By Chance: Searching for Home in the City of Bridges

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Until about a year ago, it never occurred to me to live in a house.

Apartments? Of course. A one-bedroom suite in a character home? Check. A studio in Busan, Korea, that sat six floors above a convenience store selling 12 different kinds of soy sauce? Not so long ago.

But a house — a real house with walls you don’t share with neighbors and a backyard you can walk out onto on a sunny afternoon, if you want, and tend to a tomato plant you’ve grown or read a book on a blanket on the grass; a house with a spare bedroom and a porch and a front door to open wide and let the breeze blow through — this was the kind of home other people lived in. People at “that stage” of life. People with advanced careers and extra cash. People with kids.

The thing is, I’ve mostly never lived in houses. Aside from a bungalow on Wiggins Street that my dad owned during my early years in Saskatoon, I grew up in townhouses. Government-subsidized townhouses with my mom and brother during the school year, and a small suite attached to a grocery store (my dad’s grocery store) in the summers. Then I turned 17 and two decades passed in a string of non-houses: the basement suite with my first roommate, Ali; hostel dorm rooms in Europe with my cousin Heather; a flat in England with an old boyfriend; a couple condos; a year and a half with my friend Leah (in an apartment above a neighbour named Pat, who banged on her ceiling with a broom if she heard our voices); three one-bedroom suites, a summer sublet in Edmonton with my friend Rosie; a studio in Korea; the Portland apartment on 20th Avenue, where Joe and I lived our first year here.

For four months in 2000, in Melbourne, I did share an actual house with two Australian women and a guy from Malta, one of the happiest eras of my life, looking back. (This likely had more to do with my roommates, who were musicians and writers, than the house.) But that home was the result of answering an ad on a bulletin board in a St. Kilda coffee shop, not a desire for a backyard. Until a year ago I had no desire for a yard. In Portland, for the last two years, we have lived on the top floor of an old Victorian house, neighbours below us and a neighbour below them. We have a patio with planters and space for two chairs; it’s tucked away from the street, made private from the house next door by a row of cedar trees. It’s cozy and quiet and it has been enough.

But the vision of a house — a one-level, to be exact, with two bedrooms, a garden patch, and hardwood floors — appeared last year. (This is how the things I wish for tend to make themselves known, embedding into my consciousness and setting up shop.) It was the year I turned 36. I realize that for most people a house appears on their wish list sooner than 36, but with conventions like undergraduate degrees and marriage and apparently houses I’m a late bloomer, I’ve come to recognize, and living in something bigger than a one-bedroom apartment had always seemed unnecessary.

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The rent costs too much, for starters. I like my money freed up to do things like going to see bands or taking off to the coast for the weekend or moving overseas. Also, there’s the student loan debt that’s been camped out in the field of my finances since I graduated from university, just now starting to deflate after years of monthly pinpricks. And the current sum of Joe and I is a family of two: not large enough, we have felt, to justify a spatial upgrade. (We were three, but our cat Cleo died in October, of leukemia and suddenly; another story but also part of this one.)

Realizing I want to rent a house of my own has coincided with living in a city that has, in the words of Portland mayor Charlie Hales, a “housing emergency”. The housing emergency in Portland can be considered an umbrella term for several disheartening facts. It means upwards of 4000 people sleeping on the city’s streets. It means a rental vacancy rate below 3%, one of the most competitive in the country. It means Oregon is the top destination Americans are moving to. It means rapidly rising rents, with residents getting priced out from the city center and pushed to its edges. It means old homes being demolished and new apartment buildings being developed, most lacking units considered “affordable”. It means longtime locals grumbling over newcomers and “No Californians” stickers appearing on Portland homes’ “For Sale” signs.

Just three years ago, of course, Joe and I were the newcomers. As a Canadian and a midwesterner who had spent the previous two years living in Korea, we’re far from Portland natives, and have little more right to claim one of the scarce two-bedroom close-in house rentals under $1500/month than anyone else scrolling craigslist. But that hasn’t stopped us from dreaming. Or searching.

