Finding and securing an apartment in New York City is one sort of nightmare. Nightmares exist all over the world, but this particular one all New Yorkers share. It’s in the contract we write in blood with the City: “You shall be homeless, you shall couch surf, you shall question your sanity as you try to house your thoughts.”
We found our new apartment by dumb luck. Getting it was a combination of being the right sort of person with the wrong sort of credit score.
In the spring of 2013, my daughter and I were vacated from my Lower East Side tenement apartment. The building had suffered damage from excavation in the lot next door and a split had been discovered in the basement so wide the super could put his arm through it. The Fire Department gave us 10 minutes to get out (this story can be found in The Shift 12th Street #7). I was told by my landlords that it would be months, maybe years, before they could fix it.
I found myself among the apartment hunters: hungry young things new to the city with fantastic shiny credit lines. New York had changed a lot since getting my tenement shoebox.
In the Lower East Side of 1990, a suitable tenant meant someone who was safe to be around, drug free, and with a job. Time had stood still in my little geode of an apartment. I had been hermetically sealed and protected against the real estate market, credit checks and the periodic reinvention that New York goes through. When my little pod cracked, out spilled a haphazard mix of eccentricities, personal flaws and a loosely held together life that was slightly past its punk prime and still rogue in nature. Not all of it looked good on paper, a fact I came to know intimately as I tried to apply for apartments.
The credit check became the story of my life; not my collection of things, not my good deeds, or my bad behavior that turned into pretty good art. The whole story boiled down to a three-digit number and no one wanted a story that went like mine did.
We had applied for an apartment through a stylish real estate agency on the upper west side. We filled out the mountain of paperwork, provided references, and were prepared to pay the enormous fee. We were still rejected. I felt unwelcome in my own city. It seemed like the real estate agencies had taken over the town. Through a convoluted application system of outrageously high criteria they could control who got in, and I was not on the guest list.
So I began to troll Craigslist. One late desperate night, I found an old world charmer (unrenovated).
The listing linked to a realtors “NO FEE!”
“The credit check became the story of my life; not my collection of things, not my good deeds, or my bad behavior that turned into pretty good art.”
website whose simple bold graphics and askew picture boxes were intent on speaking to those with an “edgy” style.
“How do you like the website?” asked the agreeable and eager agent.
“Looks great!” I smiled at the old world linoleum and the fiberboard tile in the dropped ceiling.
The real estate office in Bed Stuy was still in the stages of reinvention; a dusty basement room with black garbage bags duct taped to the line of windows on the street level. I tried to imagine its former life; who was here before the concerns of credit reports?
“Why is your credit so bad?” asked the landlord in my interview as he flipped through the pages of my credit report.
I could tell he liked me. I told him the story of who I was the only way I knew how: with words. He knew enough about people to know I was a nice person and safe to be around. The credit report didn’t reflect all of what was sitting right in front of him.
“What happened?” he persisted. It didn’t make any sense.
I explained about letting a couple of credit cards go here and there; that as a single parent my priority was food and shelter.
“The rent gets paid first!” I said, sure that was the zinger line that would get me in.
He frowned like he’d heard that one before, and flipped through the papers some more looking for something, anything, that would tell him I was ok.
“Why are there no court appearances?”
“I don’t like court,” I said, “Too stressful. I think people should try to work out their differences”
“Nobody wins,” he said looking at me in earnest, his brow furrowed in tenderness.
“Nobody wins,” I said.
Approved. But it would be my boyfriend’s name on the lease.
The irony of my approval matches the irony of my new neighborhood, pioneered by artists and reinvented from a dark and dangerous past. The past not being that far behind and still in evidence like garbage bags taped to a window. The real estate agents can’t get in there fast enough.
But this is New York and its agenda is to reinvent. In the movement to reshape, cracks will appear. In those cracks are the surprising things that fall through; those invisible nouns that narrate the city and say, “I am a New York story.”
featured photo credit: photo by Charlotte Slivka