10 Years Ago, Finding Housing in SF was Like the Hunger Games
“712 Hayes” is a series of six episodes by Mustafa Shaikh about living in San Francisco in the 2010’s. If you’re a long-time resident of San Francisco in your 30s, there’s a decent chance you’ve been to a party of his at 712 Hayes. Without further adieu, here’s the first episode.
In April of 2012, I was scouring Craigslist for a room to rent in San Francisco. At the time I was living in a house in Oakland a few blocks from MacArthur BART. Neither the house itself nor my roommates were the issue. One of those roommates I actually became very close with and am still very much in touch with (shout-out Jake).
The issue for me was, upon graduating from Berkeley, most of my friends moved to San Francisco. If I wanted to hang out with them, a text thread would go like this:
You have to remember, these were the days before San Francisco residents knew about First Fridays or when tech offices were in abundance in downtown Oakland. To get people to come to hang with you in Oakland was an ordeal. After six months of crashing on friends’ couches following late nights out, I was ready to make the move across the bridge. (I hate waking up in the morning with that yucky taste in my mouth because I didn’t brush my teeth the night before.)
The Craigslist search, however, was more difficult than I thought it’d be. My parameters were a bedroom that could fit more than a bed, somewhere centrally located around where my friends lived, and under $900. With San Francisco in the middle of its second tech boom and Google buses having already infiltrated the city, this was asking for a lot. There are only so many places available when you’re earning $17 an hour.
After two weeks and reaching out to 50 Craigslist postings, I finally got a response. I didn’t recall emailing this listing, but from the looks of it, it checked all the boxes. For $780 I got a room + internet + a cleaning service for the common areas. It was in Hayes Valley, a neighborhood I had never heard of, but was centrally located. Notably, it was a short walk to where my best friend, Alex, lived at Haight and Divisadero. (To Alex’s credit, he was the only San Francisco amigo who would come out to Oakland for the night.)
I was invited to check out the room on a Tuesday night, which I happily accepted. When I pulled up to 712 Hayes, there was something that seemed oddly familiar about it. Maybe it wasn’t the house itself, but the street? I couldn’t figure it out.
Upon ringing the doorbell I was greeted by Sam. If I had to find one word to describe Sam, it would be jolly. He had a beer in his hand and was ready to give me a tour.
He walked me inside the apartment and showed me the living room first, which wasn’t much if we’re being honest. We then walked down the long corridor towards where the available bedroom was. We made our way past the kitchen, which had a group of people milling about with beers in their hands. I was confused by the scene—there must’ve been 10 people in the kitchen. How many people live here?
We arrived at the bedroom that was large by San Francisco standards.
“Here’s the bedroom, if you want to take a look,” Sam said.
“This looks great.”
“You can go in and check it out.”
“Nah, I’m fine with it.”
After two weeks of fruitless Craigslist searches, I didn’t even need to go inside. It fits more than a bed? Awesome!
“Great. So we’re all hanging out in the kitchen,” Sam let me know. “If you want to join us and hang with us there for a little bit, we’d love to get to know you better.”
I made my way over to the kitchen and accepted a beer from Sam. I was trying to make sense of how many people lived in this five-bedroom apartment when it quickly dawned on me that I wouldn’t just be socializing with my potential roommates, I would also be socializing with my competition for this coveted below-market rent bedroom. In essence, tonight I was going to be playing out a real-life San Francisco version of “The Hunger Games.”
I had just watched the first installment of the trilogy in theaters a couple of weeks back so the film was fresh in my mind. I’m a big fan of movies that set up unique worlds with their own set of rules. I have a tendency, in the immediate aftermath of viewing these films, to apply those rules to my day-to-day life. (I was walking backward for several days after I watched “Tenet.”)
For those who managed to miss “The Hunger Games,” it’s a basic premise. There are twelve districts, each of which submits two tributes. The tributes fight to the death in a nationally televised event with one winner standing.
Now here I was standing amongst 10 other tributes vying for a room with very little natural light. There’s no second-place prize, only more suffering on Craigslist for lord knows how many more weeks, and potentially months. I need to go full-on Katniss Everdeen in this bitch.
