Personal Statement: Renting in A2, a cautionary tale

BY CAROLINE HARTMANN

Published October 21, 2008

When people tell me they’ve had unfortunate Ann Arbor housing experiences, I can’t help but laugh a little. Not because I don’t believe them, but because I know I’ve fared worse. So much worse that I can claim the authority to lay down some ground rules for every student seeking housing in this cramped college town.

So the house is a historic landmark? Forget it.

Yes, I loved the ’50s-style kitchen of my post-freshman-year sublet (even if it did violate health codes) and the bay windows were definitely a plus, but as it turned out, living in a historic building was far from charming.

Do you remember the great flood of spring 2006? When the temperature dropped to 40 degrees and the rain didn’t let up for 11 straight days? My South Division apartment was without heat, as my landlord had turned off the gas in anticipation of summer. Combine that with an ancient generator causing the electricity to go out every few days, a two-week period without reliable running water and a mouse infestation, and it’s easy to see the dark side of a quaint Victorian.

Not thinking it could possibly get any worse, I came home one night to the disaster that would make earlier setbacks seem like nothing more than hiccups. My living room ceiling had completely collapsed, without warning, and covered the apartment with debris. Looking up at the gaping hole, you could see the bottom of a rusty old bathtub, its broken pipes flooding my kitchen and family room. When the trusty maintenance guy knocked at the upstairs apartment, a couple in robes came to the door annoyed. They’d been “showering” for two full hours, and without any sense of guilt for the monsoon that destroyed half of my living space.

Never rent from law students.

After living in that first apartment for about a month, my roommate and I demanded compensation. We refused to pay our rent in full and e-mailed a long list of complaints to the University law students we sublet from. We thought we were prepared for the backlash. We had researched Ann Arbor’s housing code, highlighted the sections of the lease that were in direct violation, sent photos of the damages and obtained copies of maintenance reports. No triviality was spared … or so we thought.

We received a response that stunned even my father, a litigator for more than 20 years. It was as if these girls had just taken Shady Real Estate Law 101, and there was nothing we could do to defend our case. Since they hadn’t been in Ann Arbor to witness our hardship, they wanted proof. They demanded the works: daily weather reports from a local source, phone bills showing late-night calls to maintenance, credit card bills and gas receipts to prove that we drove home to escape the cold, reports from a building inspector and faxed copies of complaints in writing sent to the management company.

We threatened to sue, but these girls could call our bluff, even from halfway across the globe. When push came to shove, they were in perfect legal standing to kick our asses in court. We eventually retreated, our heads bowed and tails tucked between our legs, rent checks in the mail.
Killer bees — it could happen to you.

You might think that having an exposed brick wall in your apartment gives it a certain urban-loft quality, but those porous openings simply can’t be trusted. The back of my next apartment building was attracting hordes of bees, but since I never entered through that door, I was unaware of that development.

As the cool fall air threatened their survival, the bees tried to move inside any way they could. The first invader seemed like simple dumb luck, but when a swarm infiltrates your home, you have to act fast.
Flailing around and screaming, my sister and I duct-taped as many openings in the brick wall as we could and then got the hell out. Outside we saw that bees entirely blanketed the building’s walls, and I put in a call to my housing manager. Turns out, when maintenance treated the hives on the outside of the building, they “angered” the bees, causing them to invade the building where they became “delirious.” I’m still not sure how you can tell if a bee is delirious, but needless to say, it took several days to clear the building of the iron-willed insects. It took several days to eradicate the iron-willed insects. And for the record, RAID doesn’t make a dent.

Background checks should not be taken lightly.

After the bees had gone, I found myself on the other side of the subletting equation. Leaving town for the summer after my sophomore year, I searched endlessly for someone willing to take on the rent of a studio. When my housing company recommended one of their employees, I jumped at the offer. She was in her late twenties and wanted a place to stay for a few months while she renovated her and her fiancé’s house. That was the story, and a damn good one if you ask me. I left Ann Arbor and didn’t think twice about the details.

When I couldn’t reach my subletter to hash out the arrangements for my homecoming, I had my sister stop by the apartment. She told me that the place reeked from the hallway and a cat was clawing behind the door begging to be fed. Several cigarettes and a great deal of pacing later, I learned that my subletter had been fired just weeks after signing my lease, then thrown in jail for drug possession and that now her heroin-addicted boyfriend was squatting on my couch. If you’re not familiar with squatter’s rights, read up, because even the police didn’t have the power to forcibly remove this man from my apartment. He showed up to a meeting with my housing manager trembling, sweating and arguing hysterically — not exactly in a state to reason. Having already forfeited missed rent payments, I resorted to bribery to finally retrieve my keys.

Start imagining what my place must have looked like. Believe me, it was even worse. The lock had been kicked in several times by collectors, every light was either blown out or covered, disturbing quotes and goblin-like images were taped to the wall, every kitchen utensil was bent and burnt, my stove was a nauseating mess of Spaghettios and drug residue, a roach clip was burned into my antique dresser and the nightstand drawer was filled with pills of every kind.

The bathroom was the worst of all, coated in dry vomit, the sink backed up and the exposed neon light flickering above. It took so long to remove the stench that I eventually called it quits and found an available studio just across the street.

Don’t let the bedbugs bite.

At this point in my housing history, I assumed the worst was over. But a few weeks into the lease revealed a catastrophe that would trump them all: bedbugs.

The realization came when I took my significant other to the emergency room for an uncontrollable rash. What we thought were hives turned out to be bedbug bites, but that was only the beginning. If you’ve never experienced the hell that is a bedbug infestation, count your blessings. These little prehistoric tanks can live off of only one drop of blood per year, and they have an amazing ability to resist most extermination methods. The hide-away murphy bed I kept stored in the closet turned out to be the source, but over time they also traveled to my own mattress and established an elaborate nest in my couch.

When even the several fumigations failed to eliminate the bugs, I reached my breaking point. I had become a paranoid version of my former self, checking and re-checking every speck of dirt on every inch of fabric I saw. I’d lay awake in bed at night, just as I would do in every bug-free bed for the next six months, imagining them crawling through my sheets.

I finally packed up a few outfits that hadn’t touched the floor, moved into the League on my parents’ dime and spent my days making phone calls to the exterminator. Since chemical treatment only kills the live bugs — the eggs are beyond indestructible — the cycle of extermination seems endless. In the meantime, dry cleaners were refusing to treat my wardrobe and I was a sleep-deprived monster, on a vicious hunt to bring death to bedbugs everywhere.

Splurging is worth it.

In time, I moved out of that apartment, too. With the terms of my next housing search limited to sparse availability mid-semester, I had a choice to make: I could either take my chances on another well-worn apartment, or pay big bucks for a place that I knew would be paradise. Convinced that I was destined to live out the rest of college under an inevitable housing curse, I opted for the latter and moved into Tower Plaza on William Street. Yes, it’s more expensive, but after 18 months of court fees, repair costs and replacing damaged goods, my rent seems like a deal. As trite as it sounds, you can’t put a price tag on peace of mind.

—Caroline Hartmann is a senior arts editor for The Michigan Daily