A J-schooler’s first test: Finding an apartment in the Bay area

The first test all J-schoolers have to pass if they want to go to Berkeley is finding a place to live in the Bay area. And I have to tell you. It’s a hard thing to ace.

Tips on finding a (relatively) cheap apartment around Berkeley:

1. Stick to Craigslist. There are dozens of websites out there along the lines of Zillow that market themselves as the answer to your apartment-hunting prayers. I have yet to find a site that’s not just regurgitating Craigslist posts, advertising expensive rentals or infested with scams. Sure, some of the apartments might be legit posts, but the competition for those are fierce and I doubt they’ll be a deal.

2. Don’t expect to land an apartment in the Bay area remotely. I spent dozens of frustrating hours trying to lock down an apartment without actually being in California. Although I got to know the inventory and chatted with over a dozen strangers in the process, the search was largely a waste of time. People don’t want to rent to you if they don’t meet you in person first. The reality of the situation is that you need to move first and hope the invitation to crash on your friend’s couch doesn’t expire before you find an apartment.

3. I wouldn’t bother investing the $20 in fees for access to the Cal Rentals system. I did it out of desperation and regretted it immediately. It might have just been my timing, but when I looked most of the posts were just a lot of other desperate apartment hunters looking for a place to live.

4. Sublet. It’s by far the cheapest option. Those units are typically furnished and landlords are more likely to rent to you on a monthly basis. Particularly in the city, subletting seems to be the only affordable option. Part of the reason is that there’s rarely turnover in rent controlled apartments. Still, rooms in those units seem to open up on a pretty regular basis and can range between $700-$900 a month.

5. E-mail as many Craigslist ads as you can, because you likely won’t hear back from any of them. I finally landed a small in-law unit in North Berkeley after two months of obsessively searching Craigslist. I probably sent over 100 e-mails to potential renters of which about 70 percent went unanswered.  I sent the same short, three-sentence e-mail to dozens of strangers. It had the basics: my age, gender, grad program and the fact that I was busy, clean and focused in my studies. Don’t bother getting more personal than that.

6. Check out any apartment you can, even if you don’t know much about the unit. The apartment I was lucky enough to get was advertised in two-sentences on Craigslist with no pictures. I could never have known the place is as nice as it is unless I saw it, and luckily I did.

7. Don’t waste your time looking at units in large apartment complexes close to campus. Those are overpriced and mostly owned by large corporations out to make money. They typically have deals going on like offering the first month’s rent for free, but I’m willing to bet those corporations make up the lost revenue with higher deposits and monthly rent.

8. Don’t be intimidated by crowds of people signing leasing applications at open houses and don’t try to court landlords or realtors. As long as you’re a sane, responsible student, landlords should want you as a tenant. Graduate students are a high commodity in a college town.

9. If it’s too good to be true, it likely is. I encountered two scammers during my search. They’re out there and some have pretty decent covers. Be wary of people who claim to own cheap apartments or who have poor grammar. Use the county assessor’s website to check the property’s value and ownership history. Use Google to check the location. Needless to say, don’t wire money.

10. Don’t settle on an apartment unless it fits you. Although inventory moves fast here, the one great thing about the Bay area is that there are options. Every day hundreds of renters make new posts on Craigslist looking for tenants. If you don’t see it today, there’s always tomorrow. It’s worth staying in a short-term rental to bide time while you find the right place. (Although I never used it, I hear Airbnb is good for that.)

So, how long does it take to find a place in the Bay area once you’re here? It took me six days to find something clean, safe and relatively cheap, but many people told me I was lucky to find what I found. (Although I’m sure luck has something to do with it, I also put in a lot of time to the search.) It’s taken other J-schoolers a little over a week to secure a place and some, who arrived a few days before semester officially starts, will likely be bumming it for a few weeks until the demand for empty apartments peters out.

The tricky part is figuring out: first, where to live and second, how much is too much to pay in monthly rent.

Considering most students are living off of loans (aka. money that they don’t actually have) the cheaper the rent is the better. But what is cheap in the Bay area? That all depends on which neighborhood you’re living in. Oakland is generally cheaper than Berkeley and Berkeley is cheaper than North Berkeley and North Berkeley is cheaper than the city. Obviously, it’s not a science and there are always exceptions.

