I was raised in apartments by a single mom, and as an adult I’ve chosen to rent. That means I’ve been a renter for 34 years—my entire life. I’ve known my share of landlords and property managers. I’ve seen every type of maintenance issue and mishap, from clogged pipes to broken air conditioners. These experiences make me part of a community that’s rarely recognized. I am a renter.
My earliest memories of renting go back to my childhood. Every day after school, I’d throw my backpack on the floor, grab a snack, and then round up all my friends who lived in the complex. There weren’t just one or two kids, but enough for a solid game of kickball or an epic freeze-tag session that would last until the inevitable parental call to “come inside and do your homework.” My friends who were raised in apartments have similar memories.
On Christmas day, me and my friends would spend every minute “breaking in” our presents. We held video game tournaments, rode our new bikes all over the neighborhood, and made sure we knew exactly how the battle between the Transformers and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would unfold in real life.
As a kid, I quickly learned that each apartment complex functions as its own ecosystem. These self-contained universes fostered the individual experiences of each person who lived there.
Before my mom and I knew our neighbors by name, we knew them first by their apartment numbers. The guy with the beard in #4. That nice lady in #11. We knew them from certain sounds: their dog’s bark or the way they shut their car door when they got home.
When people moved, it was a communal event. In most cases, I felt a sense of loss when a neighbor moved away. But sometimes, I felt relieved when a noisy neighbor decided to leave. Either way, the impermanence was something I accepted. Learning to deal with change is an important life skill that I’m grateful I learned early.
What our apartment buildings lacked in stability, my mom made up for with incredible parenting. She never turned away friends who wanted to come over for dinner, have a sleepover, or just hang out and play video games. It never occurred to me that I lived in an apartment, I just knew it as home.
I didn’t realize it then, but the physical closeness of our apartments allowed us to deepen our relationships. Our parents knew each other; they had to, because, as the saying goes, it takes
a village an apartment complex.
There’s a common perception that it’s unfair to raise children in apartments, but I disagree. My mom chose our homes so I’d have kids around. As a result, those were some of the best times of my life, true halcyon days that helped me connect with a diversity of people. I made friends I’ll never forget, people I stay in contact with to this day.
Growing up in Los Angeles, I lived in several apartments, but I was always surrounded by friends. While I stayed at some places longer than others, renting kept me connected to my community; the renters in my buildings were my support system.
I think about the Northridge earthquake that struck the San Fernando Valley in 1994. Most of my friends remember the physical destruction, but I remember how, during the minutes after the shaking stopped, our neighbors shouted up to our windows to find out if we were okay.
After assuring them we were fine, my mom went to check on our elderly neighbors and the children in the building. As much as everyone had their own lives in that apartment complex, nobody forgot about each other. After everyone was accounted for, we all stood next to each other on the street, silently and in unity with our neighbors.
Each of my homes in L.A., from my childhood apartments to the places I rented as an adult, shaped how connected or disconnected I felt with my immediate community. When I decided to move to a new city—Portland, Oregon—I worried about whether or not I’d find those connections in my new home.
Finding a new home
My wife and I had trouble finding a new place in Portland, where the rents were rising and the city was changing, but the common needs of renters were not. Because we couldn’t find an apartment in our price range that was available when we needed it, we agreed we would take the first apartment we could find, even if it wasn’t ideal.
Our first Portland rental was in a new building that was devoid of personality and reminded me of Malvina Reynolds’ song “Little Boxes.” Our unit had odd corners, strangely placed windows, and no real sense of design. From month one, I couldn’t wait for month twelve so we could relocate.
Unlike the sense of community I experienced in L.A., I rarely saw my neighbors. No kids ran down the hallways. Once in awhile I spotted single professionals on their way to Portland’s growing “Silicon Forest,” downtown.
The building didn’t lend itself to creating community. There were no common areas where you might speak with your neighbors. Units that had a small porch either opened up to a busy street or the parking lot, and neighboring balconies were separated by metal wiring that reminded me of a cage. The apartment complex was just a place, but never my home.
The weather in Portland was different, so my messages to my landlord took on the tone of the region. The rain was pushing the ants inside and the windows weren’t insulating the living room. At first, I felt displaced, because I wasn’t familiar with these particular issues, and I didn’t know if I was communicating my concerns to my landlord in the right way. But our landlord was kind. She went out of her way to make us feel at home, because she knew it wasn’t just the apartment that was new for us, but the city.
Other things felt universal. Our upstairs neighbors sounded like they were walking with anchors dragging from their feet. Car alarms went off at all times of the day and night, and the showerhead started leaking and spraying water sideways onto the bathroom floor. Those moments were oddly comforting. I was in a new place, but I was still a renter.
When we finally found our current place, a small 1920s apartment with a breakfast nook, huge windows in each room, built-in cabinets, and a next door neighbor who looks and speaks like Hunter S. Thompson, I knew we were home.
Once a renter, always a renter
While renting wasn’t something I chose as a kid, it’s something I’ve chosen as an adult. Even though moving frequently creates a unique set of problems and experiences, I love how renting opens up the possibility of fresh adventures and new friends.
I don’t know if I’ll be a lifelong renter like my mom, but my memories of living with her in apartments don’t make it seem all that bad. No matter where I choose to live in the future, living in apartments has made me part of an interconnected web of renters. Being a renter isn’t something we do alone, but something that helps us share a common path.