A Room That Will Do: Hunting for a Burlington apartment that doesn't suck | Real Estate | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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A Room That Will Do: Hunting for a Burlington apartment that doesn't suck

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ANDY DUBACK
  • Andy Duback

“Hi, you have reached the home of…”

Shit.

“…we can’t come to the phone right now, but if you leave a…”

Just beep, dammit.

“…we’ll be sure to get back to you.”

BEEEEEEP!

“Hi, my name is Robert Isenberg. I’m, uh, moving up to Burlington, and I need a place to, you know, live. And I read this, I mean, I’m answering this ad in, um — what was that paper? Okay, this ad, and if you guys still need a roommate, just give me a call. I know it’s long distance — oh, yeah, I’m in Pittsburgh — but call me back, if you get a chance, at this number…”

This number was no longer serviced by a long-distance company — I could no longer afford it — so I was relying on $5 phone cards to reach out and touch my future landlord. Worse, Pittsburgh is a 13-hour drive from Burlington — too far to burn an afternoon checking out studios. I hung up the phone and crumpled my calling card into a ball. Probably another bomb, I thought.

Like so many B-town immigrants before me, I was doing this research from a furniture-less bedroom in another city, drinking tap water from a plastic cup and scanning the classifieds I’d printed from the Internet. Seeking a Better Life in Vermont, I’d assumed housing here would be cheap, spacious and available.

“Well, the studio is small,” cautioned yet another landlord. “Is that what you’re looking for?”

“Small is good. What’s the rent?”

“Six-seventy-five.”

Dollars? Was he serious? It was true that my apartment in Pittsburgh was unusually cheap — $195 a month — but I had never paid more than $395, nor had I been forced to search for longer than three weeks. Grant-ed, most apartments in the ’Burgh had shag carpets, dangerous electrical wiring, missing ceiling panels, uneven floors and barbaric landlords. But there was always someplace to crash. Pitts-burgh, my home for the past five years, is like lots of medium-size American cities, where cheap, reasonably safe efficiencies are plentiful.

After scanning Burlington’s skyline and classifieds, I noticed the absence of basic low-income high-rises. Didn’t every city have those square, concrete buildings with little balconies and TV antennae? With 4700 residents per square mile, wouldn’t a few tenements free up some space?

Burlington, I discovered, doesn’t exactly cater to newcomers. According to a report by the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment has risen 20 percent in the last five years, and 10.9 percent in the last two. The explosive growth of companies like Ben & Jerry’s and IDX put Burlington on the job-hunting map, but it seems the influx of wide-eyed college graduates exceeded the number of high-wage professional jobs. Two thirds of Vermont’s jobs pay under $13.21 an hour, according to the housing report, and rents are astronomical — a whopping $625 for your average studio, without utilities.

Add to this Burlington’s colossal reputation as a hippie haven, an Eden for gay couples and the definitive “latte town” — so described in Gary Rosen’s 2000 book, Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There — and it’s standing room only in the Queen City. Brave migrants naturally flock to the state’s most accessible locus, which boasts all the night life and other amenities loved by transplanted urbanites.

Many of the shrewder, better-heeled newbies have built their own massive houses — locally referred to as “McMansions” — out in Burlington’s suburbs. Such houses come with a couple grassy acres and porches that command scintillating views of the mountains to the east or west. For people like me — young, single and not yet grounded — leasing an apartment is the only way to go. But most of the existing apartments in Burlington are already packed.

With students. Every red-blooded college student past freshman year yearns for his own crib. I’ve enjoyed my own share of collegiate squalor, complete with mounds of unwashed dishes, crushed beer cans and strangers waking up on my floor with cigarette butts still hanging out of their mouths. The antics of UVM students — once distinguished as the number-one party-throwers in America — have made landlords think twice about young renters.

