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homeward bound, or, curious and terrible things i have learned while hunting for an apartment

for some months, dom and i have known that we have to move when our lease is up, at the end of june. after years of struggling with multiple sclerosis, dom is basically confined to a wheelchair, and we live in a third floor walk-up. this is dangerous, but it's also depressing, because it means that he's confined to the apartment 24/7. and what someone with multiple sclerosis absolutely does not need is something to push him more and more towards depression. with the vast majority of montreal leases rolling over on the same date, the 1st of july is a moving nightmare. you'll pay through the nose, because movers cannot cope with the number of customers they have on that day. you'll run hours late, because there's always some hitch that stops things dead in their tracks, that then cascades down to all the others who are waiting for the same movers. you'll face frayed tempers that border on murderous the later it gets, because you have new tenants arriving before the old tenants are gone, and you have landlords who are trying to negotiate ten minutes in the apartment with nothing in it, so that they can at least open the windows and throw paint on the walls. eventually, someone will scream that leases end at midnight on the 30th of june, and begin on the 1st of july, which means that, technically, you should be out of your place in the middle of the night, presumably riding around in a truck for ten hours with some exhausted guys whose wages aren't going to cover the cost of the chiropractic work they'll need as a result of what you and others are about to do with them. in truth, it starts at dawn and barrels right ahead to around dawn the next day.

that is the nightmare we are likely to face when we actually move. as you can imagine, the longer it takes to find a place, the more get snatched up, and the more likely it is that you're not going to even be able to find a mover with any free space in their schedule. it had actually occurred to me to make up a destination address and just find movers, even before we'd found a forwarding address.

and, if that weren't enough, there is the fact that everyone is looking for an apartment. yes, there are apartments available, but there's a stampede to get all of them, so she who hesitates, even if it's just to think about whether or not they'll be able to fit all their furniture or handle a longer commute, is doomed to be homeless.

so that's what we have to look forward to in the near future. for now, we just get to experience the fun of looking for an apartment. "fun".

there is something enjoyable about looking for a new place. it gets you thinking about the possibilities for a new start and all the spiffy new things that you'll be able to do in your new space that were obviously impossible in the one you have. on the other hand, there's also the increasing desperation that comes from looking at endless places that are just wrong for some reason or other, and the fear that your search, ultimately, is going to end with you settling for a place that looks as withered as your hopes for a new life. oh, and the panic attacks that accompany this entire process, which are loads of fun. [no joke, i'm getting a racing heart just from writing about this.]

most of you will never have to experience the crushing horror that is moving day in montreal, but many of you will have to go through an unpleasant moving experience [sorry], and most of you probably already have. and for those who are in montreal... well, these are the things that i've learned, which, i hope, may make things a little easier for you, even if "easier" just means that you're happy not to be dom and me for a few minutes.

first, the good news...

montreal apartments are better than they used to be. one of the reasons that searching for an apartment in montreal was normally such a nightmare was that you'd be lucky to sign a lease before the place started collapsing around your ears. after the election of the parti quebecois in 1976 and the first sovereignty referendum in 1980, people left montreal like they were being drawn to massive magnets in other cities. vacancy rates soared, and rents were dirt cheap. while certain neighbourhoods filled up, large swathes of the city had perfectly serviceable places that remained empty for years. those places that were occupied remained cheap in order to remain occupied. so, in order to make money, landlords stopped doing anything to their buildings. yes, every apartment you looked at in montreal was going to have something wonky about it, and it was fairly common to have to buy your own kitchen appliances, but places were cheap enough that it made up for a lot.

when i moved back to montreal in 2008, things had changed. people were returning to the city, and it was increasingly hard to find a place anywhere. prices had increased sharply, not to the levels that i'd been paying in toronto, but a lot closer than when i'd left six years earlier. that's something you expect to happen, but what was infuriating was that the apartments still hadn't been properly renovated. taps still dripped. furniture still wobbled wherever you put it. closet doors still swung open. but this was the price you paid to be in montreal.

in 2017, however, it's changed again. landlords have been hard at work refinishing wood floors, replacing windows and filling kitchens with spiffy new appliances. it is almost unheard of for a tenant to have to buy a stove and refrigerator, and many places have a dishwasher as well. hell, a lot of them have a washer and dryer in the apartment and your hot water is included in the rent. for a scant bit more than we're paying right now, we can get a beautifully renovated place that still has design flourishes from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, lots of light, and that is in the same neighbourhood that we've grown to love. [seriously, several of the places i've looked at have been on our street.] rents have increased only marginally in that time, so all of a sudden, you're getting your money's worth.


