Rent-aholics Anonymous

I must credit yesterday’s Wall Street Journal article, “A Program for Poor-aholics,” (who can join Underearners Anonymous) as inspiration for today’s blog post.

My name is Sherry Wolf and I am a rent-aholic. It all began when I left my parents’ rent-free house at 18 and headed for college.  I’ve been unable to break the habit of paying rent—every month—ever since.

For 27 years I have suffered this affliction. My habit has gotten so bad that I no longer try to hide it from others and openly flaunt my monthly addiction, even when the cost has come at great sacrifice to myself and others and I have had to make life-altering changes to accommodate my rent-aholism.

I have lowered my standards. Once, long ago, I lived in a house that my parents owned with a backyard and bar-b-q. It had three bathrooms, two with showers, and there was not only a full-size laundry machine and dryer, but even what we used to call in the 1970s, a rec room, with a bar and sectional couch that could seat 27 comfortably. It had shag carpeting and two exquisite Paul Klee reproductions painted right onto the paneled walls—my mother was a visionary.

Today, I pay a small fortune to live in less than 400 square feet in Brooklyn. My kitchen dates back to the Ford administration. It has no drawer for silverware, so I am reduced to keeping my grandparents 1939 silver flatware out on a formica shelf, making it appear as though I am fallen aristocracy—though I come from peasant stock.

Unless I open the fridge just right, the door hits the couch. Fewer than one person can cook in the kitchen at any given time, and all is lost if the dog tries to enter. Needless to say, there is no laundry machine or dryer and my closet isn’t deep enough to hang shirts. My office is just wide enough for a desk, but not quite wide enough to pull out books from two cases opposite each other at the same time.

Perhaps my college dormroom served as a gateway drug to rent-aholism. Bunk beds were sweet at first, I could even treasure the mini-fridge, but a group bathroom down the hallway left me wanting more serious space. From there, it was a three-person share and then I progressed to renting with this or that partner of the moment.

By the time I moved into the East Village on my own in the late 1980s, I was pretty far gone. I’d signed a lease on a studio by Tompkins Square Park near the Russian and Turkish Baths, what grampa called the schvitz. I would rent anything clean and rat-free, so long as they’d let me live there in peace. I was sliding down a path of inflated rents for cramped spaces.

Now here I am in Brooklyn, unable to fight the monthly drive to pay the rent, month after month. I’m starting to justify my habit with silly excuses like a professed need for warmth in winter and a place to store my clothes, TV and the pooch. Even though I can actually stand smack in the center of my apartment—beneath my skylight—and see everything I own without craning my neck, I say it’s fine because it takes no time to clean.

Is there hope? Are there others out there like me? Is there a Rent-aholics Anonymous for people like us?

All jokes aside, I find yesterday’s WSJ piece to be crassly indifferent to the actual conditions that tens of millions now face. My hope is that the underemployed, the unemployed and the underpaid—which is to say, most people today—can come together to challenge the status quo. The fact that a serious newspaper would treat low-wage employment as if it were a choice is just another sign of the class divide in this nation and the delusional realm inhabited by a layer of obscenely wealthy and vacuous people.

As my dear friend Annie Zirin commented on that article, the only organization those underearners need is a union.


3 responses to “Rent-aholics Anonymous

  1. After I was forced to leave a large efficiency apartment in Lodi, NJ, because it was an “illegal” dig – a two family with a never-inspected finished basement (my pad) in a strictly one and two family zone – I moved into a tiny efficiency apartment in Paterson for $450/mo. In six months, my landlord, an Ecuadorian immigrant with a fresh, I-just-got-here-a-while-ago accent but whose wealth I estimated at about $2M judging by the apartment buildings he owned in the city, raised my rent to an even $500, and since he clearly had very little education, I wondered how much (or little) he would have if drugs were legal. At any rte, like Mr. Monk, he probably liked round numbers. A year and half after I moved in, I retired and split for Peru; the new occupant confided that she had agreed to pay $55o/mo – a 100 dollar increase in just 18 months!

    Point #1: capitalism has never been able, nor will it ever be able, to provide affordable housing through free-market dynamics; nor will it ever provide affordable professional services through the same mechanism because of the endless lobbying by the professional associations that represent their members to keep the bottlenecks tight (the professional colleges which can only produce so many graduates in any given year). Leading up to the recently passed Health Care Reform bill, the AMA was the number one spender, giving equally to both parties. (When I hear the endless debates as to why the blues gave in to the reds or vice versa, as though it really mattered, I get violently nauseous. There has been a gradual coup d’etat in the US states that has been under way for thirty years. In this government, the people simply have no voice, and it’s clearly the media’s job to keep people focused on the one-ring circus being played out inside the beltway in order to maintain the illusion that they do and, thus, maintain the status quo.


  2. For just over 6 years I lived in a crime-ridden, run-down neighborhood in north-central Austin. I went at least 4 years without a working heater…despite my complaints. I paid $545 for a 1/1 and a study…with a backyard…sounds like a steal…but I wouldn’t have paid more than $400 if I had the choice, given the condition. During the coldest stretches of winter, the indoor temperature was 45F. The duplex unit had those old-style crank windows. And some would not shut completely, contributing to a chilly draft on nights it would dip into the 20s and 30s.

    For my last 2 summers there I also went without a working air conditioner. Summer of 2009 we had 69 days of triple digit heat. Summer 2010 was a tame 20 days of such temperatures.

    I never signed a lease..despite my offers to do so. Was never asked for a security or pet deposit and the landlord let the property go in decline. He is well to do in the west-side of town. Easy money for him when he maintained his properties on the cheap. Finally moved out in August with very little notice..he never got in touch with me..and he never returned calls to the leasing office of the apartment complex I moved in…thus I could produce no verifiable rental history for my time there. I doubt he kept a ledger anyway.

    It is nice having the choice to use AC or heat for myself or when I have company…though in my experience I developed a tolerance for the extreme chill or sizzle.

  3. What struck me when I read the WSJ article is how much it glorifies the individual – it’s all about individual effort and striving to get ahead, accumulate material goods and live the good life. There is nothing in that article (not that I expect it!) about the commons or any ideas that are remotely progressive. Again, not that I expect that in an article in the WSJ. But where in this country do such ideas get discussed? Any where? Is there anyone out there even looking at the water that the fish swim in? Other than Joe Bageant and Morris Berman?

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