Hostile housing market erodes stability for young professional

For Hallah Elbeleidy, apartment hunting in Massachusetts cities is like job hunting.

“You have to perform, in a way,” Elbeleidy said. “(Landlords) want someone who’s eager, who looks like they will take care of the place.”

Elbeleidy, a native of Brooklyn, New York, has lived in cities all over the world and was floored by the many challenges to finding a place to live in Cambridge and Somerville.

“I don’t understand how students can afford the upfront (costs),” Elbeleidy said, noting that renters need thousands of dollars just to pay the deposits, fees, and first and last month of rent typically required by landlords. “Who are those housing units serving, at the $3,500-range?”

The Great Neighborhoods bill proposes policies that would encourage communities to develop multifamily housing in appropriate locations, to alleviate some of the pressures on the housing market that drive up prices.

Elbeleidy and her partner moved to Massachusetts from Washington, D.C., after her partner got a job in Cambridge and came for graduate school. During the transition, Elbeleidy still had her apartment in D.C. while she was looking for one in Massachusetts. At the time they were already past the “sweet spot,” or the mad rush for rental housing before the start of the academic year, so Elbeleidy kept running into the same handful of listings. Despite it being past peak rental season, however, realtors refused to negotiate on rental prices.

Eventually, Elbeleidy found a luxury apartment complex and a landlord who appeared willing to give concessions on the price and a two-year contract to ensure Elbeleidy and her partner would not get priced out by sharp rent increases.

But “A year later, we were priced out,” she said.

Because the agreed monthly rent was not recorded on the books, the landlord increased Elbeleidy’s rent an additional $400 per month while making it appear like it was only a $100 increase.

Elbeleidy once again found herself on the hunt for an apartment, but she felt the process by which landlords select tenants was completely opaque. Elbeleidy would walk away from a meeting with a landlord, thinking the exchange went well and she demonstrated she can afford the unit, but she was repeatedly turned down. Further, landlords never answered Elbeleidy’s questions about what their criteria were for selecting tenants.

“At least when you’re applying to jobs you can get a sense of what (the criteria are),” she said. “When it comes to rentals, you really don’t know… I at least wanted to know what the game was that I was playing.”

To make things worse, Elbeleidy said, there was pressure to be constantly available to view a unit and, following that, to make a decision within an hour.

“You have to take a chance,” she said. “There’s so much demand that it just makes it difficult to think through your decision.”

Eventually, Elbeleidy found an apartment between Inman and Magoun squares in Somerville, just further than a mile from a subway station. Elbeleidy said she enjoys the grittiness of being in a fairly industrial area, surrounded by autobody shops and a factory, but she is baffled by the idea of paying a high price to live in area without the amenities that city dwellers tend to enjoy — accessibility to public transit, groceries, green space, and cultural activities.

The Great Neighborhoods bill also calls for walkable communities with a mix of uses, so residents can access services and businesses will receive foot traffic from the neighborhood.

Elbeleidy said her story is not uncommon. Many of her friends, also young professionals, report the same experiences. A couple of her friends are even planning to move back to their native South Carolina because they could own a home at the same rate they are paying for rent in Massachusetts.

Their rental experience “left a very, very bitter taste in their mouths,” Elbeleidy said. “A lot of people say, ‘I’m done with this.’”

For her part, Elbeleidy has resigned herself to the fact that homeownership is not within her reach as long as she stays in Massachusetts.

“The city is not hospitable to young people who want to own homes. It’s one of the realizations I have to swallow daily,” she said.

To support walkable neighborhoods that all residents can afford to live in, sign the petition.

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