Everything we own is packed in an overwhelming sea of cardboard boxes that is taking over our apartment. We have yet to disassemble our Ikea bed. The clothes I left out to wear during moving week are scattered in piles on the floor. In spite of the disastrous state of the apartment and the slowly worsening pinched nerve in my back, this has been the least stressful part of the moving process.
My partner Jake moved into my apartment at the beginning of September after he finished his master’s defence at Queen’s University. I didn’t realize how small 400-something square feet felt until he and his belongings joined me in my one-bedroom apartment full time. It feels like we’re living on a 40-foot sailboat in the Toronto Harbour, but without the seagulls and sea sickness.
We’ve endured a few head-on collisions with furniture and each other over the last month. I’m grateful we had the sense to give our 60-day notice back in August so we could find a “swankier new place,” as Jake put it, for Oct. 1. What I didn’t anticipate was the critical evaluation of my basic needs and identity crisis that accompanied the search.
We began our hunt for the perfect place on Craigslist, where we found a listing created by a realtor named Marsha Berry. Her description of the condominium was all in uppercase, which we decided was oddly endearing. I called her partly to find answers to general condo search questions, buy mostly to find out if
she yells when she speaks like I imagined from her all-caps writing. She wasn’t a shouter — I was disappointed. She did, however, give us realistic, but terrifying, advice: don’t start looking for a place to live until a month to two weeks before you plan to move.
Craigslist, Kijiji and Condos.ca proved Berry right, but we couldn’t help but peek at what was available in our price range. It was right about then that we realized we had to start placing dollar amounts on our basic needs. I thought our budget would get us something akin to the Taj Mahal, but I was sadly mistaken. We started a list. We needed to establish what we wanted and what we could afford.
We were adamant that we needed a place with a healthy amount of light. Both windows in our current apartment face another building and are half blocked by a massive concrete balcony. Winter is a miserable time in this cave. The kitchen in my current apartment is just spacious enough for one person to walk in, do a little twirl and walk out. Jake and I love to cook up a storm and do a dance that imitates spaghetti while we do so, so a bigger kitchen was a must-have.
We spent a month fluctuating our maximum price because we had to balance money-saving with daily quality of life. We could save several hundred dollars each month by getting a place without a den or a dishwasher and by sacrificing some light. But was it worth it? It seemed like rent increased by $100 for each want or need we wanted to add to the little one bedroom that we have now. My mom thought it was comical that I was “excited about the idea of a den with a window and a door,” and reminded me that I could likely get a penthouse suite in our budget if I moved back home to London, Ont. No thanks, mom.
We started viewing condos and apartments with a variety of different realtors and owners, but apartments were few and far between, and none of the condos checked all of our boxes. My anxiety started rising as I considered that our current apartment was the best option available. My mom gently suggested we ask to stay in the apartment we’re in, which made me panic even more. The thought of staying in a place where the doors won’t shut because they’ve been painted dozens of times and where my neighbour’s tiny deck is a pigeon sanctuary because he won’t stop feeding them made my stomach knot. It couldn’t be the best option. We kept our eye on a building called the Chaz (despite the goofy name, the place was spectacular), but most of its units were rented when construction finished in the summer.
One miraculous day, we found a one bedroom plus den corner unit with floor-to-ceiling windows on the 35th floor that had a spectacular view of the city and water. It was better than we ever could have imagined, but at the top of our budget. We walked away from the viewing in love with the building, but unsure about the price. Our mistake was waiting a few hours to deliberate and put in an offer.
We were both pretty sour for a couple of days after the missed opportunity.
We continued our online quest for the Holy Grail of condos, but with more realistic expectations and a readiness to jump on the next opportunity. In spite of our preparedness, we only had a month left until our move-out date so we had to start making moves.
With three weeks left, we finally put in an offer on a brand new one bedroom plus den condo that had those neat Ikea drawers that whoosh closed and can never slam. We both breathed a sigh of relief. Jake printed all of the required documents, I filled in the rental application, we scanned in our stack of paper and sent it in.
Then it all crumbled beneath us. Jake put down his phone after a conversation with the owner. “He went with someone else.” It felt like my stomach dropped to the floor.
“Did he say why?” I was panicking. We wouldn’t find another place like that. “Did someone give him a better offer?”
“No. He said it’s because we’re not professionals.”
I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. It didn’t matter that I had a letter of employment proving that I had a well-paying part-time job as a writing consultant at the university. The owner didn’t care that we were both master’s students with undergraduate degrees in science and engineering. It meant nothing that my current landlord referred to me as an “exemplary tenant” in my reference letter or that we had better than average credit scores. We could prove that we had the funds to pay for rent, but he didn’t care because we were not salary employees.
Condo owners are looking for people willing to pay their monthly mortgage payments in exchange for a space to live. We weren’t worthy enough to the condo owner who rejected our offer because he had a rigid idea of who could afford to live in his condo. He wasn’t alone, though.
Several realtors and even the standard rental application asked for our salary, almost as if to say that there was no other way for us to prove our worth. This caused me to re-evaluate myself as a commodity in the condo market. It felt uncomfortable and restrictive.
Once I moved past self-pity, I was angry. I knew I wasn’t the only person in Toronto who didn’t have a full-time job. Toronto’s 2014 employment survey says that just under half of Toronto’s population are employed full time. I realize that condo owners are taking a risk when they select a tenant because it is a business exchange. This structure, however, allows individual investors to be the gatekeepers for housing in Toronto. Their individual judgments and biases determine who can most easily live in Toronto and they seem to be unfavourable toward students.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and the Toronto Region Research Alliance, in 2011 there were almost 200,000 students at eight universities and colleges in the city. Given that large number, a tenant’s ability to pay rent or their trustworthiness should not be solely based on their salary.
Jake and I were lucky. We persevered and scoured listings until two weeks before our move-out date. That’s when we found Sam in a listing that had no pictures. But we recognized the area of the address. He took the time to talk to Jake at his perfume shop while I was in class. Sam listened as Jake told him about our master’s programs and my job. After some negotiation, we managed to get a fantastic condo that had all of our wants and needs for a terrific price.
As I was signing the dotted line on our rental agreement, I couldn’t help but chuckle. Our new condo is in the same building as the unit we put an offer on and were rejected. Unlike the other condo owner, Sam took the time to evaluate us as multidimensional humans and, as a result, we have a beautiful new home to move into.
While waiting for the elevators I’ll wonder whether I’m standing next to the tenants who beat our first offer.
But I’ll smile knowing ours is swankier, after all.