Anyone who knows me even slightly knows I’m looking for a place to live, and that the path to where I am now has been a difficult one. Not long ago, a friend of a family member sounded the alert that they might have a space for rent, and that we should come out to see it. It was an interesting space and the people were terrific but they ultimately wanted more than I could pay, so it was simple enough to let go of. When we were chatting, one of them asked about my long-range plans and I mentioned where I’d been looking for an apartment, but added that so far I hadn’t found anything affordable. The man in this couple, who was entirely kind and a pleasure to talk to, said, “I don’t see why that should be the case,” tilting his head to telegraph just how sincere his curiosity was. And I had a tiny panic attack right there on the spot and said nothing.
Trying to move forward, I recently asked a question on social media addressing some of my difficulty finding a place. Rental agents ask for proof of income that’s two to three times the rent, so for a $600 studio you need $1800 in earnings. I mentioned that I’ve never earned triple my rent, but have always been a reliable tenant, paying on time and in full consistently. One of the respondents didn’t have a suggestion, but wrote that “most people”’s rent is 30-50% of their income, and she didn’t see how I could get by on so little unless I had some special circumstances. Again, my chest got tight and tears pricked at the corners of my eyes. I did write a response, trying to emphasize thanks to those who offered practical tips, but I also lashed out a bit because I felt cornered and exposed. I could feel my vision go red while I typed.
I have a special circumstance. It’s called being poor.
Talking about this is always a difficult negotiation. If you only know me based on my work, you might assume I’m very much like yourself. If you meet me through someone who is a peer to you, it’s likely you’ll take me for a peer as well. And I strive to be bland enough to include on that level, because I don’t want you to feel bad for me, or like you need to hide your house or apologize for it. In a position such as the one I’m in now, where I need to ask for help from people who can’t conceive why I’d need it, much less so urgently, I no longer know what to do.
One rental agent and I got into a scrap on the phone—I’m not sure who hung up on whom—over the income requirements for a pretty mediocre one-bedroom place (it cost $1000 per month, so hello, $36K a year). I explained I have savings to cover any shortfalls while I get reestablished, but was shot down. It was ugly, in particular because I was trying to present a professional veneer. I do have a job, it just doesn’t pay well, and won’t until I’ve got a stable address from which to rebuild a client base. And I’m willing to take on more work to cover the rent, as I have always done without fail. Being told someone is willing to take a chance on you is humiliation enough; you really have to bow and scrape and make a show of gratitude, all while wearing a T-Shirt that says DAMAGED GOODS that fits wrong through the chest because it was donated. But hearing you’re not worth taking a chance on in the first place? Much harder to bounce back from. And I find myself avoiding most any conversation for fear that’s where it will end up, though I need to make connections urgently right now.
I don’t begrudge anyone the things they’ve worked for and earned; there’s often a defensiveness around things like that before I’ve even opened my mouth, and it’s hard to dispel people’s concerns that they’re being judged adversely. It’s not the case. Not all work is valued equally, nor should it be. I’ve done the best I can in retail sales, as a care provider, an industrial temp, and as a writer (which I’m much better at than any of those other jobs). Just now I’m not landing a combination of gigs that will enable me to find a safe place to live and start fresh. This is no longer an abstract concern—I have a matter of weeks to get gone, and no place to go.
I’m writing this down in hopes that someone might know the etiquette of coming out as poor. So much of this information on my own life is a matter of public record: I don’t drive, have been homeless, have very little surviving family, and dearly want to live in a neighborhood where I know my neighbors and might become friends with some of them. My credit is perfect for some crazy reason; oh, that’s right, I don’t borrow money I can’t repay and pay all my bills on time. I’m willing to work a “subsistence” job if it pays enough for me to surmount the aforementioned rental hurdles, but writing still remains my best shot at making both a life and a living for myself. Yet none of these things matter if my bank statement can’t clear a basic course of hurdles, and I need to relocate before I can do anything else.
I was stung by the comment about “most people”s ability to pay rent because it smacked of privilege, but I also don’t believe it’s true. The National Low Income Housing Coalition makes this plain with a metric they’ve developed called the Housing Wage. That’s the hourly wage a full-time employee needs to be earning to afford a two-bedroom home. Of course, it’s got to be rented at HUD-estimated Fair Market rates, and the employee can’t spend more than 30% of their income on the rent. It should not surprise you to learn that the report containing this data is titled Out of Reach. The crux of their report for this year is as follows: “In the United States, the 2014 two-bedroom Housing Wage is $18.92. This national average is more than two-and-a-half times the federal minimum wage, and 52% higher than it was in 2000. In no state can a full-time minimum wage worker afford a one-bedroom or a two-bedroom rental unit at Fair Market Rent.” (italics mine)
It’s not easy to get a job with full-time hours anymore; in fact, in the 25 years since I left school, not one of the jobs I’ve held has been willing to offer me full time hours. I’ve been told I could work 32.5 at one (because 33 would entitle me to a few benefits), and heard, “Just don’t let her go past nineteen,” at another for the same reason. Makes it pretty easy to always be scrounging for more and coming up short, and ridiculously easy to fall short of the kind of income that leads to being treated with dignity.
Look, if you rent me a place, I’ll pay you. When my dad and I pulled into the trailer park I called home for nine years, we sat down with the owner and the manger. My dad’s fixed income would cover the rent, but it was 2/3 of what he was bringing in, and I had zero income. The manager, a salty octogenarian with hair like a tuft of cotton candy, leaned over and poked a finger at me, asking, “Where are you going to get a job?” I swear she sounded like Edward G. Robinson when she did this: Myeah, see? I told her the truth: I was new in town and didn’t know, but I’d have something locked down by the end of the month. We moved in on September 15, and I started working in a bookstore on October 15. My dad paid all our move-in expenses, and I paid him off over the first few months that I was working. I don’t know what else to offer people than my word, which I do actually keep. Somebody out there needs to trust me, and this needs to be a thing we can talk about freely. I’m sick of feeling worth-less, but even more so, tired of hiding it.