housing

Mother vs. the Housing Crisis

I lost my job and my apartment. I refused to settle for a tiny, dank replacement.

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Getty

When our landlord warned my husband and me in the early pandemic that we’d eventually have to leave our apartment to make way for his college-age son, I shook his outstretched hand. I’d moved around a lot; the prospect of relocating didn’t seem dramatic. There were so many things I couldn’t have imagined then. I didn’t know that Montreal, the city I grew up in, where rents remained relatively stable for most of my life, would succumb to a global housing-affordability crisis. I didn’t know that mortgage rates would skyrocket, or that the publishing industry would contract and I’d lose my job. I sure as hell didn’t know that I’d have a baby. As all of these details revealed themselves, I told my landlord that I planned to give birth at home, or rather under the roof he’d loaned us and would soon reclaim like an overdue library book. “Oh, that’s great,” he said. “The place will be full of good vibes for my boy.” One year later our lease was terminated.

Between the time I learned that I was pregnant in October 2021 and my daughter’s first birthday in June 2023, which coincided with the last month of our tenancy, the average price of a rental in the United States and Canada increased by about 20 percent. Meanwhile, the housing-vacancy rate in Montreal plummeted to 1.5 percent, as it did in New York City. During night feedings, clutching the phone so as not to drop it on the baby’s bobbing head, I browsed the meager listings for places twice the cost and half the size of the one we were giving up. In the dark I convinced myself that we should hold out for something decent, that our child deserved and demanded it. I was furious that we were in the position of hoping for two bedrooms in this economy.

“Is it possible we’re being too picky?” my husband dared ask. The following week I filled out applications for two different rentals and didn’t so much as get a call back. If you weren’t the first to visit, you didn’t stand a chance.

We saw dozens of apartments, each more cramped and shittily constructed than the last. We also applied to 50 housing cooperatives, and had a couple of interviews, but came up empty-handed. We couldn’t find anything we could afford that wasn’t a subbasement or falling apart.

Mostly, we shrugged off our looming eviction until, finally, we couldn’t. Over the course of a summer weekend, I packed our boxes with the baby strapped to my torso and we shuttled them to a storage cube. Our friends offered up the spare bedroom in their modest flat. We could stay as long as we wanted, they said.

Before I was a mother, I sustained myself under capitalism by erasing my body. That’s a thing you can do when you’re in relatively good health and no one depends on you. For two years I lived in New York without insurance; once, when the pain was so great I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I goaded a friend into performing a minor medical procedure on my scalp in his TV room. In one of my apartments, the shower butted up against a mini-fridge topped with a hot plate, so I could cook while I rinsed my hair. To avoid the astronomical cost of living, I have slept on other people’s couches, shared too-small rooms with too many roommates, made a home in a tent and also in a 2008 Dodge Grand Caravan with stow-and-go seats. If you’re willing and able enough to disregard all of your physical needs, it becomes possible to avoid confronting the busted institutions that are supposed to help us care for ourselves.

But my child is pure physical need. She dragged me back to my body. She needed to nurse every two hours, and I needed a comfortable place where I could feed her and be naked all of the time. She needed to crawl, and then waddle, down the corridor. Her needs, though rudimentary, manifested as countless objects: a high chair, a play mat, a white-noise machine, blackout curtains. In the grip of the housing crisis, I briefly fantasized about selling them all and stuffing her back into the shelter of my uterus. We weren’t keen on moving into the van with a kid. We couldn’t share a loft with four student musicians and separate the beds with curtains. Even if our landlord hadn’t intervened, we would sooner or later have had to face the facts: We didn’t have a nursery but a tiny, windowless office directly underneath the neighbors’ stairwell.

Or maybe we would have tried to hang on to that apartment for all eternity. That home that seemed almost expensive when we began to rent it in February 2020 and that four years later seems so deliciously, improbably cheap. The only home our kid had ever known, the site of her entire existence.

On moving day, I walked through the empty house with her; she’d only recently taken her first steps. Here is the shallow bathtub you were born in and the tank that ran out of hot water right as I started to push. Here is the doorway your baby jumper hung from, so that you could bounce to your heart’s content and we could job-hunt for five frantic minutes. Here’s the room that held our dining table, until, in the last days of my pregnancy, we collapsed it and made way for the thin foam mattress where we spent the first hours of your life. For two weeks I lay on that mattress instead of in our bed. Then one night some visitors showed up for dinner and we brought the table back, only I was bereft to see it there. So we carried it out again, and in again, and out again. Were we still in that twilight that descends after birth or were we ready to entertain? Which part was over and which part was beginning? I hadn’t been able to tell. Now both the dining table and the mattress were gone.