Most houses we come across that tick the boxes of our wish list and fall within our budget turn out to be a craigslist scam. My husband and I are interested in this home, I’ll reply to the ad for a bungalow in Sellwood, or Alberta, or close-in Southeast. Is it possible to view it this week?

A couple days later, I’ll get an email from someone like exoticprincex (an actual name that showed up in my inbox) asking me to “kindly drive by, take a look, and get back with your interest.” This is followed with an explanation of how the owner is now “living in Maryland” so can’t show the home, but can rent it once I “send a deposit.” Joe will then find the same home for sale on Zillow, which the scammer must have stolen photos from to repost in the craigslist ad. The entire process is both a phenomenal waste of time and a reminder of the dire market we find ourselves in, with the small-but-charming home we want nearly nonexistent in our price range.

So we’ve stayed where we are, knowing there’s a chance we’ll have to leave Portland anyway, if Joe gets accepted to a PA school elsewhere, and knowing that in this market, our one-bedroom suite with a patio in Northwest Portland (one of the city’s most desirable neighbourhoods) is, all things considered, a good place to be.

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It’s been important for us to recognize that we are in a good place, because life since moving to Portland has felt in many ways like walking on a treadmill. The treadmill is in a beautiful city that’s green and growing. The people surrounding us as we tread are supportive and loving. The view from the treadmill is of a future where we live in a house and Joe is in PA school and our cat Cleo is still alive and maybe there is a toddler, a blond boy who looks like Joe or a little girl with a cowlick in her hair, tugging on Cleo’s tail and squealing as I tell him or her, “be gentle.” The view from the treadmill is of a future that is imperfect and real, hard but happy. It’s a future we have been trying to make our way into, but that has become further out of reach the longer we tread. On the treadmill we keep trying new ways of walking: of rewriting PA school applications, of tracking fertility, of shifting the numbers of our budget to see where a house may fit in. We are grateful to be able to tread this life at all, to live where we live, to have what we have, but we are ready to step off and into the vision of our future. We are ready.

It was with this mindset that I answered a craigslist ad, in December, for a house that I fell in love with. It was on a street called Ramona in a neighbourhood called Woodstock, and it was perfect. The house had two bedrooms and hardwood floors and bright white walls and a kitchen that had been redone with subway tile and Italian appliances. It had a built-in wooden kitchen table with a bench seat and a gas fireplace in the living room. The house was small, just 726 sq. ft, but beside it was a concrete outdoor patio and behind it was a separate structure with two full rooms that could be made into a writing studio and a guest space. The yard was big and landscaped with raised garden beds, vegetables already growing. There was an apple tree and a shed and a beehive. It was in our price range and it wasn’t a scam: an open house, the ad said, would be held the following Saturday. The owner responded to my email within a day, giving details of the application process and signing off with We look forward to meeting you this weekend. I felt about that house something I knew I shouldn’t let myself feel: hope.

The previous three months had been trying. In September I’d had surgery to remove a cyst from my ovary, and in October we learned that Joe wasn’t accepted to the Portland PA schools he’d applied to, or the PA schools in Denver, Boise, and Fullerton. For those of you who may be unfamiliar: a PA is a Physician Assistant, one of the fastest growing medical fields in the US, and Joe’s dream for his life’s career. Its institutions are as competitive to get into as medical school, with thousands of people applying for programs that have less than 50 available seats. This was his second year applying, a process that takes months to complete and involves several essays and reference letters, hundreds of clinical hours in experience and hundreds of dollars in application fees. We’d been sure he’d be granted an interview to at least one of the Portland programs (he came very close to getting in last year), and were shocked when he didn’t.

