Is it just me or should this be illegal?

“I know how you feel.  I never feel blacker than when I look for an apartment.”  This is what my sister said to me as I vented to her about my housing search.  At this point, I believe that finding a kidney would be easier than finding a place to stay.  It wouldn’t be so frustrating except I’m at a point in my life where I have money saved in the bank so 1st, last and security is no problem.  I’ve been at my job a year this month and I’ve lived in Springfield just as long, having never been late with my rent.  But then the thing that strikes fear in the heart of all reformed money mismanagers rears its ugly head:  the credit check. 

 Anyone who’s ever struggled with money knows the financial gymnastics you may have to perform to keep the roof over your head.  And common sense should tell you that if the choice is to pay your rent or any other bill, you pay your rent.  All of this would result in bad credit.  This begs the question:  If I can’t get an apartment because of my bad credit, how does my credit improve with homelessness?  It just seems like a vicious cycle.

But even with my admittedly bias indignation over the credit check for housing, I could grin and bear it if it wasn’t for the blatantly racist way it’s used.  For those of you who don’t know, let me walk you through the typical minority renter’s apartment search.  (As a side note, I would just like to state how ironic it is that I have to go through this more in “liberal” western Massachusetts than I did in supposedly racist Charlotte, North Carolina)

To save yourself a bunch of time, you’re going to want to ignore all areas that you are reasonably sure the people will never rent to you.  These are usually middle-class areas with a strong white ethnic overtones (Italian, Irish, Jewish).  In my area that would be the towns of Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, Agawam, Westfield, Wilberham and Palmer.  While most of these people had pretty much abandoned Springfield proper, you have to know that most parts of Forest Park are pretty much off limits as well as the area bordering it as it goes into Longmeadow.

Then you look at the areas that are hit or miss.  These are usually lower middle-class, but well-kept neighborhoods.  If you put on your whitest voice over the phone, you may get to see the apartment.  Then after you wash your car, put on your most non-urban outfit, and impress the landlord into thinking you’re one of the good Negros, their need to rent the apartment might overule their racism.  At this point, I can’t express enough the importance of cash.  Because if there is any reservations left at all, they’re going to pull the credit check card and the only successful counter to that is the offer to pay 1, 2 or 3 months rent in advance.

 The minority renter’s Holy Grail however is the aging neighborhood.  The east Springfield neighborhood bordering Chicopee where I was living was a perfect example.  Here’s why aging neighborhoods are so great:

  • Most older residents have been living in their homes for years and have taken excellent care of them.  So that any you rent in the area will have minimal problems.  But beware the ones where the family let the house go after extended illness.
  • You will still get good government services in those areas.  Mail will come on time, the garbage people won’t just throw your can on its side, street cleaners will come through occasionally, your street will get plowed and your electricity will get turned back on quicker during outages.  Most importantly, police and ambulances will still come quickly during emergencies.
  • They are also comparitively easy neighborhoods to get into because many times the families have inherited the homes but also have their owns established lives.  The rent will be relatively reasonable because they want to attract good, steady tenants who will keep the property in good order with minimal headaches on their part.  As long as the property taxes and whatever mortgage is left are covered, they’re happy.

The biggest mistake the inexperienced minority renter makes is confusing the aging neighborhood with one in the midst of white flight.  If you plan on staying someplace less than 2 years it really doesn’t matter.  But if you have children or plan on settling in for the long haul, avoid white flight neighborhoods whenever possible.

 Why?  Well, take that list of aging neigborhood benefits and imagine living it’s polar opposite all while paying premium rent because the area is banking on it’s residual reputaion as a good neighborhood.

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