It wasn't meant to be one of those damned open houses.
They — the innumerable aspiring Tiger House roommates — were supposed to come for their appointments at 30-minute intervals. During his years in the coveted seven-bedroom Cole Valley party house, Dan Nazarian, aka the Danlord, had been able to keep auditions under control. But this time, some folks showed up late and some early and then some imbecile sewed his ass to the couch and everybody refused to leave.
It's a symptom of a rampant strategy known as be-the-new-housemate. If you can look as though you were born to pontificate on that couch, if you have natural stage presence between those azure walls, you can become the new Tiger housemate — a twentysomething San Franciscan's dream. Affordable rent, exceptional house, prime location, built-in social network.
Be warned, the Danlord says. Be-the-new-housemate is a flawed strategy. If you stay too long, your time-filching ways will be resented. P.S. There's no way you're moving in.
It doesn't matter how much weed or booze you brought, or how droll or sparkly you are. You could be a sexy Buddhist lesbian who cooks gourmet vegan meals in thong underwear, but stay too long at the interview and you are eliminated.
You'll also want to avoid peacocking, another popular and equally ineffective tactic. Tiger House roommates say that blatant self-promotion, conversational one-upmanship, and exaggerated storytelling doesn't fool them. But it did have potential roommate Amy Benziger feeling overwhelmed.
She had already gone through this process once at the Tiger House, only to be rejected. That hurt, and the thought of having to crash on couches in a week didn't help either.
Of course, Amy's roommate potential is nothing to sneeze at. She grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut, a midsize city known for its oysters; and the affluent suburbs of Boca Raton, Florida; but wasn't the type to stay in places like those. She always wanted to be surrounded by ambitious people with big ideas, thriving art and music scenes, and plenty of outdoor adventures. A Dartmouth graduate, she's tall, svelte, confident, and hilarious, with long auburn hair she likes to cover in a knit orange cap that seems to epitomize her urban hippie style. She's had sweet jobs in production for the TV reality show The Bachelor and in marketing for Guinness; she now works as an associate producer for Sigi Media. She has also traveled widely and lived in Thailand. Above all, Amy is a loyal friend, and friends are like her blood, she says. They keep her going.
Inside the Tiger House, surrounded by its residents who seemed to ooze with friend potential, Amy immediately wanted to call it home.
So did the rest of the hopefuls.
As San Francisco becomes increasingly expensive, with rents for studio apartments and two-bedrooms approaching double what they were five years ago, twentysomethings must turn to shared living as an affordable solution. The target rent range for a young single person usually falls below $1,000 per month, but Craigslist reveals that only in shared situations — with the exception of a few older studio apartments in the Tenderloin — is this a reality.
One of the main consolation prizes of shared living is a social network. But renters don't want to live with just anybody, and there aren't nearly enough quality social habitats to go around.
Getting into a place like the Tiger House redefines survival of the fittest.
When the house has an opening, the Danlord posts an ad on Craigslist. It's something casual and witty, asking questions like Which Simpsons character do you most closely identify with? What would you do if you played hooky from work? What sets you apart from the herd?
In six years the house has gone through 33 roommates, gleaned from hundreds and hundreds of e-mail responses. Only a fraction of those are selected for interviews. From there, the pool is further narrowed. Sometimes that process can be grueling. Other times, people make it easy.
By the way, I just read your ad again on Craig's List so I think it is safe to tell you that I was stoned yesterday when I came over which is why I was retardo, please don't judge me. I don't work full-time until next week so my afternoons are left open to stare at Craig's list which is always much more entertaining when you are high … Anyways, now that I saw your ad again, I see that you are definately my kind of people so please consider or reconsider, whatever … don't forget me
If you couldn't guess, this person — whose e-mail was probably more “retardo” than anything she could have done in the interview — didn't make the cut. She lacks confidence. She makes excuses. She begs. This is not a person who seems worthy of living in the Tiger House.
