This is how we live now: Part 1

Financially, 2016 was the worst year of my life. It hurt so bad I had to write three blogs to vent some of the emotional trauma. The disasters I experienced aren’t unusual, but that’s what makes this story poignant. My life is so normal, it’s a metaphor for every American who lives near the poverty line, who, no matter how long and hard they work, are perpetually having their life savings drained back to zero by predatory business practices.

The story of why 2016 sucked for me begins in 2008, with me being a hypocrite. Newly married and separated from the Air Force, I moved from Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii to Austin, TX, where my wife and I bought a duplex for $250k.

I didn’t want to pay a realtor. So I researched how to buy a house without one and immediately learned why realtors exist. There are so many laws around buying and selling houses it’s impossible to do it without having an associate’s degree worth of knowledge. After a few days of mind-numbing reading, I laid my head on my keyboard and muttered, “Why does this have to be harder than buying a car?”

The next day my wife and I met a realtor who came highly recommended from a distant relative. Our agent looked like a model and talked like an auctioneer. She picked us up in a brand new BMW equipped with space age technology. After our first conversation, I felt like I was hiring a scout to take me on a treasure hunting expedition.

Over the next week she showed us two trashy properties below our price range, two giant, expensive houses, and one solid option just above what we wanted to spend. So we picked that one, which in retrospect, I don’t think was an accident.

The only type of houses we looked at were duplexes, because we thought the tenant’s rent would cover our payments, and it would have if the cost of a mortgage equaled the listing price of the property, but after taxes, interest and fees, the final price of a 30 year mortgage is double whatever the property is worth. So, after we picked the house, we learned we’d need to take out a $500k loan for a $250k property. Plus, most of the first fifteen years of payments would go to whittling down the interest, not buying equity in the house. Why do lenders have to structure loans that way? Because fuck you. That’s why.

Normally, home buyers have to put down a 20% down payment to quality for a loan, and we didn’t have $50k. However, the Department of Veteran Affairs offers a special service to veterans. In exchange for $5k, it will vouch to pay the 20% down payment if the vet fails to pay their mortgage and the house gets foreclosed on. At that point, the VA will give the lender the 20% down payment, which in my case was $50k. So if my house got foreclosed on, I’d have to pay the VA, $50k.

This is a great deal, in the sense that it removes one of the glass ceilings stopping renters from becoming home owners, but it’s a scammy solution to a problem created by the government. Think of it this way. The government enforces laws which make buying a home impossible to do without hiring legal representation to walk you through all the laws that inflate the cost of a property so high you can’t afford it. The government’s solution to the problem it created, is for home owners to buy the lender a insurance policy to cover their losses if/when the veteran can’t afford to pay twice the advertised listing price of a property plus another $5k.

My real estate agent and the lender she referred us to explained all this to me and acted like it was completely normal, because it is. So I signed the paperwork and went on with my life, which consisted mostly of spending 10+ hours per week sitting in Austin’s notorious traffic and working 40+ hours per week at a computer helpdesk job getting yelled at for problems other people created.

I told myself it would all be worth it when I finally beat the game and could live life on my own terms. Seven years later my wife and I divorced and sold the house. Luckily, the divorce was “no contest.” So we didn’t have to spend $5k each for lawyers. Since we filed the paperwork ourselves, it only cost a few hundred dollars in government fees and having to stand in front of a judge who didn’t know us to beg him to let us get on with our lives.

We had already moved away from Austin half way through our marriage and rented out both duplex units through a property manager who sent us “repair” bills for $300-$1000 almost monthly. We finally terminated our contract after he charged us $90 to replace a smoke detector battery and another $90 to look in the chimney and tell us there weren’t any birds in it. Wanting to avoid confrontation, my wife told them we were moving to Samoa and had to sell the house.

The next property management company we hired never sent us any absurd charges in the two years we used them. Since they rarely did anything to the house, effectively, we paid them $240 per month to deposit our rent checks.

Our contract also stipulated that if we sold the house, they would act as our real estate agent and take a higher-than-normal percentage of the sale. I didn’t care at the time, because I wasn’t planning on getting divorced and selling the house.