The friends who took us in, whom my daughter calls Tata and Calico, are gorgeous and young and childless. They have an apartment that’s perfect for a gorgeous, young, childless couple. And they keep it very clean. As in, they wash the dishes immediately after eating off them. They were aware of the messes and the dead-of-night crying and they invited us to live with them anyway. They said they wouldn’t mind. I believed them because I know how much they love us and because I had to, but that did little to quell my anxiety. As soon as we arrived, the baby marched to their kitchen and emptied three drawers of utensils onto the floor. She tried to pull a ceramic bowl of fruit off the shelf. That evening, like most other evenings, she announced she was finished eating by upending her plastic Ikea plate and scattering corn niblets across the gray tile like seeds for next year’s harvest. Out of nerves, I swept twice a day. Tata swept four or five times a day.

For the two months we camped out in our friends’ spare bedroom, the three of us — me, my husband, and a 1-year-old who sleeps sideways — shared a queen bed. I wedged baby clothes into an armoire filled with Tata and Calico’s books. There was hardly any room for toys, so we packed them away in plastic tubs and left a few stuffed animals, a walker, and a sand pail in a corner of the living room, next to the printer and Calico’s finished canvases. Every morning one of us drove half an hour to the only available day care while the baby protested in the backseat. Every afternoon, once we’d returned, I chased her from one side of the apartment to the other, prying dirt from the plants from her grubby fists. I couldn’t bear to ask our friends to childproof their space, even as she kept eating their small, fragile things.

It was rough. It was also remarkably beautiful. Our friends cooked us dinners: breakfast burritos and coconut curries and green-bean casseroles. They surprised us with treats from the grocery store. They added our laundry to their own loads, moved our car on alternate-side parking days, watered our plants, mixed us drinks. We encouraged each other’s art. We cried in each other’s arms. Suddenly my husband wasn’t the only adult around on the regular, which did wonders for our marriage. At a moment when I might have suffered from intense isolation, I was regularly enjoying and unburdening myself with companions. While the baby was sleeping, we chain-watched movies and ordered in dessert. While she was awake, they adored her so well that she repeated our four names like a mantra: Maman, Papa, Tata, Calico.

One evening I heard her giggling like a maniac, which made me laugh before I even arrived at the scene: Calico was hunched over and pulling her around the kitchen in a cardboard box. “You’ll kill your back!” I kept shouting at him giddily. But around and around they went, she in her footed pajamas, her hair still wet from the bath, her head pitched backward in delight. She wasn’t lacking a single goddamn thing.

There is no silver lining to systemic collapse. We don’t owe a debt of gratitude to the housing authority that allowed for our eviction; it did not show us the way to community life. On the contrary, public policy insists on a culture of individualism and, when you come to rely on other people, society attempts to sell you the narrative that you’ve failed. We have not failed, of course. Our institutions have failed us.

Community is a good solution to that failure — a better solution than neglecting the body and pretty much the only way to manage with a dependent or an aging parent or a disability or a chronic illness if you aren’t rich. But community living shouldn’t be a survival mechanism. As activist Mia Birdsong writes in How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community, “Being free is, in part, achieved through being connected.” In an alternate world where our systems work to keep us safe and secure and thrust us together rather than apart, caring for and being cared for by other people is not an act of desperation. It is a means of freedom, prosperity, and pleasure — an avenue toward our thriving.

A few months ago, we finally moved into a place close to day care, with a bedroom for the baby and a big old bathtub. We inherited the previous tenants’ rent, set in 2021, which is both under market and sufficiently high to have us in a choke hold. I wanted to feel some relief. Instead, I was overcome with stress and loneliness.

In the end, we wanted all of it. A home spacious and affordable enough for two families, where the five of us could keep living together with ease. Let’s look for something bigger, we’d say to one another, though we knew that there was nothing bigger that wouldn’t bankrupt us. In that crowded apartment, with our community, I started dreaming. I was feeding someone else, constantly, and so at last I let myself be hungry.

Mother vs. the Housing Crisis