High Rents - Roommates - Couch Surfing

A hellish housing market in the Bay Area has folks bouncing from couch to couch for lack of affordable apartments. San Francisco has the dubious distinction of bearing both one of the highest costs of living in the nation and a 1 percent vacancy rate. Last year rent on non-rent-controlled apartments shot up 34 percent. (This year landlords are pushing Proposition E, which would eliminate rent control on up to 50,000 rental units.)

Joel Koosed founded the Original San Francisco Roommate Referral Service more than two decades ago. He says the city's housing market in 1998 is the tightest he's ever seen it: "Finding a room right now is the worst it's been in 23 years." His company's dearth of listings is testimony to the housing crisis. "Five years ago we had 300 to 500 listings for rooms. Right now we've got as few as 100." As rooms and apartments fill up, the cost of renting soars. "Twenty years ago you could rent a room in a house with a couple other people for $50," Koosed sighs. "It costs easily 10 times that today. The average price for renting a room in a house is $500. You can still find rooms for $250, $300, but they're rare. It's not unusual for us to run $800 listings for rooms."

Surging rental costs are driven in part by soaring real estate costs. Last year the median cost of a home in the Bay Area hit $284,000, an 11.3 percent increase from the previous year. Nationwide, the median cost of a home is $120,000.

Hence, couch surfers are legion in the Bay Area. They are recent arrivals bearing backpacks and big dreams, staying with friends as they search for a decent -- and not too overpriced -- abode. They are the people between apartments, waiting anxiously for calls from landlords or for an open bedroom in a pal's place. For some the couch scene is a vocation, a way to avoid paying rent for months at a time and thus stave off another round of wage slavery in favor of more pleasurable pursuits. Undocumented aliens are often consigned to the couch owing to their legal status. Many of the refugees from razed housing projects -- Bernal Dwellings, Hayes Valley -- have ended up crashing with friends. Some couch surfers are down on their luck -- evicted, sick, or jobless.

The bad news is that the city is becoming a playground for the rich. The good news is that people are finding creative solutions to the housing crunch -- most notably letting their friends stay on the couch.

In the Bay Area, squatters' movements like Homes Not Jails have run into nothing but disdain from city officials. On account of that lack of success, people here are more likely to turn to their friends and neighbors for housing help. While the couch is probably the number one temporary solution, Bay Area residents employ infinite tactics to overcome the housing blues. Typical solutions include colonizing closets, attics, garages, and living rooms to lower each roommate's rental costs or living out of vehicles parked in friends' driveways and backyards. (Vehicular living, however, is illegal; apparently governmental logic is that it's better for vehicle dwellers to freeze to death on the streets than survive in their cars.)

Unlike the utterly homeless, couch surfers and their ilk don't elicit that much interest. Earlier this year the San Francisco Chronicle calculated that 71,000 people in the Bay Area were homeless, an estimate it considered conservative. San Francisco city government sources estimate that there are 11,000-13,000 homeless folks here. Each year millions are spent by social service providers to advocate for, provide for, and track the homeless. On the other side, the ever-gentle San Francisco Police Department spends some of its millions throwing homeless folks' sleeping bags away and writing them tickets for petty offenses, while politicians and business executives blame them for everything from El Niņo to the collapse of small businesses.

But who notices the couch crasher?

Unlike the fully unsheltered, couch surfers are nearly invisible. Organizations that compile stats on homelessness don't have figures for those who are technically homeless but not on the streets. "No one is tracking those numbers, because nobody wants to think about it," Paul Boden of the Coalition on Homelessness says. "I imagine it's a very large number." Boden guesses that up to 100,000 people in the greater Bay Area are sleeping on couches. Ted Gullicksen of the S.F. Tenants Union says he also can't get any figures on the not-quite-homeless. "Anecdotally, a large number of people coming to us for assistance are in that position -- staying with friends." That's not to dis homeless advocates and service providers. They have way more important things to do than conduct sociological studies on the indoor homeless: more than 100 homeless folks died on the streets in 1997.

Wearing out the welcome

Among undocumented aliens, couch surfing isn't uncommon, since it's hard enough to find a place to stay when all your paperwork is in order and you've got a big wad of dough in the bank. Undocumented immigrants will often crash with kindhearted friends who risk their own freedom to put them up. Single-room occupancies, which now cost up to $400 or $500 a month in the Bay Area, are too expensive for people trying to get on their feet or send money home.

Expatriates from other American cities also form microcommunities in the Bay Area. Moving from middle America to San Francisco (or New York or the closest big city) is a modern rite of passage. When Ben Sizemore, a 27-year-old social worker, moved from Little Rock to Oakland, he found himself living in a crash pad dubbed "Little Arkansas" for its exclusively Arkansan tenants. Ben's buddy Sledge came out with him to Oakland. And never left. "He came out to visit from Arkansas and just stayed. He was on the couch for six months. He just mooched off everyone," Ben recounts. While sofa tourists like Devon and Marshall are considerate, low-impact guests, Sledge falls into that dreaded couch surfer category: the Uncontrollable Mooch.

"One day Andy -- one of our roommates -- he had this delicious sandwich he'd bought from the deli. It was in the fridge. Sledge ate the whole sandwich, except a bit of the crust. He put the crust back in the fridge for Andy to find."

Sledge drove his hosts to the brink of grievous bodily harm because they were out busting ass all day as he consumed their stuff and frolicked. Ben runs down a typical Sledge day: "He'd wake up about one, walk up to the avenue, mack on some girls, bum cigarettes, bum food off friends who were working at Blondie's [pizza] or go to Quarter Meal [a free food program]. Then he'd come home and party at our joint.

"I came home from work one day and Sledge was eating my Chinese food leftovers, drinking one of my sodas, and using my scissors to turn my pants into shorts," Ben chortles, less angry now than he must've been at the time. "I was like, 'Sledge, what the fuck are you doing?' " Sledge eventually returned to Arkansas to kick a drug habit acquired in the Bay Area, but he's returned several times to strike fear into the hearts of all who pay rent.

Urban lore bristles with countless tales of couch surfers who got way too comfy on the couch; who left their dirty dishes strewn about the house and their soiled condoms on the floor; who ran up phone bills.

Landlords generally despise couch surfers. Check the look on your landlord's face when she pops by for a quick, painless inspection and finds two folks camped out in your living room. (It's somewhere between murderous rage and serious constipation. Lack of approval -- or even acknowledgment -- from the propertied class won't impact the couch culture. Whether it's the tramp who chooses to stay on sofas around the planet and returns the favor to fellow vagabonds, the expatriate who hooks up with her old friends, or the artist who'd rather paint than pay rent, couch surfers and their allies aren't asking for favors from above. They're too busy living.