When we decided to sell in 2013, Austin was experiencing a housing bubble, which means houses are overpriced. So sellers make can make a lot of money, but buyers get screwed paying inflated prices that could drop by the time they get divorced and have to sell their house.

There was so much demand for duplexes, our property manager/realtor was able to sell the house in two days for $60k more than the original listing price, which sounds great, except we’d spent at least that much on the mortgage, upgrades, fraudulent repairs and property management dues.

In the end, my wife and I received $15k each, and my realtor took $30k for doing less than ten hours of work. Just to be clear, I didn’t make $15k profit. I got a $15k return on a $60k investment. In the grand scheme of things, I lost $45k.

After signing all the paperwork, the realtor handed me my check and said, “See? It wasn’t that painful, was it?”

I wanted to tell him, “The only painful part was when you pocketed $30k I spent seven years working my ass off for in exchange for ten hours of your labor. But that’s okay, because it’s normal, right? Enjoy your normal life, sending your kids to college and buying them sports cars. I’ll enjoy my normal routine of not having a retirement.”

At least I had $15k to start my new life with when I moved to Houston, TX to live with my identical twin brother. I didn’t make it out of my marriage with a vehicle, but was able to pay cash for a used truck, which I bought from a small car dealership, owned and operated by a sweet, old Southern country farmer type who prided himself in his old fashioned honesty. He won my trust and sold me a 1997 truck with 50k miles on it for $7k. It had been owned by an old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays. So even though the truck was almost twenty years old, it was practically new.

Now that I had a vehicle to drive to work, I turned my attention to job hunting. Most of my adult life, I’d worked in IT, but halfway through my marriage, after my wife and I left Austin, I couldn’t find work in the IT sector. So I worked a series of odd jobs until my IT experience became obsolete and unusable. I’ve never complained about or regretted letting that door close, because I absolutely hated IT work. What good is making money if you spend your entire life doing things that make you miserable to earn it? That’s wasting the present, not investing in the future.

Theoretically, that’s true, but in America’s economy, chasing your dream is shooting yourself in the foot. Without a college degree, training certificate or relevant experience, my job options were staggeringly limited. I didn’t sit around crying about this. I drove straight to a staffing agency I knew could hook me up with “an exciting job opportunity.”

For the next few summer months, I spent 9 hours per day in a warehouse digging through vats of marble-sized ceramic balls, picking out any that were tarnished, broken or disfigured. The only break I got was an hour for lunch, and my bosses monitored me closely via the security cameras. At first I was happy, because I felt lucky to be getting paid slightly higher than minimum wage, but it didn’t take long to realize my assessment of life was wrong. In reality, my life was actually quite shit.

I had 9 hours per day to think. So I used the opportunity to weigh my options and decide how to save my life. About the time I got laid off, I convinced my twin to move to Colorado with me, where he could work, and I could attend a year-long trade school for free using the M.G.I.Bill, which would also pay me a $1,200 per month living stipend.

He agreed immediately, because Houston sucks. So we settled our affairs in the local area, loaded everything we owned into our two trucks and drove to the cheapest hotel in Denver. The first night we celebrated our new beginning with overpriced legal weed and a box of Franzia. It seemed appropriate since the hotel was so low class, the Denver Police Department had a permanently reserved parking spot directly in front of the lobby.

Before leaving Texas we’d searched for apartments in Denver and made a list of places that have vacancies within our price range. There were enough options that I wasn’t worried about finding a place. My only fear was settling on the second or third best option because it’s closer to my school. After spending thousands of hours in Austin traffic, not commuting had become a priority of mine.

My brother and I spent the next week touring Denver’s ghetto-est apartments and getting turned away by every slum lord. Come to find out, Denver has a local law, which says in order to qualify to rent a property, you must either have three months of pay checks from a local business or a cosigner who makes three times the amount of rent, neither of which we had.

The apartment managers were unswayable. No matter how much we begged, nobody would bend the rules for us. At our last apartment viewing, I put $7k cash on the table and offered to pay an entire six month lease up front. The apartment manager scowled at me like I was a hillbilly offering to pay with a bag of dead possums. He looked me in straight in the eye and said with dead seriousness, “That’s not good enough.”

