The most popular person in Los Feliz is Joan, the owner of a soon-to–be-vacant prewar apartment on Avocado Street. On a gloomy afternoon, Joan stands at the apartment’s doorstep, surrounded by five prospective tenants. We wait, hushed and breathless, as Joan takes the key from her purse.
“You’re the lucky ones who get to see it early,” she says.
Yes, we are the chosen, desperate few. Among nearly 50 interested callers in the three days the unit has been listed, we are the ones who called Joan multiple times. We left beseeching voicemails. We begged to submit applications without even seeing the apartment. We promised to be perfect tenants. We’ve witnessed its grandeur on Zillow — a $3,800 two-bedroom that’s a 15-minute walk from Griffith Park — and we know this one won’t last.
As Joan fits the key into the lock, I glance at the other prospective tenants, all of whom appear to be nice, respectable people. This is extremely unfortunate as they are now pitted against me in one of L.A.’s most cutthroat endeavors: finding an apartment.
As Joan ushers us inside, I ask a woman in a pea coat how her housing search is going.
“Brutal,” she says. “I just lost a place to someone who paid an entire year’s rent up front.”
Inside, the apartment is gorgeous. We are collectively awed.
“Is this place staged?” a man with an Australian accent asks more than once, admiring the current tenant’s furniture. A short woman in a ball cap kneels on the floor, takes out a tape measure and begins aggressively assessing different walls. It is a power move. A laminated application is tucked beneath her arm. “My landlord is the new attorney general and she’s happy to provide a reference,” the ball cap woman tells Joan, loud enough for everyone to hear.
I catch the eyes of a blond woman in a trench coat. An understanding passes between us. We are no match for the ball cap woman. We did not laminate our applications. In fact, I didn’t even bring an application because I don’t own a printer. As the other tenants hand in their applications, Joan casts a hard, appraising glance my way. “I’m gonna email it,” I mumble. I immediately feel like a naughty child who hasn’t handed in her homework — the exact opposite of the sort of person who will get the place on Avocado Street.
In the backyard, an orange tree hangs heavy with overripe fruit. “Imagine, fresh orange juice for breakfast every day,” someone says. We sit silent for a moment, envisioning the future that will someday belong to only one of us: sitting at the cozy dining nook, sipping juice made from freshly picked oranges before heading out for a stroll to Griffith Park.
“It’s just nice to know this place exists,” the blond says, sadly.
In my hunt for an apartment, I saw more than 30 places: dumps and palaces and everything in between. Despite news of an L.A. exodus, the housing market shows no sign of cooling. At nearly every open house, I was pitted against New Yorkers who, like me, had decamped from Brooklyn in search of sunlight and a place to park their cars.
I found and lost my dream home twice. Aside from Joan, I met many landlords and found that, generally speaking, they are strange people.
Some, like a soft-spoken older woman leasing an $1,800 one-bedroom apartment at the foot of the Hollywood Hills, are delusional. The unit, which was advertised using Zillow’s two most-favored descriptors — “charming” and “sun-drenched” — turned out to be neither. It faced a hideous building that choked out even the smallest possibility of afternoon sun-drenching. When the landlord asked if I was interested in renting it, I said no, sorry. I was hoping for a place with more light. A place with a view.
“But this place has a view,” she insisted. “The building across is so lovely.”
Many landlords I met, like the owner of a $3,900 Spanish two-bedroom in Echo Park, have a frazzled, frantic demeanor. The Echo Park landlord hoped to sell the property or rent it, whichever happened first, he told me. He’d originally bought the place to market it as an Airbnb, but the city tightened its restrictions and he was forced to rent it out long-term. This was a relief in some ways, he said, because he’d found that managing an Airbnb was a nightmare.
“People are monsters,” he said. He once hosted guests who infested the unit with bedbugs. Another group stole all the lightbulbs. Worst of all was the man who defecated on the floor and said the cleaning fee should cover the cost of its removal.
“Are you sure it wasn’t a dog?” I asked.
“It was definitely human,” he said.
I asked where he found the feces. He pointed to the middle of the living room floor, the very place I’d envisioned my coffee table.
A more discreet landlord would have concealed this sordid history. Still, it’s sometimes difficult not to consider the sad circumstances that lead a property to be listed on the market in the first place.
This is especially true when you look at lease takeovers for one- or two-bedroom apartments. These leases, in my experience, often are broken due to heartbreak: Two people who once loved each other now hate each other and can no longer live together. One man I met who had advertised a lease takeover on Zillow greeted me in the driveway of a pretty, $4,000 Silver Lake two-bedroom condo. He looked as though he’d just been crying. He showed me inside, and when I told him the place was nice, he let out a low, resentful bleat of laughter.
“Yeah, isn’t it great?” he said. “I thought my partner and I would live here for years. But life is unpredictable, isn’t it?” And then he gazed ruefully out the window.
Walking through the condo, I wondered in which room he and his partner had argued most. Had they screamed at each other in the 250-square-foot bedroom with the attached bath? Had they bickered in the recently remodeled kitchen? Had they realized they no longer loved each other as they sat in the charming, sun-drenched living room?
Another consideration is who your new neighbors will be. One property manager leasing a snug one-bedroom apartment on Los Feliz Avenue for $2,200 vented for several minutes about the people who lived directly above the unit. More than anything, the property manager wanted to evict these tenants, who, he said, had not cleaned their toilet for several years. This had resulted in a grievous plumbing situation that affected not only their unit but also the one below it — the very unit I had come to see.
“The apartment is yours if you want it,” the property manager told me. I said I’d think about it, but I knew I’d never live there. It seems that I am always being offered the places I don’t want and never the places I do.
When I first came to L.A., I promised myself two things: I would never live on the West Side (I wrongly thought at the time that Silver Lake was superior), and I would never live in an apartment with vertical blinds. But the housing market humbled me. I signed a lease for an apartment in Santa Monica. I had the vertical blinds removed.
Two days after I saw Joan’s apartment, she sent me a text: “Thank you for your interest,” she wrote, “but the Avocado Street unit has been rented.”
I hope that the ball cap woman enjoys her place and that all her furniture fits.