Two weeks later, our cat, who we had adopted as a kitten soon after moving to Portland, was diagnosed with leukemia. She stopped eating and drinking completely and three days after the diagnosis we had to bundle her into her cat carrier and walk four blocks, sobbing, to the veterinary clinic on 2oth Place and cup her face in our hands in a little room with a little fold-down table, smoothing her fur and telling her she was a very good girl and her fur was the softest fur and we would miss her every day.

Cleo cuddle

The strain of these events and the efforts leading up to them put a dent in my spirit that I wasn’t sure how to repair. I wanted to be hopeful but the future we were hoping for kept failing to appear. The treadmill was slowing down; at times it seemed to be in reverse. I had mostly stopped looking for houses, as we were waiting to hear from two PA schools in California and there was a chance, albeit slim, that Joe would be given an interview at one of them. But I found myself looking anyway, one afternoon, and that’s when I spotted the house on Ramona Street. I immediately sent the link to Joe, who was at work and who agreed we should see the house on Saturday.

I know the timing isn’t ideal, I typed in a gchat, but part of me wants to say fuck it. I am sick of putting everything on hold.

I like it, he typed back. Will probably be 20 people applying though.

When searching for a home to rent in Portland an open house, rather than a private viewing, is never ideal. We had been to one two-and a-half years earlier, to see a top-floor suite in a house in Sellwood, and there were easily 20 or 30 people walking through in the 20 minutes we were there. We applied for it and never heard back, sure it probably went to the woman who had arrived minutes before us and was chatting up the owner. I could tell from the pictures that the house on Ramona was a steal; the owners could rent it for at least 300 dollars more per month than they were asking, I was sure, and it would still attract a swarm of applicants.

The open house was scheduled for Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I had the owner send me an application in advance and Joe printed out his pay slips from the previous month as proof of income. I downloaded the pictures from the ad and started a pinterest board called 2016 Vision, pinning the Ramona Street house pictures to it, along with outdoor patios, raised garden beds, writing studios, and kittens. I emailed the craigslist ad to my friend Melissa, who lives in Vancouver, B.C., a city with its own housing crisis, and wrote, Joe and I are going to apply for this house on Saturday. I thought I’d share it with you so you could help me with some manifesting!  

The night before the open house I filled out the application and wrote a two-page letter by hand, explaining how Joe and I had met and come to live in Portland, how we had been looking for our dream house to rent for a long time and that this house was the perfect fit, how I could see all the care they had put into the renovations, how we wanted a home where we could see ourselves living for a long time, how we loved to hike and travel but also to stay home and cook and work on projects. I thanked the owner for his consideration and wrote to please feel free to ask any questions. I paper clipped my business card to the letter and put the letter and the application and Joe’s pay slips and our bank details into a light blue folder. In the morning I changed it to a dark blue folder and we rented a Car2Go and made every green light in the rain, crossing the Morrison Bridge to Woodstock. We parked a block from the house and walked to the front door, arriving at 9:55. There were already people there, filling out applications at the table.

We walked into the house and stood in the living room. “Yep,” I said, “it’s exactly like the pictures. It’s perfect.” We walked into the kitchen and peeked in the pantry and then Raymond, the man who owned the house, came in through the side door with someone he had been touring outside. “You must be Raymond,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m Courtney.” He wore jeans and a wool hat. He remembered my name from our emails and said hello and I introduced him to Joe and we looked through the rest of the kitchen while he greeted a couple at the door, the girl in a toque and a leopard-print faux fur coat.

“We’re from Brooklyn,” I heard her say. “We just moved here.” I glanced at Joe and thought, Brooklyn. No way they just moved here from Brooklyn and they’re getting this house. No fucking way.

We walked back through the living room and into the bedrooms. The smaller one had a pink wall and a row of built-in bookshelves and I imagined some day placing on them stuffed toys and little books with illustrations of baby animals. Couples popped in and out, none of us speaking to each other, everyone opening and closing closet doors, picturing furniture of their own in the furniture-less rooms. Joe suggested I give our folder to Raymond, so I walked back through the living room and after waiting for him to finish with another couple (“Just moved to Portland a few weeks ago,” the guy was saying, “staying with my cousin”), I handed him the folder.

