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Cottage Industry

wannabe renter
Robert Scheer

Gimme Shelter: In housing-crunched Santa Cruz, wannabe renters never know what they'll discover upon arrival at that 'cozy' cottage, 'private' studio or 'room with a view.'

Honest come-ons are a rarity in rental-strapped SC

By Tai Moses

I'M LOOKING FOR A HOME. Nothing fancy, just a rental cottage or a one-bedroom apartment. In Santa Cruz, when you tell people you're house-hunting, their faces register pity and amazement, as if you've announced you're going to the summit of Mt. Everest without oxygen a little later that afternoon.

I've house-hunted in some tough places before--New York, and Ketchikan, Alaska, at the peak of salmon season--but I've never seen anything like this. The landlords and agents who answer the phones sound harassed, dazed by the sheer volume of calls they're getting--40 to 60 a day. You have to be fast in this market, and you have to be a little crazy. And you have to learn to decipher the bewildering array of embellishments and embroideries that constitute the typical rental ad.

"Convenient for commuters" means across from a freeway. "Charming" means small. "Cozy" means really small. "Private" means the window faces an alley. And "cottage"--well, that's up for grabs.

I arrange to meet an agent showing an apartment in a Victorian house, a beautiful Queen Anne with lots of bay windows. I follow the agent up the driveway, but instead of going to the front door, we stop in front of a Butler building, its aluminum sides cunningly disguised with plywood painted the same plummy tones as the house.

"The ad said Victorian," I protest.

The agent looks at me patiently. "That's a Victorian house there behind you. The apartment is connected to the house." And it is--by a clothesline strung between the two structures.

Then there's the sunny studio in Soquel. I follow the owner on a hike up a slope and around a high fence that borders the main house. We step through a break in the fence, and she uses a key to open a sliding glass door. We are standing in a large sunny kitchen with vaulted ceilings and a new linoleum floor.

I'm feeling pretty optimistic at this point, and I look for the door that leads to the bedroom. There isn't one. This room, and a bathroom off the kitchen, is it.

"Well," I muse. "it's pretty nice, but I think it would be, um, like living in a kitchen." I wait hopefully for the owner to disagree, to reveal even one good reason why it wouldn't be like that, not at all.

"Yes, it's like living in a kitchen," she agrees.

We regard each other sadly.

A Game of Chicken

A FRIEND CALLS. He's just seen an ad stuck to the ice machine at Lighthouse Liquors, advertising a studio cottage for rent. Ignoring the disquieting question of what kind of landlord haunts the liquor store looking for tenants, I go look at the place. This cottage, as so many are, is a converted shed. It may have once been a chicken coop. The ghosts of feathers still cling to the roof.

The tiny studio is dominated by a huge refrigerator emitting an impressive repertoire of buzzes and hums that indicate serious electrical unrest. The owner told me on the phone that the place had a sleeping loft, and indeed, way up near the ceiling is a narrow shelf jutting out from the wall. Once I went to Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, where Father Junipero Serra lived. Not satisfied with tormenting Indians, the monk insisted on Spartan living conditions for himself, too. His cell sported a similar shelf, but his was a little wider and far sturdier than the flimsy slab of plywood in this place.

I rush to Live Oak to see a cottage. The owner is giving out the address so people can drive by and call her back for an appointment. This is a risky tactic, with the danger of collisions, both vehicular and personal.

There's a workman on the property putting in a fence. I press my face up against the glass of the cottage door, where I see a loft, a wood stove, tile on the floor. My heart begins to beat a little faster. I hear voices behind me, and turn to see a woman talking to the carpenter. She is dressed in purple from head to toe. "How are the gophers around here?" she asks. "I'm an herbologist."

"Well, I don't think there are too many," he begins.

"No, most of them died after the spill," I interject. Her head snaps up. The carpenter stares at me.

"The spill?" She fingers the hem of her purple jacket.

"From the plant. You know, the pesticides plant. The soil in this area still tests off the charts for trace amounts of, uh, metrocyantheociliumdiacticide."

She looks at me defiantly. Evidently she's made of stronger stuff than the average herbologist. "I'll just do a healing service for the soil," she says, and continues to pace off the area where her garden will go.

I call a place on Beach Hill. "Can you tell me, is this place actually on the hill?" I ask. Apparently many people's conception of what constitutes a hill is a little fuzzy. Even something as presumably inviolable as geology can become manipulated in the hands of some landlords.

"Yes, it's on the hill! Don't you know Beach Hill? This is on Beach Hill!" the manager assures me. I arrive at the address. Of course, it's not on the hill at all, it's in the Flats. But the foundation of the building is somewhat slanted, which might be the source of the manager's delusion.

"Cute studio, steps to the sand," reads the ad. I should know better by now, but I show up anyway. There's a small group of people milling about in the driveway, eyeing one another anxiously. At the doorway to the studio stands the real estate agent, looking very important with clipboard in hand, cell phone pressed to his ear.

We view the cottage one at a time, waiting in a straggly line out front. Finally, it's my turn. The interior is dark, narrow and low-ceilinged. The walls and ceilings appear to be made of unpainted fiberboard. There is only a single, small window at one end. A smell of mildew permeates the room.

Something snaps inside me. Cute studio, said the ad. But it isn't cute. There's nothing remotely cute about it. It's never been cute, it never will be cute. I stifle the urge to start shrieking, although I'm sure the agent's used to that. I just crumple up my rental application and throw it in the trash as I march past the hopeless throng waiting to see this purgatorial little space.

I suppose this story could go on indefinitely. I still haven't found the hoped-for cottage. But things are looking up: I've just received a tip that there's a charming little place for rent at Mission San Carlos Borromeo.

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From the July 23-30, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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