One note, my advice largely only applies to single folks. I imagine most new students with kids and families don’t have the time to invest in the search. Unfortunately, they probably have more to gain from cheap rent. The few families I know who moved for the grad program are either in campus family housing or in Richmond. I don’t know much about either so I’ll defer to them on that.

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Hunting for an apt. in San Fran aka. how to scare away potential roommates

T-minus two months until I start journalism grad school and I’m starting to have anxiety about two things:

1. Finding affordable housing in the Bay area

2. Figuring out how the hell I’m going to pay for school, which begs the larger question – Is this J-school juice really worth the squeeze (on my wallet)?

First, housing: When I first decided to go all in on journalism grad school I didn’t think finding a cheap apartment, or room even, would take me more than a few hours on Craigslist and a couple of quick e-mails. Two weeks into my search I’ve found a handful of centrally located apartments in my price range (which is between free to about $800) that are relatively clean and have seemingly normal tenants. The problem is I have yet to hear back from a single renter and my anxiety is beginning to set in. I’ve tried every angle I can think of in e-mails to potential roommates and nothing has worked.

I used the formal, cut-to-the-chase approach “I’m a responsible graduate student in need of a place to crash” to the casual “I like to have a good time but I’m not a huge partier. 420 friendly:)” angle. Incorporating emoticons into my e-mails eventually opened the door for over-sharing (just one of many reasons why no one should ever use them). In one e-mail I listed all of my social media accounts including LinkedIn and Instragram (Cuz hey, maybe they want a roommate to take cool selfies with) alongside a few bylines (“just think how handy it would be to have a roommate to edit your work e-mails and crazy late-night drunken texts to your ex!”). But, apparently my journalism skills are a dime a dozen these days. I have yet to receive a single response from anyone. 

I’ve since adopted the less-is-more approach with just the basics (“I’m a journalist and I need a place to live. Please let me know if I’m a good candidate. Please.”), although I’m starting to think my desperation is beginning to come through. 

I feel like the kid in school who’s perfectly nice, but who no one will play with because he has B.O. He doesn’t know that he smells so he thinks everyone hates him for some other reason, which they don’t. They just think he needs to take a shower, but nobody wants to be the jerk who tells him. So the poor smelly kid goes through life hating the world and letting it out in weird ways (like oh let’s say not responding to perfectly pleasant inquires from nice aspiring journalists asking about a room he’s renting). Please, someone tell me, am I the kid in the cyber playground with B.O. and don’t know it?

I’m worried if it’s this hard to find a place to live in San Fran, I should have started looking for a job in the Bay area at some point around 2007.


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And we’re off…

Okay, folks. I’m ready to blog.

Up until today, I’ve posted stories that were published primarily in printed newspapers, but I’m ready to start blogging. About what you wonder? The only thing I can really talk about with any authority: the journalism industry.

For those who haven’t read the about me page, I spent the past three years working my way up from an intern to a full-time freelancer at a small daily newspaper in Aspen, Colo. Currently I’m interning for credit (read “unpaid”) at The Miami Herald and I’m heading to Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism in the fall.

I worry blogging about the field might put my career at risk down the line, but what kind of reporter would I be if I didn’t write about what I know. Also, I feel like my experiences might help other young aspiring journalists navigate an increasingly challenging industry full of unpaid internships and half-baked promises of career stability.

I also hope to answer the elusive question: Is it worth paying for a masters in journalism?

I’ve given the question a lot of thought, and so far my answer is yes with a but … as long as you’re getting your masters from either Columbia or Berkeley. It sounds elitist, but speaking as someone who has researched different programs, these days it’s not clear what exactly professors are teaching at journalism graduate programs. Part of the problem is that even the experts don’t seem to know where the business is going.

Putting their actual educational value aside, Berkeley and Columbia are big, well funded and have solid international reputations. My reasoning is that those elements alone probably make it worth attending. At least that’s what I hope.

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Gear Pick: Using re-usable bags: Cuz all the cool kids are doing it

I have become a kind of a connoisseur of reusable bags since Aspen City Council passed a plastic-bag ban over a year ago.

