Desperation overrules reason

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Desperation has a way of making the repugnant seem reasonable, the deplorable seem decent and even desirable.

Thus, by mid-June, my roommates and I were delighted to find a two-bedroom apartment only three blocks from campus. Yes, the carpet had fused together as a result of burns in a few places, and Tupperware containers half-full of some odd yellow substance hung from rusty nails in each room, but for $1,650 a month, who cared?

Immediately after we left the open house, we called the landlady, who introduced herself as Janelle. A document arrived in my inbox a few days later. The only address listed on it was that of the apartment, and the words “Sublet Contract” stretched across the top.

In retrospect, these irregularities should have been the first warning signs: Every contract I’ve signed since then has included an address for the landlord, and neither I nor any of my roommates knew prior to this that we were entering a sublease. But desperation prevailed, and we signed and returned the document as quickly as we could, eager to end our protracted search for next year’s home.

August arrived, and we realized that even in addition to the curious containers and congealed carpet, our apartment was essentially a dilapidated deathtrap: Paint peeled from the walls, and a mass of plastic bags we assumed had simply been forgotten turned out to fill a gaping hole in the floor leading to some undisclosed location elsewhere in the building.

We attempted to contact our landlady, but Janelle proved nearly impossible to reach over the next month. She neglected to return emails or texts, and her voicemail was perpetually full.

Finally, Janelle called back. My roommate asked why she had declined to respond for so long — Janelle denied ever having received our messages.

Perhaps we should have realized then that something was awry. Janelle’s apparent reluctance to communicate in any written medium should have struck us as curious, even ominous, but we unwisely gave her the benefit of the doubt.

Most of the remainder of the year passed uneventfully. Janelle remained unresponsive and overall disengaged, and we never met her or received an address for her beyond the exceedingly vague “Southern California.” The apartment, while admittedly far from palatial, was tolerable. Yes, we could complain, but we were happy enough — until April.

One morning late that month, I woke to the sound of our doorbell. I went to the associated speaker and picked up the phone:

“Hi, my name is Alfred. My family owns the building. Can you come downstairs and talk to me for a few minutes?”

According to Alfred, Janelle had been renting our apartment since 1997 on a month-to-month basis, rendering her ability to sublet legally dubious, and had not occupied the space for many years. He and his father, Bill, wanted to evict Janelle and were willing to renegotiate a lease with my roommates and me for a lower monthly rent.

A brief Internet search showed that Bill was in fact the building’s owner, so we decided we had had enough of Janelle’s dishonesty. We soon found that Janelle had declined to renew her lease for May, and we set about trying to retrieve our rent for that month as well as the security deposit. I contacted the Rent Stabilization Board to seek advice.

A representative informed me that my roommates and I were entitled to a $300 fine from Janelle due to her failure to pay interest on our security deposit. A strongly worded email to Janelle followed, within which we threatened to file a formal complaint unless she returned our money.

Janelle replied the next day. She had written a check and mailed it to us, she said, thus clearing her of all financial obligations. Finally, we thought all was well.

A dispute with Alfred soon followed, however, and I found myself back in the Rent Stabilization Board’s offices. Although our issue remained unresolved, a representative informed me that Janelle — whose name did not even appear on the original 1997 lease — had been charging us illegally high rent.

Berkeley rental law stipulates that one subleasing an apartment cannot charge rates higher than the rent ceiling for that unit. The ceiling for our apartment was $1,172.27 — nearly $500 less than we paid each month.

Thus, according to the representative, Janelle owed us about $5,000, provided we could track her down.

We could not. Ultimately, by hiding her address and perhaps even her name, Janelle won.

In hindsight, we should have demanded an address from the beginning, should have been more diligent and more inquisitive regarding the nature of the sublease. Instead, we succumbed to desperation, and we were forced to bear its consequences.

Contact Alex Wolinsky at [email protected].