What's so great about getting a room there, you ask?
Well, for the handful of people in the city who have not beheld its magnificence, let's take a little tour of this baroque museum to shared living, located in pot-sniffing distance from the Haight-Ashbury at the heart of Cole Valley.
We enter beneath a lounging tiger in the jungle, painted on the house's facade in the '70s, and ascend the staircase to the common living area. There are also three bedrooms on this floor, three more up the spiral orange staircase, and one basement lair. All are uniquely shaped and decorated, and the upstairs rooms (once attic space) have dramatically arched ceilings. The living room is bright and spacious, with enormous south-facing sliding-glass doors. They open to a balcony that overlooks Sutro Tower and Cole Valley Dog Park.
Scattered throughout the house are relics of roommates past. Their abundant chairs — some chic and modern, some puffy and antique — ensure nobody goes without a seat. Their games — Jenga, Clue, Scrabble, and more — are stacked neatly beneath a large flatscreen television in the corner. Their art and their naked Barbie dolls and their costumes and even a giant painting that they smashed their painted naked bodies against adorn the walls.
A glittery blue leotard — rumored to have once belonged to JonBenet Ramsey but actually contributed by a performance artist housemate — hangs regally from a curtain rod. Above it, an industrial-looking red beam traces the room's upper perimeter, often becoming an object for daredevils to climb on and jump from at parties. A message to those people from the Danlord: Stop it.
A liquor bar that roommates constructed from shattered glass and bright green wood resides in a corner and became very popular at recent theme parties — a no-pants party, a no-shirt party, and an aprons-only party. Tentatively planned for the future are a no-talking party, a blackout party (no lights — an experiment in sensory deprivation), and a Rubik's Cube party, where people wear clothing of different solid colors, then strip and exchange. The Danlord demands that his parties are innovative and boundary-stretching. They all seem to exhibit a bi-curious, nudity-driven, Burning Man mentality. “Why have a regular house party,” he says, “when you've got all these people at your mercy?”
It's important to note that without the initiative of the Danlord, a tall and blond social sovereign, the Tiger House would not even exist. With buddies, he found the place and won a bidding war for it, originally throwing down $4,200 in total rent. Two years ago, when the owners put it up for sale, the Danlord's parents — who live in L.A. and work in real estate — bought the place. Now rent ranges from about $700 to $800 per person, including all utilities.
Under the Danlord, there is just one Tiger House rule: No friends of friends can move in. Too much drama. Also, part of the Tiger House mission is to create an expansive social web by bringing in new people with their own social circles. A portion of that web can be viewed on Facebook.com, where a group called “I live(d) in the Tiger House” recently sprang up.
In a big city — even one as affable as San Francisco — it's not always easy to become part of a social network, much less make true friends. But having a solid group of people to live with can sometimes fill that initial void. A study of Craigslist ads for housemates turns up hundreds of people searching for a home rather than simply a house to share. The beauty of shared living, they say, isn't just about meeting financial needs in an expensive city. It's about a feeling of comfort and camaraderie in a shared space that housemates respect.
Through interviews with a multitude of people looking to live with a group of soulful strangers, SF Weekly learned there are many hurdles in San Francisco. Some people living in some shared apartments and homes require that you be a vegan. Or an artist. Or a lesbian. Others underhandedly charge some applicants more than their fair share of rent, and in extreme cases, ask the renter to have sex with other housemates. Some put candidates through multiple rounds of interviews and reject them after as many as three meetings.
In the Mission, 16-person artist collective Million Fishes at 2501 Bryant describes the process for getting accepted as “rigorous.” Temporary subletter Daniel De Bonis, recently found working on his computer in the downstairs gallery, said he wasn't even going to try for a fulltime spot.
Then there are the co-ops. Like the old Barrington Hall in Berkeley, San Francisco has its share of communist-style living spaces, and you can bet they're not easy to penetrate. Although SF Weekly stumbled on one especially interesting commune where people share everything, including clothes, that house came to a shared decision that it didn't want its name or location published. Good luck trying to live there.
