"Are you sure you really want to live here? This place is so dark and ugly!" my mom told the prospective tenants, a young couple, viewing the apartment in her San Francisco house that she was ostensibly trying to rent out. I sucked my teeth. I'd worried about this happening, that my mom would feel so guilty for the high price she was asking that she'd try to scare off potential renters by openly disparaging the one bedroom in-law. The young couple looked confused. "Um, I actually like this wood paneling, it's so vintage," the young man said, running his hand against the wall. I began to tell the couple what the terms of the lease would be, but my mom cut me off. "This thing is ugly," she said with a look of repulsion, pointing to the bedroom door, a brown vinyl relic of the 70s that pulled closed like an accordion and was, objectively, ugly. My mom spoke as if she were the prospective tenant, trying to convince a landlord to lower the price by highlighting all of the apartment's flaws.
The national headlines emerging from San Francisco's current rental crisis paint a picture of wealthy landlords pushing old ladies out of units they've inhabited for decades in order to quadruple their profits housing techies. While that happens, a sizable portion of the city's rental stock exists in landlord-occupied buildings like the one I grew up in. In many cases, these landlords are like my mom: teachers, carpenters, small business owners, etc., who bought their homes before prices exploded. Now, they're suddenly presented with the opportunity to make a profit on their homes' extra units. For my mom, like many of my friends' parents, this opportunity presents an ethical quandary: is it right to charge what the market will bear, even if that price seems absurd?
For years, my mom's answer to that question was no. She rented to friends of friends, charging between $500-$1000 a month below the market rate. So while San Francisco had become the most expensive rental market in the country, my mom had delayed retiring from work as a preschool teacher in order to keep up with her mortgage payments. It was time for her to cash in. No more of these sweetheart deals she'd given previous tenants due to their stations in life. There'd been the renter who was a single mom with a young daughter. Of course the rent had to remain low for her, my mom argued. Then there was the Central American immigrant couple who occasionally shared the dinner they'd cooked with my mom. Being a Guatemalan immigrant herself, my mom sympathized with them. And their grilled pork chops. So the rent couldn't be too high for them, either. "I like to give people a chance," she'd say to me about the low rent she'd charge.
In my mom's eyes, there was a morality that existed independently of what the market allowed.
However, this time I was determined. When the previous tenant announced his departure, I insisted that my mom charge $1500 for the apartment. She begrudgingly agreed, but then immediately started spending money trying to improve the place. She installed a new set of curtains. She patched a hole in the ceiling. She applied a fresh coat of paint (or my older brother did at her behest). My brother told her to leave things the way they were, that in San Francisco's rental market, the place would rent as it was. My mom replied indignantly, "I'm decent and I won't do that to people. Period." In my mom's eyes, there was a morality that existed independently of what the market allowed. Just as there had been in 1990, when our elderly landlord, who'd kept our rent low, died and her son inherited the house we lived in. He raised our monthly rent to a then-incomprehensible $1000, forcing my mom, my brother, and me to move out of the apartment I'd grown up in. That had been wrong. Period.
Even though my mom had agreed to let me list her in-law on Craigslist (a major step itself for a woman who worried about the 'crazy people on the internet'), she retained guilt for charging what she deemed an unethical and unwarranted rate. It didn't help that the first people to see the place, the young couple, were so sympathetic. These weren't the affluent Twitter or Google bros I'd hoped for, the ones you actually wanted to overcharge. Instead, the prospective tenants were Arkansas transplants in their mid-20s, he a math tutor at San Francisco State, she a manager at a Starbucks downtown. They were obviously in love and seemingly at the beginning of a life together. In short, they were exactly the kind of people my mom would want to "give a chance."
"It flooded in here last year during a big storm," my mom said to no one in particular while the couple toured the space. "The carpet got stinky. The last tenant had to move in with his mom for a week." Then, perhaps sensing the unease her statement had provoked, my mom pointed to the sandbags just outside the sliding glass door that led to the backyard. "But those should help if there's another big storm. Probably."
In spite of the veracity of my mom's criticisms, there was nothing she could've said to the the young couple that would have curbed their interest in the apartment. She could've told them that the walls bulged with asbestos, that the carpet crawled with roaches, that at night the roaches crawled through the walls and loudly gnawed the asbestos. These tenants wouldn't have cared. According to them, they were paying almost $2000 a month to live in a studio half the size of the in-law's living room. In Daly City. My mom heard them say this and flinched. I knew what she thought: if there was ever an ugly place that deserved to be painted over, that could use a new set of curtains, it was Daly City. I hoped that the reality of the rental market I'd attempted to impress upon her had finally sunk in. Instead, she said, "But still, why would you want to live here?"
The young couple submitted their application for the apartment and said goodbye. After they'd left, I chewed out my mom. She sheepishly apologized. "I'm no good at business stuff, mijo," she said, though she seemed ready to admit that the price they were paying wasn't highway robbery. "I guess I am giving them a pretty good deal," my mom said to me with a smile.
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