Breaking Up with an Apartment is Hard to Do

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As the late Tom Petty put it, “Hey baby, there ain’t no easy way out.” The line is apt for many San Franciscans who find themselves at the end of a relationship, confronting the shocking cost of new digs.

If the anger and heartbreak aspects of a breakup aren’t bad enough, the process of deciding who gets to keep a unit, if they can even afford it by themselves, and who has to dive into a real estate market where one-bedrooms cost more than $3,000 a month, wreaks additional havoc. Stories of the primary importance of a relationship with a lease in the City abound. Most everyone knows at least one, the most common being a friend who is either couch surfing or was forced to leave San Francisco, and sometimes a job, because nothing was affordable after a breakup.

When Sara, a 28-year old woman living in the Richmond, broke up with her boyfriend a year ago, it took six months to figure out which one was going to move out of their shared apartment. Three years earlier, they’d rented a $1,000 a month studio together, prematurely she realizes now, but also unavoidable because of finances. She was working at AmeriCorps at the time, and said even $500 was a struggle. It’d taken them months to find the space and, in the end, holding onto it became a contest to determine who was more stubborn than the other.

“At first, he thought we could break up and be friends and live together,” she said.  Unsurprisingly, that didn’t work. Eventually she won the battle, but not without casualty. “Toward the end it got unhealthy. He got mono, and at the same time I got conjunctivitis, so it became biological warfare. That was a clear sign that something had to happen.”

While Sara now works for a nonprofit, and her ex-boyfriend was in medical school, for Nino, a 49-year old night stock clerk, the options were even more limited. When his relationship with his girlfriend of three years ended several months ago he was forced to move out of the studio they shared off Nob Hill. His ceiling for housing is $1,100 a month, which has proved an elusive find. While he searches and saves for the first and last month’s rent and security deposit needed to find a shared space or place of his own, he wound up having to move in with his ex-wife. The two share a Tenderloin studio with their 19-year old son; the ex-wife has the bedroom, Nino the couch, the son sleeps in a walk-in closet. Nino isn’t there much, spending his nights at work, his days with his laptop at coffee shops. “I didn’t have the money to live anywhere else. It’s really down to the financials,” he said.

Even for those higher up the income ladder, as one 50-year old woman, who asked to remain anonymous, relayed, options are limited. Though she works as an executive assistant at a technology firm, her ex-husband does information technology consulting for a law firm, they lived together for two years after their 15-year relationship ended because “it was the only way financially to do it.” They share three children and, assuming joint custody, were suddenly looking at paying two large rents. “It was rough when we were splitting up, in that how we are going to keep two places,” she said. “As a couple we never would have thought we had an extra $4,000 or $5,000 more for living expenses. We never had that much extra left over every month.”

In the end, three years ago, they got creative. She kept their $3,000-a month rent-controlled Victorian flat on Dolores Street while he, unable to afford anything in San Francisco, moved into a two-bedroom in Mill Valley that can accommodate the children. “What we did is, when he moved out to Mill Valley, we took all the monthly bills – my rent is more than his rent – and we each pay 50 percent for living expenses and children’s expenses,” she said.

She added the one positive to the lengthy breakup was that it was good for the children. “We didn’t fight in front of them, and it really helped them get used to the idea.”

High rent and child concerns also played a role in a Bernal Heights couple’s long breakup. Kortney, 54, describes her 12-year marriage and divorce as rocky but “the biggest problem was trying to imagine how each was going to have our own place in San Francisco and stay here.” When the split finally became inevitable, she considered other cities to live, but eventually realized that she and her ex-husband, who is a high tech business owner, were never going to agree on another place to move to, and didn’t want to separate the other from their middle school-aged daughter.

Being the primary caregiver, it made sense for her to keep their $3,500 two-story rental, a deal by today’s prices, but she wasn’t working at the time, and the cost was “astronomical” for her. After landing a job at a real estate firm and subletting to housemates for a while, she began a long distance relationship that eventually resulted in her new boyfriend moving to the City and into the unit. “He would have ideally gotten his own place and we would have taken it easy and not forced him upon our daughter and our relationship so soon. It’s hard for a teenager to have one of their parents cohabitate with another,” she said, although it has turned out okay.

Meanwhile, the ex-husband, faced with market-rate rents of $4,500 for a two-bedroom that allowed space for the daughter, traversed a couple of difficult years in his search for a new home. At first, he took advantage of acquaintances who offered him apartments but, as those associates usually put the spaces on Airbnb, he had no lease rights, and was eventually forced out of them. He ultimately found a below market unit in Noe Valley while the occupants are out of the country for two years.

It isn’t always smooth sailing for those who do keep their rentals after a breakup. A couple years ago a woman in the Haight, whose partner moved on after they lived together in the same unit for 20 years, received an eviction notice because she’d never been on the lease. That particular scenario happens all the time, according to Deepa Varma, director of the San Francisco Tenants Union. On the day she was reached by the View, Varma said she’d encountered three similar incidents in the last 24 hours. Sometimes it’s a breakup, sometimes a death, such as the widely publicized case of a man in Alamo Square last year who received an eviction notice two weeks after his partner committed suicide.

“These situations are really heartbreaking and traumatic and heartless. A lot of people have this vulnerability and have this risk,” Varma said. “And that’s every income level, all ages, every demographic group.”