In Potrero Hill, there are a number of lofts where artists live and work together, relying on each other for inspiration. One bad seed can completely destroy a vibe, says Peter Samuels, a photographer who lived in an artists' complex on Florida Street.
Though it's not a collective or a co-op, the vibe of Tiger House is equally delicate. To get in, you have to be supercool. Unlike race or religion or having children, that's a trait for which there are no antidiscrimination laws.
Out of all of the qualifications, i'd list myself as “hysterically funny.” Not evidenced in that sentence, but these things take time. I'm 23 and have lived with roommates throughout college and for the past year. I left New York to get away from the desk life after realizing I was doing the same thing at 23 that I could be doing at 50. I just got off a cross country camping trip for a month, so i'm slowly adjusting back to the big city life. I was hoping to go to burning man to finish off the trip, but my bank account disagreed with me and insisted I get a job …
This sizeable chunk of Amy's Tiger House response — written in August 2005 — represented her biggest effort in the month she had been searching. She had been subletting a room in a four-bedroom apartment at Van Ness and 16th Street in the Mission, which a friend had given up while he traveled in Thailand.
Although the room had seemed like a sweet deal at first — just $450 a month — when Amy moved in, she found the living conditions almost unbearable. The kitchen was disgusting. Crusty dishes lined the counter and sink, and a thin layer of dirt clung to the walls. From her tiny room, she could hear people carousing at the gas station each night until 4 a.m.
Her roommates were not friends, but strangers who lived in her space. One quiet, creepy guy with a girlfriend who never went home described himself only as a scientist. “To me, it was a generic term I took for 'serial killer,'” Amy jokes.
Her housing search had been equally disappointing. She e-mailed friends, but nobody knew of an open room. She also replied to about 20 Craigslist ads, but unaware she was required to show some personality, most of her responses looked like this: “Hi, I'm Amy. I'm looking for a place to live, and I saw your ad.” Nobody was picking her, she remembers: “I felt like the fat kid in gym class.”
When Amy received a response from the Danlord, all of that started to fall away. She couldn't make the times his ad had set aside for all the roommates to meet prospective new ones, so on the day she first beheld the Tiger House, she met only the Danlord.
Amy vividly remembers walking up to the house for the first time. She was floored by the tiger painting and the interior design. Her meeting with the Danlord, she thought, went extremely well. They talked about Burning Man. About bicycling. Amy was so sold on this new life she imagined for herself that she never wondered for a second if she might not be chosen. After about a 20-minute tour and what Amy believed was great conversation, she floated out the door.
“I came out of it and thought, I found my San Francisco,” she says.
The rest of the day went by without a call back, but Amy figured these things took time. Then another day passed. Then another. “The longer I waited, the more I thought I had messed up.” Funny things she could have said kept coming into her mind. Should she have stayed longer and talked more?
On the fourth day, she got the call. The Danlord told Amy that it had come down to her and another guy, and that the house had decided to go with the other guy. “It began to really sink in that I had picked up my entire life and moved across the country with no job, no money, and no place to live,” she says. “I began to feel a little irresponsible.”
With a week to move, Amy replied to a few ads here and there. She went on two interviews she considered disasters — one involving a smelly place owned by an obese Russian taxi driver with a penchant for leopard print, another in the Haight where she'd be expected to live in a basement with no windows but with a sauna, to and from which an eightysomething folksinger and her friends would be coming and going.
Finally, Amy found a three-bedroom place in North Beach painted in bright colors with funky art everywhere. Rent was just $650, and the guy she interviewed with seemed amazing. He spoke passionately about a number of subjects, gesticulating wildly.
Three days after Amy moved in, she realized he was insane. “He wasn't an artist; he was unemployed,” she says. “His art kind of sucked and he had severe ADD.” The guy and his friends had no jobs, so they'd be up until 4 a.m., snorting coke, playing dice, and yammering incessantly.