I’ve tried out bags made out of recycled plastic bottles, which are sturdy, but not easily compacted when you’re not using them. I’ve used bags that are lined with a silver, thermal layer intended to keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. I’m not a fan of those either, because the bag’s technology seems unnecessarily advanced and not very effective considering there’s no way to close the top.

By far, the best bags I’ve found are the ones that are made by Equinox, a company that sells outdoor camping products. Equinox’s Ultralight Tote Bags are made out of nylon and silicone, they weigh less than an ounce and can carry over 100 pounds. They also fold into a small pouch when you’re not using them, making it easy to tuck them away into your purse or pocket and pull out if you happen to swing by the store on a whim.

I grew up in Miami where using reusable bags for shopping and recycling in general is as foreign of a concept as skinning up a mountain. For example, Miamians understand in a broad sense what recycling is and they get that they should probably be doing it. But they have no sense of urgency about it. If you happen to toss your soda bottle in the trash no one shoots you the evil eye or launches into a rant about the environmental harm of single-use plastics. Generally, nobody really cares.

In Aspen, things are different. The city has a car-share program made up of a fleet of hybrids that locals can use at their leisure instead of opting to buy their own gas-guzzling vehicles. At special events, there are always three trash bins. One is designated for compost, one for plastics and a third for actual trash — the differences of which would be lost on an average person from Miami. At Belly Up, people are paid to go through the trash after shows to separate any recyclable items that were thrown away.

None of those things happens in Miami and I think it’s fair to say they don’t happen in most other American cities either. What makes this town unique compared to the rest of the world is that the importance of being environmentally conscious permeates our culture. Although the local government spearheads the effort through “green” programs, people here genuinely want to do the right thing partly because it also happens to be the cool thing to do. I have plenty of friends who show off their reusable bags, water bottles and coffee cups arguing one style over another practically on a daily basis.

That’s why, regardless of what reusable bag style you chose, they’re all winners. At the end of the day, you’re making the conscious choice to do the right thing, and, at least in Aspen, you might even get a high-five for doing it.

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Lost in the backcountry

Seven locals on Dec. 17 set out in separate parties to the new Opas Taylor Hut. They were the first group to visit the new cabin, which was completed this past fall. The hut is located just south of Taylor Pass about 7 miles outside of Ashcroft in an area known for its avalanche danger.

Two people on snowmobiles and a skier made their way over Taylor Pass, but spent hours trying to find the route to the new hut. As the sun set, the three finally decided to turn around when they realized they wouldn’t be able to find the hut before dark. When the party got back to the trailhead and saw their friends’ cars, they figured the group had made it to the hut so they didn’t call for help.

Meanwhile, a group of skiers and snowboarders had descended from the summit of Taylor Pass and had been looking for the hut for a couple of hours using a handheld GPS. By the time they realized they weren’t going to find it they were too exhausted to make it back up the steep pitch before dark, said Brad Veltman, who was in the group.

“By the time you hike down the bowl, getting back up isn’t an option,” Veltman said. “We were so tired and so dehydrated, there was just no way we were going to be able to get out.”

Another issue was the number of avalanches they were triggering in the area.

“We were breaking off avalanches after the sun set,” Veltman said. “We thought, ‘OK we have to hunker down or we’re going to kill ourselves.’”

The group built a fire and Veltman tried calling 911, but he couldn’t get reception. Another member of the party had an avalanche beacon, but it wasn’t capable of sending an emergency signal to local authorities.

The party spent a cold night outside and were able to make their way back to the trailhead the next day. Veltman considers himself lucky that he survived the event, he said.

When he got into town, Veltman called the 10th Mountain Division to complain about the lack of markers and signs to the hut. Because it is new, no one knows how to get there and there are no discussions online about the best and safest path to the hut, he said. A trail to the hut essentially doesn’t exist and there are no signs at the top of Taylor Pass indicating which direction the hut is located. It’s only a matter of time before someone dies trying to find it, he argued.

Veltman’s call was passed around to multiple people at the 10th Mountain Division, and one employee agreed that the hut was hard to find and expressed concerns about its safety, Veltman said. Others were less sympathetic.

“The other guys said that it was pretty much our fault and that they could have found [the hut] with a paper map and a compass,” Veltman said.