“Remind me about you guys,” he said. I told him Joe worked in research at OHSU hospital and I was a writer and we had lived in Portland for three years. I asked him if he had done the renovations himself and told him I loved the finishings and the light coming in through the windows in the photos. He said on a sunny day the light was incredible, that he and his family had planned to live here longer, that there was a sunny patch next to the shed in the yard that he liked to sit in with his coffee.

Outside, Joe and I crossed the concrete patio. I envisioned a long wooden table there, our friends sitting around it on a summer night, drinking wine. We walked into the bonus building in the backyard and I imagined my desk in one room and a guest bed in the other. I saw Melissa and Steve and their baby Lily coming to stay. I saw space for yoga and maybe even for playing guitar. We walked through the yard in the rain and looked at the garden beds, the wet leaves of vegetables. In the shed a beekeeper’s hat hung on a hook and Joe tried it on, wondering aloud where the beehive was kept. “I like this house,” he said.

On the walk back across the lawn my mind flashed ahead to a summer afternoon. I was gardening and on the lawn was a blanket, a baby sitting on it, happy in the shade of the apple tree. It was the simplest moment you can imagine: a woman watering tomato plants, her baby on a blanket, sun streaming through the branches of a single tree. It was the simplest to imagine but the hardest to bring to light, to bring to life. So many of the things we were striving for depended on factors that had little to do with our efforts. I could handwrite a two-page letter trying to convey to the owner of a house why we were the people he should rent it to, but what about all the other people here, opening closet doors, looking for clues to their future? People with their own visions of sunny afternoons in a yard in a city in the Pacific Northwest?

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Inside we met Raymond’s wife, Julie, warming herself by the fireplace. She pointed out the cubby hole they had made for their cat in the bottom of the linen closet door. Joe asked her if the beehive still had bees and we all heard a woman a few feet away explaining to Raymond that she was looking at the house for her friend, who was moving to Portland from California. “Is she wanting to buy a house in Portland?” he said, “because we don’t want people who are just renting while they look for a house to buy.”

In a quiet voice, Julie said to Joe and I, “We’re not bothering with people from California.” The admission was blunt but I was glad to hear it, knowing it would give us an advantage. (This is what a 3% vacancy rate does to a city’s residents: whittles their welcoming temperaments down to something sharp and territorial.) By this time Raymond had a stack of applications in his hand and a line of people waiting to speak with him. We chatted with Julie a little longer and then shook her hand, thanking her.

“We’ve been holding out for the right house,” I said, “and as soon as we saw the ad, we knew this was where we saw ourselves.”

I had brought my laptop into the cafe we stopped at after, but I was too wired and anxious to work, half of me overflowing with hope and the other half trying to stifle the hope. Don’t get your hopes up had become a sort of silent mantra over the last year, a fraying defense against disappointment. Sitting across the table from Joe that morning, though, it felt good to hope. It felt necessary. Not hoping had started to disorient me, like light switches were flicking off inside, one by one.

Back at our apartment I sat on the couch and clicked through pictures of kittens on Petfinder. It was a new pastime that I found relaxing, reminding me there were other cats to adopt in Oregon and we would, one day, adopt again. We didn’t expect to hear anything from the house owners for at least a couple days, if at all; there were references to call and credit checks to be done before they made their decision. I checked my email and checked it again. I called my mom and told her about the house. We opened a bottle of red wine and Joe started cooking dinner. I stood at our kitchen counter and scrolled through my phone, and there was an email from Raymond. “Oh my God,” I said.

Hi Courtney,

It was our sincere pleasure meeting you today. We had many deserving applicants for the property but your enthusiasm and preparation stood out.

