The Steal

“Another online scam—too good to be true,” I thought when I read the apartment listing on Craigslist. But I decided to call anyway. The two-bedroom shotgun was priced at about half the current market rate in Mid-City, which is a few miles north of New Orleans’ famed French Quarter.

“I’m telling you, the apartment is a steal,” exclaimed the landlady when I called. Her accent confused me because it sounded reminiscent of my Brooklyn-born-and-raised grandmother. But the woman had rattled off a good part of her life story during the first five minutes of our phone conversation, so I already knew she was a native New Orleanian. Later, browsing the cultural exhibits at the state museum, I read about what’s known as the Yat accent. Like port cities along the east coast, New Orleans attracted Irish, German, Italian, and other European immigrants, whose dialects amalgamated into something altogether new.

I could appreciate this living relic of multiculturalism. My mother is from El Salvador and my father is white, but I grew up in a nearly racially homogeneous town where such singularity bred a lot of intolerance. In fact, when I had moved to New Orleans a year earlier after living abroad for a few years, I had chosen Mid-City mainly because I was impressed with the neighborhood’s multi-income, multi-racial characteristics. The area includes the most diverse tract in the parish and the largest Latino population in the city.

In the post-Katrina recovery, however, Mid-City has seen a housing boom and the neighborhood has become one of the most sought-after locations in the city, offering a lot to residents and tourists alike. The candy-apple-red streetcars glide up and down Canal Street, taking only twenty minutes to arrive from the foot of the river. The area also houses a number of aboveground cemeteries and the City Park gardens—where stone and oak glisten from dewy heat. The restaurants, scattered among the neighborhood’s shotgun houses, serve the city’s typically delicious and decadent cuisine.

So, when I decided to upgrade from my studio to a one-bedroom apartment, I knew I would remain in the neighborhood.

The Craigslist ad turned out not to be a scam, but there was still a hitch. The apartment was part of a post-Katrina low-income housing program, so a single renter had to qualify by earning less than $21,000 a year. I had no problems meeting the limit, since my salary is only a few thousand above the poverty line. But the landlady also had her own stipulations.

“I really only want to rent to nice people,” she said. “You sound like a nice girl.”

Alarm bells began to ring in my head.

“I’ve gotten about a hundred calls on the ad. It really is a steal. But it’s also a headache. You know what I’m saying? Because I don’t want to put just anyone in there. But you sound nice. Half these people that call, I can’t even understand. You know what I’m saying?”

She was speaking in code, but I knew exactly what she was saying.

She narrated a few of the stories she had heard from other callers. There was a black mother with a baby whose father didn’t work. The woman only made $12,000 a year.

“Why isn’t the father working?” the landlady wanted to know, her voice dripping with accusation.

“How can she even live? But I can’t rent to her. I need to know she can pay the rent.”

My own salary is scant, but to describe myself as poor feels false because I have a law degree, which makes my earning potential exponentially greater than most of the people in my income bracket. I often joke that I’ve simply chosen a bohemian lifestyle, but I do so to undermine my own fatalism about statistics on race and gender gaps as well as society’s undervaluing of my career pursuits: social justice and writing.

“I like the sound of you,” the landlady assured me. “I think you would be perfect.”

I paused. I thanked her and told her I’d consider the apartment. After I hung up the phone, I immediately forwarded the Craigslist ad to the New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

The organization I work for is called Place Matters because it focuses on the correlations between race, environment, and health. Part of the work involves emphasizing the role that historical and present-day discrimination has played in corralling African Americans into impoverished areas. In 2012 the organization published a report highlighting the difference in life expectancy between one of the richest and whitest neighborhoods in New Orleans and the poorest and blackest (Lakeview and Tremé, respectively). The difference is twenty-five years.

I didn’t intend to call back. But over the next few days, I wrestled with a feeling of desperation as I glanced over countless ads in price ranges I couldn’t afford. And something she said stuck with me. She mentioned she already had a guy from Tulane lined up for the application process. Perhaps unfairly, I imagined what he would be like: blonde-haired with a “Green Wave” sweatshirt and parents who deposited a monthly stipend into his account to support his graduate school.

On the other hand I couldn’t help but worry I would be taking the place from someone who more rightly deserved it. I thought of the other hundred candidates, their messages left in English the landlady couldn’t (wouldn’t?) understand. I imagined the daily struggles of being a woman who earned only $12,000 a year and had to take care of a baby.

But in the end, I called back. And a week later I was unpacking boxes and arranging my furniture in the apartment.

If it weren’t me it would have been Mr. Green Wave, I told myself. And as I hung my paintings of El Salvador, smoothed out an embroidered couch cover my mother had hand-stitched, and shelved Isabel Allende’s memoir on my bookcase, I at least could relish the fact that the landlady had unknowingly rented to a person who was “not nice.”