One of the benefits of growing up poor is a certain inoculation from the American Dream. Despite home ownership being celebrated as a rite of adulthood and a key to wealth accumulation, a childhood among lifelong renters exposed me to the benefits of being able to call a landlord when the toilet stops working and having flexibility when life veers in different directions.
While today’s apartment market has become a nightmare, limited to so-called “luxury” units at absurd prices, I’ve had a queer journey with leases across Atlanta and could make a strong case as the happiest – or even the last happy – renter in America.
Although the duplexes and triplexes that housed Midtown’s queers in the ’70s and ’80s were being converted into single-family homes, it was relatively easy for a single person to find an apartment when I moved to Atlanta after graduating college in 2003. Even then, $650 felt like Midtown inflation for my first studio apartment, but the upcharge was worth being a 24-year-old in the center of the gayborhood.
My apartment had an elevated ceiling, and I had to climb a ladder into a space that could hold nothing larger than a twin-sized mattress, so I described it as a “studio loft.” When I was ready for more space after two years, my landlord upgraded me to a one-bedroom directly across from Piedmont Park for only $50 more.
A week after I moved in, I got an angry call from the leasing company demanding I vacate the apartment immediately. Turns out my landlord was a meth head who had been pocketing my and other tenants’ rent payments and the company was pursuing charges against him; but the lease he and I signed just days before protected me for a year.
Following that, I did obligatory stints at iconic queer complexes: Ansley Forest and the high-rise formerly known as The Darlington. The former used to be nicknamed Vaseline Valley, and a ride in the latter’s elevators could lead to a hook-up two out of every five trips.
While at my last apartment in Midtown, a series of family crises resulted in four of us living in my one-bedroom unit. In haste, I found an affordable three-bedroom across the street from downtown, where I have lived since 2017.
Our complex was purchased by new owners two years after I moved in, and I braced for the inevitable rent hike and other tools of displacement that have led to the extinction of affordable housing throughout the city. Instead, the new owner was a non-profit created by an Atlanta billionaire and dedicated to maintaining reasonably priced apartments on Atlanta’s west side.
My rent has not increased since my original lease, my leasing company was exceedingly empathetic throughout the pandemic, and I could not imagine a more advantageous housing arrangement than the one I stumbled into. I understand my bliss is temporary and dependent upon a billionaire’s benevolence, just as I struggle with a bit of survivor’s guilt knowing the perils my fellow renters are enduring.
I remain suspicious of the supposed benefits of home ownership since the folks I know with a mortgage seem no less stressed or insecure than renters and am again comforted by my failure to live up to our society’s expectations.