Four months later, the landlord discovered the guy had illegally converted the kitchen into his bedroom, and he was out. That's when Amy found out she and another roommate had been paying the lion's share of the rent.
Soon after, Amy took off for Thailand for eight months. She taught English and spent most of her time alone, so when she moved back to the city in February, she was again looking for a shared house with a bunch of roommates. But there were factors working against her.
There is no question that the rental market in San Francisco is tight. Everyone also agrees that August is the hardest month to find an apartment, as students have returned for school and people have moved to the city during the summer to start new jobs.
But additional factors have made the rental housing search increasingly difficult over the past several years. Ask three experts what those factors are, and you may get three different answers.
Janan New, executive director of the San Francisco Apartment Association, has noticed that whenever real estate sales slow down, rents seem to rise and rental vacancy rates seem to drop. This time, New says, it's due to the mortgage crisis and the uncertainty in the economy.
Gavin Coombs, a real estate broker and a minor Craigslist celebrity for the number of housing ads he posts, believes the problem is rooted in rent control and people's tendencies to stay put when they find a good place. “There is just not a lot of turnover in desirable roommate shares,” he says.
Amore Real Estate leasing agent Jason Quashnofsky doesn't buy either of those explanations. “San Francisco's rental market depends on one thing,” he says authoritatively. “Jobs.”
When there are plenty of available jobs, many out-of-towners move to the city, oftentimes having scored the best-paying jobs of their lives along with $10,000 moving bonuses. An influx of people with money drives up the rental rates.
The well-heeled can find a good place to live in a week, Quashnofsky says. But a person looking for a deal, or hoping to live with a group in a cheap, shared situation, should allow months.
Quashnofsky has been in real estate for five years and remembers when studios and two-bedrooms cost $900 and $1,700 respectively. In the past quarter, the average studio cost $1,700 and two-bedrooms hovered around $2,300, according to city economist Kurt Fuchs.
As for the six- and seven-bedroom places, well, twentysomethings can rarely afford those in this rental market, Quashnofsky says. Families who can pay $5,000 a month and up are scoring the big ones. When he learned about the Tiger House, he expressed shock that something like that still exists. Since sales value exceeds the small return on a rental, it just wouldn't make economic sense.
The Danlord and his parents are seemingly aware of this. Though the Danlord isn't sure exactly when, a time will come when they will fix up the house real nice and sell it. If Amy didn't get in this time, she might not have another chance.
Hey — My name is Amy. I know that doesn't sound like a guy's name. Primarily because it's not. But your place sounds awesome so i'm going to throw my hat in with the testosterone pool. I'm 25 years old and recently moved back to the city after taking a year off to teach and travel around southeast asia. Typical daily schedule is going to work (I'm going to be working in corporate foundation/philanthropy work out here), doing some sort of outdoor activity or yoga afterwards then either checking out some random event in the city or heading home to relax. the simpsons question is easy: homer because he believes in pie heaven.
Though she didn't know it, this was Amy's response to another of the Danlord's ads. It had requested a guy, and hadn't mentioned the words Tiger House. However, when she heard back from the Danlord, she recognized the name and suddenly realized that it was the same guy from two years ago. It was the Tiger House.
A double rejection would have been pretty brutal, and not unprecedented. Though Amy wasn't aware of it, a handful of people had vied for open Tiger House rooms multiple times. Not a single repeat applicant had ever won a spot.
With each step she took toward the address, Amy became more certain she was headed back to the Tiger House. When the Danlord answered the door, she gave him a big smile. “Do you remember me?” she asked.
The Danlord said yes, but Amy could tell he didn't. After two and a half years and hundreds of people coming to see the place, it was hard to blame him.
