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The Rent is Always High: on the Cost of our Choices
My hometown, Carmel by-the-Sea is a very expensive place to live. It is expensive because it is beautiful, but also because the rent is very, very low.
Rent isn’t just what you pay a landlord for an apartment. It’s the sum of all the costs you pay to live somewhere. Rent is a way of thinking about trade-offs and compromises. If you decide you want an apartment in Manhattan, New York, you may rent what is little more than a shoebox. You pay a great deal for a tiny space, but you get the city bustle and museums and restaurants and prestige for which you presumably long. If you decide you’d rather live in Manhattan, Kansas, your money goes much further, and you get a bigger space. The rent you pay, though, includes the loss of access to the cultural life of New York City.
It’s up to you to decide which matters more. Is it square footage? The chance to see the stars at night? Would you rather hear street noise or cicadas? Are you more daunted by the thought of solitude, or the din of madding crowd? Will you miss the stillness of the prairie more or less than you’ll miss the Met and Zabar’s?
In my little hometown, the average high this month is 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The average low is 53. In winter, those averages drop by about eight degrees. Almost every day of the year, it is neither too hot nor too cold to go for a long walk. I am someone for whom walking is essential for my happiness and mental restoration. I do not enjoy walking bustling sidewalks and dodging traffic either. I walk an average of 13,000 steps a day, year in and year out.
I walk to calm myself, and to remember who I am. As a result, I factor walkability into my concept of rent. I could move to Texas or Florida or rural Alabama, but though my dollar would go further, I would pay an exorbitant rent every summer. I would surrender walkable weather for more housing space. The same would be true if I moved to the Dakotas, or to Michigan’s upper peninsula. Cheap housing, perhaps but for months every winter, I’d pay dearly by being unable to throw on a pair of shorts and trainers and bound out the door. In places where you get extreme temperatures, the rent is too high for a boy who must be outdoors to be sane.
When my parents were first married, daddy taught at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. Mama is a California girl; she bravely endured two Canadian prairie winters and two mosquito-infested summers before she put her foot down. Papa was happy in Edmonton, but as mama saw it, the rent was too high. She pushed my father, and daddy looked for another job. He got one offer in Massachusetts and one in Santa Barbara. For my mother, the choice was easy. Go where the housing may be expensive, but the rent is very, very low. As a result, I was born in Santa Barbara and raised in Carmel, two massively costly places to buy or rent a home -- and two places with a famously “low-rent” climate.
I have conservative friends who have moved to Texas. They miss California weather, but they point out that the “rent” of the brutal summers is worth paying for the safer streets, the friendlier neighbors, the cheaper housing, the lower taxes. I have lefty friends who are allergic to suburbs and small towns; they live in the heart of expensive cities and claim that the extravagant rent they pay for their shoebox apartments is worth it. They know they are buying the ethnic diversity, the cultural vibrancy, and the sense of acceptance they have decided they want to prioritize. For my lefty friends, moving to a conservative small town would be too great an increase in the cost of living as they define living well. For my righty friends, the desire to live well (by their very different definition of “well”) leads them to red state exurbs.
We all need to decide what matters most. Clean streets? Neighbors who share our values? Museums or mountains? Solitude or sociality? Walkable weather or a great big backyard? Unless we are fantastically wealthy and can maintain multiple homes around the world, we will have tradeoffs. We will need to decide what we can live without, and what we can’t. We may be wistful or curious when a friend moves away to find what they think of as a better place, but we need to remember that all they’ve done is make a different rent calculation according to priorities and passions we may not share.
I am a sixth-generation Californian. Mild weather isn’t just in my bones, it’s also become something that makes my self-care possible. I need hills, as I despair anywhere flat; I need stars at night, because city glow makes me feel suffocated. I need to be able to walk for hours on any given day in July and January without risking frostbite or heatstroke. Those are some very, very expensive needs, and I am willing to give up almost anything to meet them.
As the saying goes, your mileage will (invariably) vary. You may be willing to endure Gulf Coast humidity, or New England nor’easters, or Midwest ice storms, knowing as you do that you receive so much else in return.
We all must pay the rent one way or another.