Since when is having enough money to buy something, not good enough to buy it? When did the American Dream turn into The Twilight Zone? My money was good. The problem is Colorado lawmakers want to prevent poor people from immigrating to their state. So they invented a disingenuous rule that all the local apartment owners agreed to go along with. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was written by wealthy apartment moguls who made campaign contribution to the politicians, who signed it into law.

Unable to legally rent an apartment, we looked on Craigslist for people offering to rent out spare rooms in their private homes, which is actually illegal under Colorado’s anti-boardinghouse laws. Luckily, this rule isn’t enforced, because Denver police have better things to do thank kick poor people out of their houses. And by “better things,” I mean, “legally robbing motorists to meet their ticket quotas.”

My brother and I spent the next two weeks viewing rooms and begging people to let us pay $900 per month to live in the cupboard under their stairs. It wouldn’t have taken so long, but most landlords required a $50 non-refundable, non-binding fee just to fill out an application, in addition to paying another $30-$50 to run a criminal background and credit history check on you, which requires you to give out your social security number, date of birth and bank account number.

We refused to apply for any of those rooms, which drastically limited our choices, but it was worth not risking paying $50 to have our identities stolen. After a long, discouraging search, we finally moved into a large, trashy two-story house containing five other tenants.

Our landlady was a semi-obese, bedridden hoarder whose husband had recently died of cirrhosis of the liver, and she was dying of cancer. Since she couldn’t work, the only way she could afford rent and groceries by subleasing her extra rooms. Her situation wouldn’t have been so dire, except she lived with two of her children, who were both in their early twenties, didn’t pay any bills and refused to get jobs.

All three were drug addicts who took whatever narcotics they could get their hands on. The son would steal his mother’s morphine, forcing her to send the daughter to buy more off the black market when the pain of dying became unbearable. When the mother confronted him about it, he bitched her out in front of the whole house for playing the cancer card too much. She died four months after we moved out.

One of her tenants was a 20-something year old black, gentle giant who moved to Denver to escape the apocalyptic ghetto in Chicago where he grew up. The other housemate was a white 20-something year old Texan who moved to Colorado for the weed. He’d been in Denver for several years and had moved into our “boarding house” after getting kicked out of his last apartment for overdosing on a psychedelic designer drug and diving out the second-story window naked and then fighting three police officers in the parking lot until they tazed him unconscious.

My brother and I shared a room and a bed for three months until we talked our landlady into letting us convert the basement into bedrooms. She only charged us $800 per month for two rooms, which is made it the cheapest price we’d ever find Denver.

We had some good times in that house, but most of them were bad. We moved out the day the landlord’s son blasted his stereo at 7am for the hundredth time and then threatened to “fuck me up” with a golf club if I tried to turn his music down. At that point my brother returned to Texas, and I rented a camping spot outside of town and lived there until I found another room on Craigslist.

I finished out the school year living in an elderly couple’s house, paying $700 per month. At first I lived in a tiny room on the ground floor, but was able to move downstairs into the much larger basement after the landlady found her other tenant’s crack pipe in the drier. They’d already been planning on asking him to leave anyway, because he was literally insane and thought government agents were following him at all times. Other than being a moocher, he never bothered me, but I was glad to see him go, because after he learned I’d worked for the NSA during my military service, he assumed I was a government agent sent to spy on him.

After graduating from school, I decided to move back to Houston as well to be with a girl I’d met after my divorce and stayed in touch with. I moved in with her at the beginning of 2016, flat broke again.

The whole trip had been an asteroid shower of unexpected expenses. I expected Colorado to be Candy Land, but it turned out to be more like Chutes and Ladders. Every time you think you’re getting somewhere, you slide back down into where you started.

The problem isn’t that Colorado is worse than the rest of America, it’s a metaphor for the rest of the country. One of my friends from the military recently moved to San Antonio and was unable to rent an apartment for the same reasons I couldn’t. In the end, he bought a house using the same VA home loan program I did, because it was easier for him to qualify to buy a house than to rent one. My friend and I didn’t do anything wrong to deserve the moving nightmare we experienced. This is just how everyone lives now.

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