I started to jump up and down, holding the phone in my hand, yelling to Joe, “Oh my God, we got it. I think we got the house.” It felt like I was stepping one foot off the treadmill, that the view we had been traipsing toward had taken an immense leap toward us. This was our turning point. There would be news to share, something good to tell people when they asked how we were doing. It would be the crucial development that shifted everything else into alignment. We would start packing before Christmas and move in mid-January. We would adopt two kittens and buy a new couch. We would have friends over for dinner parties and backyard barbecues. We would have a baby.

I kept reading, aloud:

We were ready to rent to you over 30 other candidates. By chance, some close personal friends responded to our ad not knowing it was ours. We agreed to rent to them. My sincerest wishes that you find a home that meets your needs. You are such strong candidates that I am sure you will.

Best regards,

Raymond

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I used to believe in destiny, a long time ago, when I was 18 riding buses through Europe or 22 pitching my tent in Australia, crystals in my pocket and a guitar strapped to my back. But somewhere in my late twenties the idea that our futures were in any way predetermined began to fade. I took stock of the random occurrences that permeated my life and the lives of my friends and family, the events that shattered people’s worlds at home and on the other side of the planet, the wars and the accidents, the hurricanes and the heartbreaks and the sudden streaks of bliss, and decided they didn’t happen “for a reason”. They just happened because we’re alive, and living means grappling with what life hurls at you (or gently lobs, or, at its best, delivers in the form of love). You can steer your course but you can’t determine it, and what shows up arises from some grand mix of your intentions and the chaos that comes with sharing a globe with 7 billion other people. (Or, in Portland, of sharing a city with approximately 700,000.) You can line up all your hopes and goals and visions in the right order and set about reaching them, but neither strategy nor destiny will determine the end result. That’s up to chance.

After reading the email from Raymond, Joe and I stood in the kitchen staring at each other. We’d known the house might go to other people. People who also maybe dreamed of a garden and a fireplace and a backyard studio. But that the owners had chosen us — had recognized some quality in us among the crowd or had read my letter and connected in some way to its words, deciding that yes, we were the ones they’d rent to  — and that someone else had then come along, by chance, and gotten it anyway — this tilting of the universe felt cruel in a way that left me wholly defeated.

I poured a fat glass of wine and called Melissa. I read her the email and said a lot of things in a loud voice and then I cried. She was mostly quiet, listening in the way people listen when nothing they can say will change what you are telling them. I told her I felt like something was creating obstacles in my life, some kind of force beyond my control. I told her I thought that maybe the angled ceilings of our apartment were creating bad feng shui, that some energy was blocked and that’s why we weren’t getting the things we were trying so hard to get. She listened quietly and said, “I don’t think so, dude.”

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Next week Joe will fly to California for an interview at a PA school in a city we’ve never been to. (The school notified him of the interview three weeks after we toured the Ramona Street house.) If he is accepted we will move there, will pack up our Portland apartment in May or June and drive down the coast of Oregon, stopping, perhaps, in Yachats, where we got married on the deck of a cottage in a typhoon storm two years ago. We’ll stop along the 101 in California and stand next to the redwood trees and remember how small we are, how high a thing can grow, over time, when the soil and sun align.

If not we’ll stay, and keep on searching.

                      *************

This piece is my first contribution to the Portland Bloggers Roundtable (PBR), a group created to unite the diverse voices of Portland-area bloggers. We meet around the city monthly, choose a local topic to write about, and share each other’s work. :)

Check out other PBR members’ posts on the topic of housing and growth in Portland:

Emily Olson / Portland’s Housing Market: In crisis or at a crossroads?

Hudson Gardner / How Things Change

Valerie Estelle / Housing and Tourism

Image credits: 1. illustration by Carson Ellis, 2. photo via runwildshalan, 3. print by Edward Juan, 4. photo by me, 5. photo source unknown,  6. photo by Lesia Lichonczak, 7. photo source unknown

*Some names in this piece have been changed to protect identities.