Inside, a few people were hanging out on the couch, trying to be impressive. One guy whom Amy figured for a housemate started chatting her up immediately, asking her which Simpsons character she would be. It struck her as a little strange — hadn't that been covered in her response? — and later she learned this was not a housemate, but a particularly dorky interviewee. It was difficult to distinguish the housemates from the wanna-bes, since all the people in the room were doing their best to look at ease.
Christine Holpuch, a 24-year-old preschool teacher with a pixie haircut and spunky demeanor, was sprawled on the couch telling a story about the time she bit her former roommate during a wrestling match. “The next day there were teeth marks on his stomach,” she said, lifting up her shirt to indicate where. Her appeal was undeniable.
Amy made sure to find a little time with every housemate, discussing subjects ranging from backpacking to live music to random cool stuff in San Francisco.
After about an hour of hanging, Amy headed for the door. Christine left soon afterward. Two guys dead set on becoming the next housemate stuck around for another four hours, causing the Danlord to smoke too much pot and completely destroying their chances.
The next morning, the Danlord called Christine and invited her to live in the Tiger House. She exuberantly accepted.
Meanwhile, Amy was still waiting. A day passed. Then another. On the third day, she was walking around Ocean Beach when her cell phone rang. She recognized the number as the Danlord's.
He made idle chitchat for a few minutes. What had Amy been up to? Did she go to that show the other night? Why wasn't he getting to the point?
And then, after a long pause, he delivered the news.
“So do you want to move in or what?” the Danlord asked. Apparently a second room had opened up.
On a recent Tuesday night, a thick fog swirls over the verdant backyard of 357 Frederick, obscuring but also enchanting the view. Every 20 minutes, the N-Judah screams through it, but the Tiger House residents barely notice anymore. It's become part of the rhythm of the house.
This is an idyllic night for five of the seven roommates, who are snuggled on beanbag chairs and the couch in their giant living room. They sip a California Syrah. They pass around a guava-flavored hookah. They munch Escape from New York pizza. It's all set to the elegant stylings of '50s jazz musicians Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio.
The Danlord is out of town and nobody's sure where Ben is — his lair has been dark for a while. The present five — Christine, Sawyer, Chris, Matt, and Amy — are tossing banter across the coffee table, touching on subjects like French people's inability to correctly pronounce the word “wow”; the couple of recent, stinky Austrian couch surfers; and NRBs (no-reason boners). It comes out that when Matt wants to quash an NRB, he thinks about Condoleezza Rice's hairdo.
Laughing like a jackal, Christine is curled into an old chair with a bowl of dough in her lap. Somehow, she starts talking about the Chuck Palahniuk short story, “Guts,” concerning a teenager who masturbates at the bottom of his swimming pool and gets his intestines sucked out his ass. Everybody decides she should read that out loud. Right now. And she does.
Eventually, the Tiger House new class (in the past four months, the whole house, save the Danlord, has turned over) gets around to talking about the hypercompetitive selection process. It's clear that this group of pretty different people — a paralegal, a teacher, a restaurant server, a graphic designer, an associate producer, a bartender, and a guy who sells pay phones over the phone — have bonded over the daunting, shared undertaking.
They don't have much sympathy for those who don't make the cut. After all, it's necessary to be a little judgmental when you'll have to live with this person. Everybody deals with this in a slightly different way.
During an awkward interview, a little off-the-wall entertainment can be a huge relief. Matt once told a guy about how his mom was in the NBA, which caused his family to move around a lot.
Christine prefers brutal honesty. If somebody admits to something unacceptable, for instance, playing hours of videogames a day, she'll straight up say, “I can't handle that in my house.”
Amy has developed a more evasive method. When somebody comes through who isn't the right fit — which can become clear pretty fast — she takes to domestic tasks, like starting laundry. Cooking. Cleaning. At the end she'll say, “It was really nice to meet you.”
The roommates giggle and reflect on how much more appealing it is to be on this side of the process. Then they pass the hookah around again. Tell some more stories. Pour a little more wine. They wonder and tease and theorize and joke, and their laughter echoes off the blue walls long into the night.