against me read, “Late Credit Card Payments: 10 + times in the last two years.” I have never had a credit card, save for the Target Card I used used in 1997, which was paid off and canceled very quickly afterward. To their credit, there were a few things of which I was guilty: several large student loans each had monthly payments, and I had been late making those a number of times when I decided that food and shelter were more important. But most of their reasons to not rent to us were entirely fabricated, especially since I do not know how to drive, let alone have any insurance payments to make that could have been late.

This is the most difficult part of searching for houses. As anyone can tell you, there is no end to the kinds of dirt – real or imagined – that can be dug up on anyone, especially when it comes to the world of credit and finances. The age-old conundrum of not being eligible to borrow money until you have borrowed money and then repaid it will give you some insight into the insanity of how the system works. My favorite example of this goes back to 2003, when I was trying to rent a place from a gentleman who looked at my income, and said that I didn’t make enough money to rent from him. However, he would be willing to overlook that problem if I paid twice as much deposit upfront on a place I was already going to pay first & last month’s rent on. I mentioned to him casually that depleting my savings up front actually made me more of a financial liability than if he was to only charge me the regular amount for a new rental, and that the savings would actually benefit me in the event that my income ever took a hit in some way. He looked at me like I was insane. “If you can come up with the larger deposit now, that tells me that you will always be able to come up with the money when you need to pay rent.”

M and I encountered a few other places that didn’t want to rent to us, but always using the most specious of reasoning. On several occasions M was ready to throw in the towel, and suggested that we give up the idea, and instead become more comfortable with our crummy apartment. I remember one day, as we got home to a messy place, dishes piled high, both of us exhausted, where we were both about to lose it. This is the misery of the privileged, of people who have everything they need and most of what they want, and would like to be improve things slightly, but have only inconveniences blocking our every path. There is no reason we can’t get rid of enough of our belongings until we fit comfortably in our apartment, lowered our expectations for the future, and continued to persist in our Portland lifestyle. The only reason we didn’t go that route was that we didn’t, “want to.”

Without digressing too far, this is yet another example of the class system that exists in America, which is entirely stratified by money and money alone. In the grand scale of things, M and I are very, very privileged. We are never hungry, we have a place to live, we both have necessities and conveniences that make our lives fairly easy, and neither of us have to perform manual labor to earn our wages. And yet, we only make just enough to stay in this lifestyle. We are each one major medical emergency away from losing this life, and my brief unemployment of four months took almost a year for us to reverse, financially. We are on a precarious edge of the particular class we exist within, and the financial instability around us acts as a reminder that, if we are not careful, we will be in poverty, or worse.

Largely, the world around us knows this, and landlords (or other people in a similar positions) have the ability to exert class control over the people beneath them. While these kinds of class complications exist in much more stark relief in other countries, it is also present here. George Saunders made the excellent observation that between the very rich and the very poor, we experience a unique existence where the constant and persistent pressure of capitalism is chipping away at our psyches throughout every day of our lives. This pressure shapes our existence in ways of which we aren’t fully aware. Looking for a place to live, and being judged on your financial value before a decision can be made, puts this class structure at the forefront of every conversation.

As we hung in this emotionally distressing space – and had been rejected a few times – we finally told members of M’s family that we wanted to move, and received a lot of enthusiasm about the idea. We had been apprehensive about telling anyone about our desire to move, mostly because we were apprehensive about telling anyone in the event that it didn’t come to pass. However, telling someone else not only brings the idea to life, but holds us to following through with the plan no matter what. Once the idea is out in the world, it builds that much more momentum around the need to actually complete itself, and telling M’s family sealed the deal.

In the wake of this, we found a few different places that we were interested in, and after a very similar application song and dance, we suddenly found ourselves in a position where we had a number of places to choose from, all accepting our applications. This turn of events not only called into question the validity of the previous rejections that we had gotten (which I was already fairly certain were bogus), but brought into sharp relief the class difference that was starting to develop in Portland. Not only is there a “hipness” issue at work, where people who are not cool are shunned and pushed out to the fringes of the city, but overlaying the economic pressure onto this problem creates an environment where only those who are “cool” and “financially secure” happen to make the cut. The rejections had nothing to do with our past, but how cool we are, now.

Strangely enough, the concerns that barred us from being able to rent in Portland don’t seem to exist in Salem. We were welcomed with open arms, at a reasonable cost, and felt as if our cool rating was not a part of the discussion. Before long we had a home, keys in hand, and plan to move in the weeks that followed.

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