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Student housing still crunched

By Diwata Fonte Special to the Daily Planet
Monday May 14, 2001

It’s a bit like meeting your disapproving future in-laws, a bit like third-degree interrogation, and a bit like the Miss Universe Pageant.  

But instead of the questions like, “If you won the title, how would you promote world peace?” they are: “What’s your major?” “How quiet are you?” and “Where does your money come from?” 

Like many meetings, it’s all about first impressions. At this one, dozens of competitors (mostly students) take particular pains to appear responsible, studious, clean and quiet. They are jostling for the same prize: a clean two-bedroom apartment for $1,250, only one mile from the University campus.  

These competitions, known as open houses, thrive on summer season’s renter-heavy market. And despite the softening housing market caused by the dot-com crash, rentals near UC Berkeley are still a hot commodity. 

Landlords advertise in popular apartment listings that interested persons may come see the apartment at a certain day and time. If the place is attractive — close to campus, cheap, safe neighborhood — anywhere between 20 to as many as 100 applicants can show up. The apartment or house is showcased for a few hours.  

From this pool, landlords choose their winners.  

This time of year is when the stakes start getting high. The housing market can be both competitive and cruel. Students travel to open houses only to find out that the apartment is already taken. Or, if not, it only takes five minutes to go. 

Students can get desperate.  

Xiomara Ferrera and Shermaine Barlaan are looking for a “decent” place. That means a place free of stains on the walls and garbage on the sidewalks. It also means the stairway doesn’t smell like urine — much like other places they have seen. 

“I’m going to be homeless in two weeks,” Ferrera said.  

“I’m homeless in one week,” Barlaan said. 

Becky White, assistant director at Cal Rentals, the apartment service associated with UC Berkeley, said they are serving about 1,200 to 1,300 active clients. She said that they’re numbers will be “growing exponentially” every day from now until August.  

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” she said. 

For the landlord, open houses can be a convenient method to deal with the high-demand market. They only need to show the apartment or house once. Many do not live in the area.  

But for renters, the situation can be impersonal, frustrating and almost demeaning. They are forced to jockey for the landlord’s favor and attention in a room swarming with college students, just like them. The whole process becomes more about selling their qualities to the landlord, rather than the landlord selling the qualities of the property to them.  

Two of 30 applicants at a West Berkeley open house Saturday, Rhea Muchow and Sara Vessal, think they know the game pretty well. They’ve been to enough open houses to know how to avoid amateur mistakes.  

They said successful candidates must arrive with a tenant resume, a credit check and an application already filled out. Also, they said all roommates must be present; they must be early; they should stand at the front of the line, talk first and repeat their names a lot. 

“At first we didn’t do these things,” Muchow said. “Now we wised up.”  

The short five to 10 minute conversation when the applicants actually meet the landlord is where they must project traits they sense landlords want. It’s important that they leave a good impression. 

Muchow and Vessal’s last comment to the landlord was, “OK, sounds great! We just want to find a quiet place to study near campus.”  

“You tell them what they want to hear,” said Vessal.  

However for students, it is difficult to gauge exactly what landlords want to hear.  

A common conception among students was that landlords want to know if the rent will come in on time. This caused some students to divulge information like that their parents always gave them money or that their father is the vice president of a successful company. 

“My parents are wealthy,” said Matt Mercier, who felt forced to convince her that he had enough money to pay rent regularly.  

“My parents pay. I have a checking account, but I get money from them.”  

Another creative strategy is to prove your responsibility by bringing your parents. 

Brannon, who has seen almost 60 places in the last three months said that those who bring their parents have an advantage if a landlord immediately wants the deposit and contract.  

But some found out that bringing others doesn’t always help. 

“I don’t think it was a plus,” said Sally Rogers who came with her husband, Phil, from Los Angeles. “It doesn’t matter if we pay our bills on time. They want to concentrate on who is living there.” 

There were other ways to stand out. Some students said landlords definitely value certain majors over others. If you have the right major, exploit it.  

“You must have done very well to get into computer science,” Jason Song and James Yang said a landlord told them.  

They were reminded to write their majors on the application when they turned it in.  

But others majors, like Jesse Dienner’s comparative literature, registered no worth or even recognition.  

“What’s that?” the landlord said. “I don’t know that.” 

“Uh-oh,” Dienner said. “This means this isn’t going well.” 

Most students were forced to use whatever they could to increase their chances. Some spoke Chinese with the landlord, others mentioned that they were graduate students and liked to study.  

But by the end of the open house, not one could say for certain that they were chosen. 

“It's luck,” said the landlord, who declined to give her name. “It depends. No one has a 100 percent chance.”