The most important task at hand was getting facetime with current tenants vs. getting sucked into conversations with other would-be renters. I worked my way back through the thick of other tributes—which at this point had grown to almost 15—to get in front of Sam.
I decided to go all-in on branding myself as a professional namer. At the time I was working for Eat My Words, a company that specializes in creating memorable names for companies and products. I figured if I go around telling tenants that I’m a professional namer, not only is that an interesting conversation starter, but when it comes to the Council of Elders meeting to determine the victor, they’ll be able to identify me easier.
After regaling Sam with the day-to-day work of a professional namer, I then met two other roommates: Stephanie and Stacey. Stacey in particular was a fan of mine. She even advised me to make sure I made acquaintances with Christy, who was the all-powerful master-tenant.
Ahh yes, I’ve been able to unearth a valuable piece of information here from Stacey. Christy wasn’t home yet, but you’re damn sure unlike some of these other tributes, I will be staying around to meet the supreme leader when she gets home.
When Christy did arrive, she was a force of energy. She had two bottles of wine and was ready to enjoy a drink after a long day of work and some drama with her ex.
She led the roommates and a withering pack of tributes up to the rooftop. On the rooftop was a little shack with couches that had years upon years of stains. I immediately told myself, if I live here, I’m going to be throwing some great parties.
At some point in conversation with Christy, she shared that 712 Hayes is on the Bay to Breakers route (an annual foot race/party that snakes through San Francisco). That’s where I recognized Hayes Street from. I had been by this apartment multiple times before. Now I really needed to live here. I love big parties, and to live on the Bay to Breakers route? Yo, this is my dream crib right here.
As the bottles of wine started emptying out, the weaker tributes started heading home. I wanted to make sure I made enough of an impression on Christy so I poured myself another glass. Another tribute was throwing me off my game, though. I’ll arbitrarily dub him Tribute 8.
Tribute 8 was a bit loud, and I would say a tad overly aggressive. He was, however, making sure to get face time with each roommate like I was. He was playing to win. I just couldn’t tell if everyone else was as annoyed by his personality as I was.
After another thirty minutes on the rooftop, it was time to go. Tribute 8 and I headed down the steps together back to 712 Hayes (it was on the 2nd floor of a three-story building). When we arrived back in the kitchen I fished into my backpack. After grabbing the envelope I was looking for, I let Tribute 8 know that I’d be right back. Little did he know I was running circles around him with the masterstroke I was about to play.
I figured that if I like the apartment, it’s best to come correct. Inside the violently pink envelope was a note that started off with, “If you’re reading this, it means that I really liked getting to know you, and if you’re interested, I would love to be your roommate.”
I then went on to list two references, and then also included a credit report and a check for three months of rent plus an additional month for the security deposit. I wanted them to know that I was financially stable and capable of paying rent on time. While true to a certain extent, cashing that check would leave me with a little more than $100 in my bank account. No one ever won the Hunger Games going half-ass.
I also included several wooden coins from Smitten Ice Cream that could be redeemed for free scoops. Alexandra, the founder of Eat My Words, had come up with the name of the popular ice cream chain and on top of her fee she came out with more free ice cream than she could ever consume herself. She assured me that these coins would be what I needed to have my application stand out.
When I got back up to the rooftop, I hurriedly gave the envelope to Christy and headed back down the stairs. I didn’t want to be present for her to open it, and then for there to be this awkwardness of, “Oh, well, thanks, but I’d rather you left an hour ago.”
The next day I received an email from Christy—I was the victor of the Hunger Games! Let’s gooooo! I didn’t quite receive a house the size that Katniss did, but I did get a bedroom that could fit a queen bed, a desk, and a dresser.
I immediately responded that I’d happily live in 712 Hayes (For those who were swept up in the poker boom from 2003-2006, it was like Phil Hellmuth doing one of his insta-all-in-calls).
Christy later let me know that regardless of the envelope, I was her first choice. That being said, she did love the Smitten coins and used them on a few dates she had later on. (She additionally noted how very pained she was by the personality of Tribute 8. Glad to hear I wasn’t the only one.)
I moved my belongings into the apartment a few weeks later, and thus, life at 712 Hayes had begun.
Want to hear more stories from Mustafa? You can read Episode 2 of 712 Hayes on From Mustafa’s Desk.