Veltman said he suspects the organization isn’t marking the trail because of liability issues. If they mark the trail and somebody ends up dying from an avalanche, the organization doesn’t want to get sued, Veltman said.

A diamond marks the spot

There are two philosophies about posting signs on the hut system’s trails. Some people believe that the trails should have minimal markers because they run through wilderness areas. Others believe that every trail should be marked clearly in favor of safety, said Hugh Zuker, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA), a nonprofit that operates as an arm of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office for backcountry rescues and recoveries.

The 10th Mountain Division’s website has a brief warning to people that routes to the Opas Taylor Hut are not marked or maintained and it is located in an area with high risks of avalanche.

“The route into Opas Hut in particular presents serious route finding and terrain challenges and should only be attempted by experienced backcountry travelers,” the website says. Zuker admitted that MRA was concerned about the new hut’s location and the lack of knowledge about how to get to it safely.

There are 33 huts across four systems that are funded by a range of nonprofits and private owners. The 10th Mountain Division, a nonprofit founded by renowned architect Fritz Benedict in 1981, owns the largest system with 20 different cabins all on U.S. Forest Service land. After seeing it work in Europe, Benedict came up with the idea of a system of huts between Edwards and Aspen that would offer shelter, beds and cooking essentials to backcountry travelers.

The 10th Mountain Division tries not to mark the trails too much because the organization wants to encourage people to be self-sufficient and be able to navigate their way to a cabin, said Ben Dodge, executive director of the 10th Mountain Division.

Generally, the organization marks trails within the 10th Mountain Division hut system with light blue diamonds. The Opas Hut is in the Alfred A. Braun Hut System though, and as a policy the organization doesn’t mark trails due to the high level of avalanche danger surrounding the cabins.

“People using the Braun huts can’t go out thinking they’ll connect the dots,” Dodge said.

Trails aren’t marked because there is not a single path to the Braun huts that can be considered the best or safest route, said Hawk Greenway, manager of the Alfred A. Braun Hut System. The ideal path changes depending on the weather and snow conditions, he said.

“If we go making statements on the safety of one route over another we could lead people into trouble,” Greenway said. But if a group gets lost they argue that there should be signs indicating the right way to go, he said.

“We’re sort of between a rock and hard spot,” Greenway said.

The December incident prompted discussions at the board level on how to address trail markings, Greenway said. Ultimately, board members decided that it is not the responsibility of the organization to mark the trails to make it easier to find a hut.

“The bottom line is that [the cabin] is 12,000 feet in the middle of the Rockies, in the middle of winter time,” Greenway said. “It’s no place for amateurs. You have to know your stuff. You have to be conservative in your choices.”

 Contributed photo

A blue diamond marks a trail to the McNamara Hut. Whether trails to huts should be clearly marked is a point of contention between different users. Some believe signage should be scarce because trails run through wilderness areas, while others think more should be put up to prevent people from getting lost.
Luck favors the prepared

As far as Dodge is concerned, Veltman’s party was a perfect example of a group that was not prepared for the backcountry. They made all of the classic mistakes like splitting up, starting the hike late in the day, not having a way to communicate between parties and relying on snowmobiles to transport essential equipment that would be useful for sleeping outdoors. Additionally, they didn’t have the navigational or backcountry skills needed to get to the hut, he said.

“Quite honestly, they were lucky they got out of there without any serious mishap,” Dodge said.

Someone who is prepared for a hut trip has proper topological maps, a compass, a way to determine elevation and a handheld GPS device that he or she knows how to use. Anyone going on a hut trip should also know how to survive outdoors over night in the event that they don’t find the hut, Dodge said. That means being able to make a fire if necessary and build a snow cave.

“You need to have a plan B because it does happen,” Dodge said, adding that it can happen to anyone and it’s not just beginners, who get lost.

The December incident was enlightening to hut officials about the low caliber of preparedness of some people traveling within the system, Dodge said, adding that he gets upset thinking about it.

The hut system information is very clear that there are no marked routes on the way to the Braun cabins, Dodge said. The group misrepresented their backcountry skills to 10th Mountain representatives when they made the reservation, he added.

“I’ve got no patience for that,” Dodge said.