[almost] no one knows what wheelchair accessible means. i knew going into this venture that the biggest challenge was going to be finding a place that we liked and that we could actually get into. i have a lot more to say about this, specifically about montreal and stairs, but for the moment, i have the following public service announcement:

"urban living"
if there is any stair that is unavoidable on the premises, your property is not wheelchair accessible. some people may be able to negotiate a couple of low, widely spaced stairs, however that is absolutely not your call to make. if someone asks you whether an apartment is accessible, all you are doing by saying yes because you think it might be doable is wasting both of your time. this includes ground floor apartments where there are a couple of steps going down to the front door. i'm not sure why that last bit in particular seems confusing for people. do they expect that i'll just tip dom down the stairs and hope for the best, and that he will never have to leave the apartment again?

at the same time, many people seem to assume that being wheelchair accessible is synonymous with having a perfectly measured ramp in the front of the building. that's not true. if the building has a parking lot with access to an average-sized elevator, chances are that you meet the definition of accessible. here's a little secret that no one seems to realise: a driveway is a ramp. if it's very steep, then it won't be manageable, but most of the driveways that i see around here are fine.

of course, there are exceptions. i've had some really, really sweet people in my search. one young man said that he could try to build us a ramp, but he feared that the city would force him to tear it out, because it would obstruct the sidewalk. [he's right, of course, but i'm going to remember the offer for the rest of my life, and hope that he's out there in the world, continuing to make it a better place.] another agent said that the building's concierge could rig something for us, even if it was just supplying a solid board. [a sweet offer, but the apartment was too small for our needs.]

the reason that no one thinks about wheelchair and handicapped accessibility is not because there aren't a lot of people who need it, but because our society doesn't think about the handicapped in general.

renting is the new leprosy. to be fair, i've only had one person come straight out and tell me that the building was a great place to live because it really wasn't "a rental building". i don't know how he thought i, as a potential renter, was supposed to react to that, but it didn't make me think well of the [frankly overpriced] apartment he was showing me. but others have seen fit to assure me that they "only rent to the best people". i think they mean that they don't rent to students. there's a part of me that suspects they also mean they don't rent to recent immigrants. regardless, i know myself well enough to know that i am not one of the "best people". i may not even be one of the better people. regardless, a building that insists on renting to the best people is likely to be filled with tenants who are going to eventually beat down my door screaming "burn the witch!" and that would be bad for everyone.

"heat included"
i got a taste of this in toronto, where rents have been so high for so long that people have just opted to live with their parents until they've pocketed enough for a downpayment on the shitty closets that pass for condominiums in that city. it's happening here too, but at a slow enough pace that i didn't notice it. and when so many people are buying, people who rent are assumed to be those dregs of humanity who survive paycheque to paycheque, or who are so irredeemably irresponsible that they spend their salary on things they enjoy, rather than saving towards the purchase of property.

here's a thought: some people want to buy property. some people don't. that's their business and no one else's. some people can afford to buy property. some people can't. that's likewise none of your business as their landlord. worry more about whether or not they have a history of taking a shit in the common dryers or firing shotguns indoors. let them handle the rest.

there are other things that i've learned about myself that i've learned, or that i've at least been reminded of, as the search has gone on. a major one is that, once i know that a dishwasher is an option in some places, any place that doesn't have one feels like a step down. i haven't lived in a place with a dishwasher since i moved out of my mother's home a few weeks after my twentieth birthday. another, of course, is that i'm incredibly judgmental about landlords who haven't made some attempt to ensure that their properties are wheelchair accessible. it's 2017. if there are obstacles to accessibility and you can't make some kind of accommodation, you should be doing a mea culpa the entire time you're speaking to me. [a few people have. good people.] a third is that i feel that i'm owed a nice apartment. montreal is an amazing city, but every place i've lived here has involved some sort of compromise. small. poorly maintained. inconveniently located.

i really liked the building where i lived in toronto. yes, it was a bit far from the proverbial action, but it wasn't far in toronto terms. now that montreal is catching up in terms of price, i feel like i've been as patient as i need to be. listen up, city where i live: you've been resting on your liveable laurels a long time. it's time to give dom and me the spiffy new place we so richly deserve.

p.s. :: none of the buildings pictured are ones that i've actually visited. most of them are in new york and london. if you're moving there, even i have sympathy for you.

p.p.s. :: i'm not joking about the insanity of montreal moving day. the bbc did a documentary about it


My parents are in their mid-60s and they've rented for their entire lives, so I've never understood the stigma that some people attach to renting (oh wait, never mind, I do: it's the same stigma attached to not being wealthy). Best of luck with your apartment hunt--I've been through that a couple of times in the past few years and I know how much it sucks.
Subway Dreaming said…
This is likely wishful thinking, but does your provincial government offer any assistance in finding suitable accommodations given Dom's health challenges? Wishing you the best of luck on this move!
Kate MacDonald said…
Thanks very much for the well-wishes. They apparently worked, because we did end up getting the apartment that we wanted. Now we start with The Packening (tm). Well, first we have to face The Great De-Stuffening, wherein we get rid of all the things we'd pretty much forgotten we had anyway.

SD- There is actually supposed to be help available, and technically speaking, we have a caseworker who is responsible for us. But getting anything done is incredibly time-consuming and because I'm in the picture, Dom is rated as a lower priority. (As in, "He has someone with him, so why does he need our help?")

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