The Lies Philly Landlords Tell

I swear a guinea pig never lived here!

Attention Philadelphia landlords: If you want to charge $1,500 a month for rent, your property shouldn’t smell like guinea pigs. I’m not expecting MTV Cribs, with a swim-up bar or carriage house for my mother, but is it too much to ask for no masking tape over light switches? And don’t advertise it as three bedrooms when you’ve turned one bedroom into a makeshift closet by putting plywood over the window, and billed the basement as “nice enough to double as a bedroom” when I, who am five-foot-three on a big hair day, can’t stand up straight in it. Call me a coddler, but my six-foot-tall teenager won’t be as comfortable down there as the guinea pig was.

When I was house-hunting in Philadelphia recently, every rental that looked like it had potential online was a smelly, closet-less, flophouse in person, complete with a complementary penicillin farm in the bathroom. The rental market is so tight in this town that anything is considered “showable.” By the end of the first day of looking, I needed a Silkwood shower and a tetanus shot.

Why not buy in this bargain-basement market, you ask? Because when I listed my house for sale in Allentown, it didn’t budge. I even invested in a “Sell Your House With St. Joseph Kit,” and buried him next to the front door. He was my best friend, Kim’s, idea and she’s not even down with the Catholic voodoo like I am. Our houses went up for sale the same week because we’re defecting from the Lehigh Valley to Philadelphia within a few days of each other.

We went to the bible bookstore for the statues. The lady knew exactly what we wanted and slammed actual “kits” on the counter, like two beer mugs in an old-time saloon. We followed the instructions, and St. Joseph must have an affinity for non-Catholics, him being Jewish and all, because Kim’s house sold and mine didn’t.

Between 2005 and 2011, I navigated a divorce, bought a house, did some work to it, moved in with my two kids, went to graduate school (not online), and started my first full-time job in 15 years, but by 2011, I was already laid off. Back in 2005, when I had no job and no job history and no earthly idea of what I would do next, the only problem I didn’t have was getting a mortgage.

“Here. Take $180,000,” they said, when I only asked for, and only took, $110,000. They sent me recipe postcards and love notes about what a valued customer I was, and please call them if there was ever anything they could do for me. Now they can’t be bothered.

I imagine myself coming up on their caller ID as they all frantically wave at each other, yelling across a massive phone bank, “Don’t answer! It’s you-know-who,” though I’ve never missed or been late on a payment, and even pay extra when I can. I thought my good standing as an existing customer would have some sway, but I swear that I heard water or milk, or hopefully steaming hot coffee, come out of the guy’s nose when I pointed that out.

“But I didn’t have a job the last time you gave me a mortgage,” I think I was maybe whining a little.

“That was then. This is now,”  he snorted.

I wanted to ask how a social worker and a youth minister on the last episode of House Hunters that I saw could have a budget of $650,000, then I saw this and felt a thousand times better. I also felt a little more normal when I read this Philly Mag piece on renting vs. buying, back when I was burying St. Joseph.

For me to finally move back to Philadelphia, I had to become someone’s landlady and someone else’s tenant, and I did, in the same week. No thanks to technology, I found a rental on the very street on which I grew up, and my new landlady is a South Philly soul sister who has prepared our house for us the way that I’m preparing this house for my new tenant.

Meanwhile, Kim has to dig up St. Joseph and display him in a place of honor in her new home, as per the kit’s instructions. Mine is staying in Allentown to house-sit, and make sure no guinea pigs get past the front door.