Althousing odyssey

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Marianne Moore takes you on a guided tour through the often confusing, always thrilling world of Bay Area alternative housing

We all know San Francisco housing is murder, with median rent for a one-bedroom apartment going for nearly $2200. So when I came home from college for my sweet but unpaid SF Bay Guardian internship, I knew I would have to be resourceful. I was prepared to live anywhere and do (almost) anything, as long as it was cheap. If you’re a local reading this via free wireless in your rent-controlled apartment (enjoy it while it lasts!), you may find this information irrelevant and stressful; or maybe you’ve been through it all. But if, like me, you can visit the beautiful Bay only for too-short summers, or you’re passing through or in transition, read on.

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Home sweet hostel? Not if you're local.

The USA hostel on Post, like most hostels, will sometimes let you work a certain number of hours per week in exchange for a free bed. You have to work at least 24 hours and the nightly rate is $25 for paying guests, so it comes out to about $7.50 an hour, well below minimum wage in San Francisco. When I tried to arrange things over the phone from New York, I was told by the bored-sounding receptionist that I would just have to show up for a couple nights so they could “see if they liked me.” That made me a little nervous, but since I’m not totally unlikable I still thought it was worth a try. When I checked in and presented my California driver’s license, I was told that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay unless I could show an out-of-state ID. Apparently the company has a policy against boarding California residents, a policy specifically designed (it seems to me) to keep out homeless people. This isn’t typical for hostels; places I’ve stayed in New York City are regularly used as stopgaps by people between apartments. I couldn’t help but think that the hostel shuts out native Californians to protect their guests (mostly drunk-ass Eurotrash on holiday) from the realities of life in SF, presenting a tourist experience in line with trips to Ghiradelli Square and Pier 39.That, plus the popularity contest application process, had me heading straight for the nearest internet café and the dizzying wilderness of options that is Craig's List .

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If something seems too good to be true...

One ad promised I could live on a 30’ sailboat, paying only the $200 docking fee. I was immediately taken by the idea; I pictured myself rocked to sleep by gentle waves, snug in my cabin, sunning myself on the deck, hosting awesome boat-parties. I called right away; “Chris” answered the phone in a thick Eastern European accent that put GTA IV to shame. Though I could barely understand him, I’m pretty sure he first tried to sell me the boat for $16,000. When I explained that I just wanted to live on it, he launched into a long lecture about investments and interest rates, insisting that I should concentrate on making “economy.” When I told him I was a student here for an internship, he told me that it was “too early to talk business.” “I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Too early in the day?” Did he want me to meet him later in some dark bar for Vodka and caviar? No. He wanted me to go away. He wanted his tenant to be some kind of internet start-up prodigy. What he, “Chris,” intends to get out of this, is beyond me.

When I struck out with the boat and the hostel got expensive, I started crashing with my brother’s high school friends. It was free, the company was good, and I was fed often and well. If you don’t have a built-in system of couches and spare-rooms, you could try couchsurfing.com, a website that hooks up travelers with locals who will let you crash free or dirt cheap. The website operates almost like a computer game, allowing you to attain new levels of verification and trustworthiness as you meet, host, and surf with more members. The website lets you create groups, so that if you like you can stay only with people interested in underground hip-hop or raw food. In the detailed user profile, a surfer is invited to state her mission: “Host people so I have an excuse to drink on weeknights!” “Interpolate rather than extrapolate!” “OBAMA!!!”

Though the couch-surfing community beckoned with open arms, I definitely didn’t want to haul my giant suitcase across town every few nights—I needed something semi-permanent, which realistically meant the East Bay. Rents are generally lower over there, especially in Berkeley, where many apartments are rent controlled (for now). UC Berkeley students often go out of town for the summer, subletting their rooms. Berkeley is also flush with low-cost co-ops — big, communal houses where renters pitch in with cleaning, cooking, and repairs.

I’ll never know if I would have had the stamina to hop from couch to couch all summer, because I was saved by two windfalls: a house-sitting gig for July and August and a UC Berkeley student who agreed to let me sublet his tiny room (more of a walk-in closet, really) for one month only. By a freak coincidence, his apartment turned out to be right next door to a lesbian couple I’ve known since I was six, and just up the street from Fatapple’s, one of my favorite Berkeley restaurants. It’s not a hostel, a boat, a co-op, or a couch, but it’s minutes from the best damn chocolate pie I’ve ever tasted.

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