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15 responses

  1. This made me cry Taitly. You are becoming such a great writer. Don’t forget that! All our toes and fingers are crossed for you and Joe and the California interview. Love you

    Tarducci

  2. This was so beautiful and raw. Thank you for sharing yourself with us. Your words made me feel… a lot. I insisted to Sean through the whole piece, that my nose had merely started running. Putting some positive, forward moving thoughts out there for you and Joe!

  3. So intimate and so brave. Your honesty made me cry and reminded us to take moments and step back, looking openly and plainly at our lives. You are both incredible people and we love you fully. Sending courage your way.

  4. When I reached your treadmill, the tears began to roll. Big salty wet splashes with little heaves from my diaphragm, and shallow breaths of hope.

    My dearest friend, there will be something, I believe it will happen. It’s the waiting that is torture of not knowing the future. When you are younger, the world is your oyster. How life can change, us being happy with a tent to needing this practical serenity. As I’ve grown, my vision changed to include specific ideals. And that’s when it gets hard to fit the criteria. I lost my dream home 4 years ago (my paradise in Yorkshire) Aside all this, there is hope and an unwritten chapter waiting for you and Joe.

    Love you so much. Thank you for sharing Xxxxx

  5. Beautiful writing, thank you for sharing. I started crying when you spoke of the last few words of comfort you said to your cat. I also am familiar with suppressing that hope which arises when I am pursuing something that I don’t have a lot of control over–and there are way too many other factors hurling themselves at the results I want. Blast it all. I look forward to hearing how your husband’s interview goes!

  6. Beautiful, Courtney and beautiful Courtney. Thank you so much for sharing. Your writing is amazing, and keeps us in touch with you. Your dreams will come true, and look at the life you have had along the way. Uncle Lewis & I send our love to you and Joe and good luck to Joe with his interview.

  7. “You can steer your course but you can’t determine it.” So very true, and a beautifully written piece. I always tell my kids that we plan, plan, plan as much as we can, but then we have to let go and learn to just enjoy riding the waves that come. The waves always bring us to more beautiful places in our lives than we could have imagined for ourselves in all of our planning. Thinking good thoughts for the CA interview and for where your waves take you next.

  8. Hi Courtney, I don’t think I’ve ever been to your blog before, but I have to say, this post is fantastic. I loved your writing style and you had me hooked. I felt your pain. Thank you for sharing your story. Life is so weird and the pieces don’t seem to ever fit how we want, but then somehow they manage to work. It may not be the picture on the box, but it’s still a beautiful picture worth being proud of having. Best wishes to you and Joe as you prep for the CA interview.

    -Warren @ Blog to Taste

  9. Courtney, you continue to grow into an ever more talented storyteller. My heart swelled just at the point I thought you’d got the house, and then I let out a big sigh of disappointment when the truth dropped. I wish this wasn’t your true to life story, because then one could simply comment on how skillfully you’ve arranged the narrative. And yet, you can’t deny your craft. I’m so sorry to hear of your hurts. You are strong. Keep going.

  10. It’s not every day that you get the pleasure of reading something that makes you sit up right with anticipation, that rings so true that it spreads warmth in your chest and tears on your cheeks. It’s certainly not everyday that you get to read such a thing written by a friend you love. Thank you Courtney. This was beautiful. It’s quite a thing you have chosen to make your career putting this honesty and beauty out there into the world…

  11. So sad to read this post. If I had a rental house I would gift it to you and your husband. The housing crises here is terrible. And I should know, I’m a Real a Estate agent who runs a local boutique company. The prices for purchases and rentals are out of control and we are all deeply depressed by this fact. I was actually wondering if you knew where I could get a copy of that wonderful Portland map you included in your post. I’d like to hang it in my office. If you could point me the right direction I’d greatly appreciate it. And if any of my clients are looking to rent a small house for a reasonable price, I’ll keep you in mind. Sincerely, Rachel Freed @ Urban Nest Realty.

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