“NOT A PARTY HOUSE,” insists ad after ad. This is a reasonable request, especially for home owners jaded by burnt rugs and plugged-up toilets. The only relatively “new” building I could find was the Woolen Mill, an ingeniously renovated old factory and a portrait of savvy urban renewal in Winooski. However, a one-resident studio runs $900 to $1100, far beyond my range.

It was clear I needed to hook up with a roommate, which also turned out to be easier said than done. Just as landlords can ban partygoers and smokers, so too can housemates be wildly selective.

“F. grads./young prof. only, non-smokers… mature grad./ prof… open-minded, cat-liking smoker… no party animals/ smoking/pets… three 30-something prof. F’s looking for 4th…”

I began to imagine my perfect roommate: “Friendly, Green Party-affiliated supermodel wanted. Medieval historians, Beatniks and spelunkers welcome to apply…”

My barrage of phone calls proved disheartening:

“Yeah, we’ve got a cool spot,” said one prospective roomie. “The room’s really small, though. You got a nice view of the lake, I guess. But I’m not sure what the situation is, you know? Like who’s staying in the house after May and who’s leaving.”

“Well, we have a very likely renter,” said another. “But, you know, I guess you should tell me about yourself.”

And my favorite: “It’s a trailer, actually…”

After a few more calls my deficient math skills suddenly kicked in: Most roommates were asking $400-plus for rent, and a share of utilities. This meant I would spend at least $500 a month just to avoid paying $600 on my own, and I’d have to coordinate with some strange, lonely soul. Didn’t these people have friends they could room with? Why place an ad? Did they have diseases? Coke habits? What the hell was wrong with them?

Once I’d calmed down, I gave up on roommates and tried apartments.com, a comprehensive listing that organizes by environmental factors: How many bedrooms? One-bedroom or studio-style? One bathroom or one-and-a-half? And, by the way, how much rent was I willing to spend?

I typed in $450. This gave me five hits. For three weeks I called these numbers in vain. My mother generously offered to check out apartments while I prepared to leave Pittsburgh, but each landlord managed to fill their vacancies just hours before the viewing. Too soon, moving day arrived; my Dad pulled into Pittsburgh with his pickup truck, preparing to move my stuff to… somewhere.

In Vermont, I crashed on my parents’ couch and picked up four local newspapers to scan the classifieds. I crossed out all the expensive places — $550 and above — and all the apartments too far away. This left me with one studio, located in Burling-ton’s Old North End. My parents had warned me about this part of town, making it out as a ghetto jammed with crumbling drug dens and loose, strung-out teenagers. I had wandered there only once before, and while it wasn’t nearly the horror story I’d expected, I saw couches on front porches, strips of flypaper hung in living rooms and cracked windows patched with duct tape.

The studio I sought was located on the first floor of a two-story building. It had a simple bathroom and closet and was more than suitable for my needs. The landlord was a tall, grimacing man who said almost nothing; instead of engaging in small talk, he handed me a sheet of paper: “Lease Application,” it read.

I had never heard of such a thing, much less “landlord references” and a credit check costing $15. Frankly, I needed a place to live now. I didn’t have an extra $15 and an idle week to wait for some jackass to scrutinize my credit rating. I thanked the landlord, walked out the door and dropped the application in a recycling bin.

One day before I started my new job, I discovered a listing that I’d previously overlooked under “Rooms for Rent.” It was furnished, with a washer and dryer and no lease. I would share an immaculate kitchen, parking lot and bathroom with three other guys of roughly my age and financial situation.

“It’s sort of like a boarding house without the negative connotations,” said the landlord. The total price — including utilities — was $450 a month.

I’ve lived in this room for three weeks now, on a quiet, dead-end street just a couple blocks from downtown. The room is cozy, with a bed that I had to shift to free up floor space. But the search for Bur-lington housing is a work in progress — like everything at age 22 — and a modest room is the ideal spot to start. I may yet track down a better deal… with a couple of Beatnik spelunkers in similar straits.

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