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The reality of subletting in San Francisco

Thomas Hawk/Flickr Creative Commons

San Francisco is a renter’s worst nightmare. It might seem obvious. You know, your mum knows, your friends know, but me? I did not know. It is hard enough trying to find a room in San Francisco, or Oakland, when you’re an American, armed with a credit rating, proof of income and housing references just a phone-call away.

However, being from New Zealand, via Australia, I can’t tick off any one of those things. I’ve never owned a credit card, I don’t have a steady income and my rental references are asleep when a local landlord might want to call them.

I arrived in San Francisco from Melbourne, with one night’s accommodation booked in a dingy hotel and an appointment to see a possible sublet that afternoon - a showing for a room in the Mission in a flat with five other people. The girl I had spoken with, Allison, wanted $1200 per month, plus the final month’s rent, upfront. We had chatted before the meeting, so even though I was jetlagged, and couldn’t remember the last time I changed my underwear after crossing multiple time zones, I thought the room was as good as mine. Allison’s flat mates, however, didn’t feel the same way.

Desperation threw me into the cesspit of Craigslist, where a bunch of people are looking for smarter ways to cut back the high cost of renting in San Francisco, usually through subletting.

Valerie Nyanforj was once one of those people. She lived in the Excelsior area in the same house, with different roommates, for three years. The fourth room she rented out to a different person every couple of months.

“We were down to the three people, and we wanted to offset the costs of what we were paying into it,” she says.

Wanting to capitalize on the market, Valerie came up with some clever ways of making money. Not only did she rent out the spare room in her apartment, she even rented out her driveway and her couch – especially popular during San Francisco’s Pride Weekend.

“One person, she was paying $250 a night to sleep on the couch for Pride, and we had two couches in the living room, and the other person we had set for $200 because they were willing to clean or cook for us. I rented the shower one month, one year in June,” she says.

You read that right. A shower. Valerie had cut an extra key and let a guy drop by to use the shower at her place, for the right price. Valerie’s interesting though, because she’s seen both sides of the renter’s coin - she had been through this sort of thing herself when she first moved to San Francisco.

“One of the places I went to see was essentially just a shack, or a shed. Not quite an outside because at least with an outhouse you can utilize it. It was just a non-heated, non-electrified non-insulated wood shack,” she says.

I wanted to avoid sleeping in a shack at all costs, and I needed to know what tenancy practices were legal in order to be in the running, so I spoke with Scott Weaver, a long time tenant advocate in the Bay Area from the San Francisco Tenants Union. They see 400 people a month for problems around tenancy issues, and Scott had a few good tips about legal subletting. 


“The first step when you’re subletting is to make a written request to the landlord and ask for permission to sublease and the landlord can’t unreasonably withhold that permission,” he says.

For example, ‘unreasonable’ would be discriminating against a prospective tenant because of their nationality, race or sexual orientation. For international expats and migrants though, even reasonable criteria can be impossible to fulfill. This, Scott agrees with.

“I think the problem with somebody coming from overseas is many times, you know, especially if it’s on a short-term visa, you’re not going to have that kind of gainful employment, usually, that you’re going to need,” he says.

The harsh reality is that American landlords tend to require much more than that. I spoke with another Australian, Dani Weber, who moved to the Bay Area on an E3D visa with her husband Ben earlier this year. They faced an all-too familiar problem trying to find a place to rent without a credit history. One agent outright refused to take her rental application.

“We went to a place and fell in love with it, but the agent told us he could not accept our application because we had no credit history, so they find other ways to compensate for that in ways that they see fit. Things like earning triple the amount, or giving a way larger deposit. They wanted to see our bank statements and our visas,” she says. 


For Dani, it was a lengthy process. She trawled through Craigslist and saw multiple apartments a day, every day for weeks on end. On the plus side, it’s a great way to acclimatize to a new city, but Dani says she found it frustrating, because there are better ways.

“Back in Melbourne, Australia, we have this thing called 1Form, they’re trying to implement, where you can upload your details and apply for places at the click of a button. I just think that’s fantastic, it’s way more efficient,” she says.

1Form is precisely what its name infers. A single application can be used to apply for multiple properties and a prospective renter would only need to fill it out once. It is interesting that a similar idea hasn’t been implemented in San Francisco, but Dani says there could be a monetary incentive to receiving rental applications. She has seen people charging money to receive rental applications.

“There was an advertisement for a property, and it looked pretty good and it was really quite cheap. I’d had a long day of house-hunting, but I dragged myself out and caught an Uber down and the first thing I saw was there was a lot of people going in and I thought, ‘great it’s going to be very competitive,” she says.

Although it was advertised as a one bedroom, Dani found the ceilings were so low she couldn’t actually stand up. They slanted downwards as she entered the room. Uninterested in the apartment, Dani went outside and watched as everyone went in.

“I actually hung around the front for about half an hour and watched all the people going in and the clincher is that there was a $30 application fee and I knew for a fact that this person had had two open houses. They would’ve been making a lot of money from these applications from people who are willing to look past the slanted bedroom ceiling, these people who were really desperate for a place.”

The reality is that desperation might even make a bedroom no one can stand up in look appealing. Charley Goss from the San Francisco Apartment Association, a local non-profit association that represents property owners and landlords in San Francisco, says a shift in supply and demand could be to blame.

“You have a lot of people competing for a finite number of apartments that are available,” he says.

One might think the high demand for housing would equal richer, happier landlords but, according to Charley, the current highly regulated arrangement leaves both sides out in the cold.

“San Francisco’s rental housing market is one of the most highly regulated industries in the state. We have a rent control ordinance here that regulates the rental laws here, and they’re very nuanced and specific to San Francisco. So, I would say it’s actually pretty difficult to be a property owner or landlord here,” he says.

It was the first time I had ever heard that argument, so I asked Charley whether, with my housing references in Australia, a lack of income and no credit history here, I should expect it to be difficult to find a place to live.

“Sure, I mean, it can be tough for people who don’t have much of an established credit history. Some owners will take guarantors or co-signers, which basically is someone who will guarantee the rent if there’s a problem and that can ease their concerns. Many young people don’t have credit, so some owners are willing to take a chance,” he says.

Unfortunately, this prospect leaves many renters at the whim of their landlords. A fact that is especially true if new arrivals lack financial security, don’t speak English or fail to come across an understanding and generous landlord.

As for me, I did find a place to live in the end – a sublet in Hayes Valley for two months. But that arrangement will soon come to a close, and then I’ll be moving to a gigantic community house, with 38 other people just up the road. The fact it is still $850 a month does not surprise me. After all, this is San Francisco.