Catherine Zeng

Living in a Basement in San Francisco

“So when are you going to find a house?” my cousin asked me. I felt my stomach sink at the suggestion that we were overextending our stay. After my boyfriend and I moved to San Francisco, we were desperate to find housing quickly so that we could stop crashing at my cousin’s place in Mountain View. For some background, San Francisco housing is extremely hard to find, especially on such short notice. And for people our age, affordable housing meant going through a competitive vetting process to live in a hacker house with 10 other people. Because we were really young, a couple, and couldn’t commit to long-term housing, it was difficult for us to get into hacker houses.

Soon we exhausted the leads from friends for housing and I became desperate enough to search Craigslist. One night, I stayed up until 3AM contacting every listing for Mission District and Soma that was within our acceptable price range: anything under $3,000 per month because, yes, San Francisco is really that expensive. The next morning, I received a text from the landlord of a nice looking “studio” apartment in Mission District that was fully furnished, offering for us to come take a look in person. We liked that the place was private since it would give us space to build our boba machines, so we hopped on an expensive uber to take a look.

The landlord greeted us at the gate of the place. He wore his hair gelled back over his balding head and a gold chain, was relatively short in stature, but stocky, and spoke with a New York accent. He looked like a junkyard car salesman, or a con artist. Turns out the reason the studio was so cheap (only $2,000 a month!) was because it was in the basement; there was only one window in the apartment and it let in very little light. The place was indeed fully furnished, but the furniture looked like it came from the sales rack of Goodwill. Nothing matched. The landlord, however, was a brilliant salesman who managed to put a positive spin on everything. He pointed at a black coffee maker and chirped: “Look, it even comes with a coffee maker! My wife got it for Christmas, but didn’t like the color, so I brought it here.” Our judgement was clouded by the excitement of being able to secure housing by the end of the day. So we quickly signed the three month lease.

After the initial excitement faded, I began to learn about the reality of living in a basement. There was no natural lighting and waking up in a dark pit every day messed with my circadian rhythm. It was hard to shake off the basement’s cold, damp air that clung to me like microscopic parasites feasting on any optimism I had for life. The closet door, which looked like a piece of wood sawed out of the wall, squeaked because of the difference in air pressure between the closet and the rest of the house. There were mice everywhere, and we’d often see them scurry across the room, even in broad daylight, not that it made a difference in the basement. At night, the mice would contribute to the squeaking of the closet door with their nibbling scratching, creating a cacophony of sounds that accompanied our sleep.

One day, my boyfriend decided that he wanted to catch a mouse and keep it as a pet. With his analytical mind and patient temperament, he came up with a system for catching mice that was foolproof: slowly inch acrylic sheets forward until the mouse was cornered. Just as he thought he had gained the upper hand, the mouse spasmed. For a split second, all we could do was watch in horror as its tiny body shook like a thousand shock waves had passed through its body. And then, just as suddenly as the seizure had started, the mouse dropped dead. We whipped out our phones to quickly confirmed that mice can indeed die from shock. But just to be sure, we put the little guy in a glass jar and waited patiently for it to wake up. Two hours later, we disappointingly threw him out in the garbage bins outside. Well, at least the mouse doesn’t have to live in a basement anymore.