Monday, April 7, 2008

The Great Apartment Hunt Pt. 6: Landlords and Gentrification

Randi, ever efficient, soon found another lead. Hmm, this sounds like it has potential: A two-bedroom in Ditmas Park, for only $1350 a month. I have to admit, though, by now I was starting to feel a little pressured, and somewhat wary of the ongoing hunt.

For one thing we had to contend with our landlords. We had told them in December that we planned to move out, and now every time I saw them on the street, or ran into them in our building it was like, hey, yeah, we’re still here. I felt extremely sheepish about the whole thing, although I hadn’t done anything wrong.

Our landlords were and are great people, and I couldn’t blame them if they were anxious to know what was up. Abbie and David, the landlords, had told us that all they needed in terms of lead time for us to get our deposit back was two weeks. We knew they could likely get more rent money if we left, but we couldn’t accommodate them until we had a new place to live.

Also we wanted to do right by them. They’d always been so kind to us. She is an architect and he’s a schoolteacher, and they have three children. Over the past four years we’ve seen their kids grow, and we’ve seen the middle child, a girl, go from an infant to a walking-talking little kid.

One example of their kindness: The night we moved in—a horribly hot evening in May of 2004—we popped open the fridge, and saw a note fasted to a six pack of Brooklyn Lager, “Welcome home! Abbie and David.”

Still, since were were leaving, they’d need new renters. In fact I knew they needed new renters because they asked us if they could show the place while we were still in it. We said sure, putting the shoe on the other foot: now we would be the ones pretending nothing weird is going as total strangers walk through, and silently judge, our lives.

Which is what happened one weekend afternoon in February. David lead in a couple that was similar to us; yuppies in their late 20s, or early 30s. The only difference was in physical size. The guy was really big, and his wife was smallish. Randi and I are about the same height.

Not knowing what else to do, I found myself playing the host, albeit with mixed feelings. A great, if unexpected, tenderness toward the apartment started to swell as I pointed out its good features.

“It gets a lot of light,” I said. “It’s really a very airy and comfortable place to live.”

The couple surveyed the apartment, which took about five seconds. This lead to the woman investigating the bathtub, and noting the shoddy repair job we did with the plastic bag where the soap holder used to be. As mentioned, it had broken off months before.

“Is that going to be fixed?” she asked David. Tell you the truth she seemed a little high strung. I mean I barely even met her, but still.

The husband seemed more laid back. He described how they were moving from a larger one bedroom in Bay Ridge because they wanted to be more near the action. I almost felt like screaming out “Apartment swap!” except, well, that would be a little gay.

So with this pressure always on our backs I looked forward to seeing the place in Ditmas Park. I liked Ditmas Park, even if we’d spent most of our energy looking in the Bay Ridge area. Sure, it was a little quiet, but we were going to have a family, not raise a metal band. Quiet could be fine.

The broker’s name was Carol, and Randi arranged for me to meet up with her before I had to leave for work. Randi gave me Carol’s cell number, and even arranged a meeting time for me.
I made it to the building without getting too lost. There were some older guys hanging around outside, but they looked friendly enough, and the lobby, although somewhat dusty, looked well-maintained.

I say these things, because after seeing about my 20th place I develop a short-hand for crap apartments. My big tip-offs were decrepit lobbies and elevators. Tuxedo Towers, of course, featured both.

The apartment was a sort of border zone for Ditmas Park. Meaning that while it still looked safe, or at least safe enough, it was not wholly gentrified just yet. This cut both ways: fewer Thai restaurants, unfortunately, but cheaper convenience stores and rent. I’d call it a wash.

I called Carol on my cell, while walking through the building. She picked up, but I still couldn’t find her, even though she was inside. Eventually I followed an echoing voice through the hallways, and traced the slightly lagging sound of my own conversation, until I caught up with her.

“Hi, hi,” she said, extending a hand. Carol was in her mid-to-late-40s, and had a slightly burnt-out bohemian aura about her. Like she’d done the whole bourgeois bohemian circuit: Boulder, Berkeley and now Brooklyn.

“The neighborhood’s changing,” she explained. “I lived here for five years, and now I’ve just recently moved to Carroll Gardens. For a long time it had been a lot of families that lived here, and now the area seems to be attracting a lot of younger people, like us.”

Like us. Carol, nice as she was, looked a good 15 years older than I am, but I said nothing.

We made more small talk as we walked to the apartment. I described how my wife is a public school teacher, and I am an editor at a well-known financial Web-site. Carol’s eyes widened slightly. After seeing a few apartments I knew how to romance brokers. We were young(ish), we were building a family, we had a good income—at least when you combined what my wife and I made, and multiplied it—and, we were, how to put this delicately, white.

After all wasn’t that what all the talk about the neighborhood “changing,” and getting away from “families” to young people “like us,” was all about? She was trying to reassure me that if we moved into this apartment, we wouldn’t be surrounded with people not like us for long. It seemed like this subtext came through in many meetings I had with brokers or homeowners in developing areas. I never asked, they volunteered it. And although I have mixed feelings about being a gentrifier, they wanted me to know that there soon would be more like me. So don't worry.

Soon we were at the door of the apartment. Carol jimmied her key into the lock, and soon we were in the apartment’s entryway.

That’s the first thing worth noting: the apartment had an entryway. Ditmas Park apartments are mostly older, pre-War buildings—which war I am not sure—and have a slightly classier, more old-world aspect to them than most. By contrast when you enter our current apartment you’re in the kitchen.

The whole place was newly painted, and the floors were freshly polyurethaned, shiny as a roller-skating rink. I saw the bedroom, and it was spacious and well lit. I saw the kitchen, also new, with new appliances. I saw the bathroom and the living room. This was much bigger than our current place. But I was still on the fence with it. There would be plenty of room, but there was no laundry, which would be a drag.

“Oh, and here’s the other bedroom,” Carol said, somehow noting an entire room I’d missed.

It was like discovering a new country. A new, huge, bedroom spread out before me, beckoning. Two bedrooms! What would we do with all this room? For $1350? I couldn’t believe it! Sold!
Of course Randi would still have to see it, but we could arrange it for that night.

Carol explained that the landlords would want a credit report run, for $50. Fortunately we’d already done one recently, so we were good. Our credit scores were in the high 600s to mid-700s, depending on which service was looking at us. (It was amazing how detailed these things were. I was late with one payment three years ago. Yup, it was on the report, just in case!) I told her we could get it to her, ASAP.

On the way out Carol introduced me to the two older guys who’d been handing out outside. One was the super, Felix, an older Latino man. She bantered with him in a friendly, familiar way as she handed him the keys, and he in turn gave me the fax number for the rental company. Felix also told me the name of the woman who owned the rental company, Dolly.

Before she left Carol added that there was another couple that had seen the apartment, so if we wanted it we would need to move on it. No problem.

“I think the property owners are going to really like you guys,” she said, before we parted ways.

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