Risky behavior

Last year, one out of four people traveling to a hut didn’t check the avalanche forecast before heading out, based on a survey of about 1,000 users performed by Boulder-based RRC Associates. Dodge said he would prefer if that percentage were higher, he said.

“My takeaway is that a good number [of people] are prepared,” Dodge said. “But not enough for our liking.”

The risk involved in traveling to a hut can range depending on a variety of factors including weather conditions, hiking distance, avalanche danger and which cabin people are traveling to, Dodge said. Some huts are relatively close to towns and roads, and have well marked trails, so if a party can’t find their hut they can head back to the trailhead with relative ease. Other huts, like the seven included in the Alfred A Braun Hut System, are in remote areas with high avalanche danger. If a party takes a wrong turn or there is severe weather conditions, travelers will likely end up spending the night outside, he said.

Another group of five locals were making their way from Barnard to the Opas Hut this past Tuesday when a large avalanche was triggered near Taylor Pass. No one was caught in the slide, but the incident was enough to convince the hikers to bail on Opas Hut and head home via the Express Creek drainage. After encountering more signs of avalanches, the group decided to build a snow cave and spend the night outside. As temperatures dropped and the wind picked up, a member of the group finally made a call for help with a personal locator beacon. Using five snowmobiles, MRA shuttled the party back to Barnard Hut, where they spent the night. Barnard is part of the Alfred B. Braun system.

Both Dodge and Greenway agreed that the group made the right decision because they were prepared and conservative in their choices.

Hut trip use increases 

As more people use the hut system, the 10th Mountain Division is trying to make sure users are informed on the importance of being prepared for backcountry travel through new online efforts.

This year, the nonprofit estimates 54,000 people will spend the night in a hut, which is 1,000 more than last year. A single cabin can average between 700 and 2,500 people per year, depending on its size.

Since the 10th Mountain Division began accepting applications for 2014’s lottery on March 1, the nonprofit has received 1,327 forms. That is the second highest number of applications the organization has ever received, Dodge said. The most applications was 1,350, which happened a few years ago, he said.

The jump in the number of applications could be due to the fact that the nonprofit began accepting applications online. Prior to this year, the nonprofit required lottery hopefuls to fax in their forms.

“We were kind of stuck in the dark ages in terms of the lottery,” Dodge said.

The move is a part of a broader effort that the 10th Mountain Division is taking to update its online resources. For example, in the fall, people will be able to reserve huts online or by calling on the phone. Currently, reservations are made strictly via telephone.

The nonprofit also plans to reach out through social media to better inform people on hut-use ethics and how to prepare for a trip.

This year, the 10th Mountain Division also observed that more people are opting to travel to multiple huts on a single trip instead of just staying in one cabin for multiple nights, according to Dodge. He suspects that is due to the improvement in touring equipment, which is light and comfortable enough for long hikes but durable for backcountry skiing.

Based on last year’s survey, the average size of a party going to a hut is about eight people and most groups spend two nights in a hut. About 59 percent of users opt to use backcountry ski setups to get to the huts. The rest snowshoe or use another method of travel. Only 2 percent of users drive snowmobiles to get to huts.

The survey also indicates that a single backcountry traveler going on a hut trip spends about $200 within 50 miles of the trailhead. The money is spent on items like hiking equipment, gas, groceries, hut rental and at restaurants and bars.

During the winter, 96 percent of the survey’s respondents said their expectations were either met or surpassed when they used the hut system. Summer users showed an even higher level of satisfaction with about 99 percent of respondents saying that they were satisfied with the experience.

“That’s the kind of feedback we like to hear,” Dodge said.

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Gear Pick: In extreme conditions, 
in OtterBox we trust

I received my first OtterBox case three years ago in a schwag bag I was given while covering the Winter X Games.

The multi-layer case was designed for the iPhone 4, which at the time had just been released by Apple, and it seemed flimsy and cheap to me. The black case was made up of a thin silicon layer surrounded by an equally slim plastic shell. I thought that my relatively active lifestyle combined with my natural clumsiness ensured that my phone wouldn’t last a week in this thing called an OtterBox. (The name didn’t exactly incite images of sturdiness and durability either.) Regardless, I had an iPhone 3 and wasn’t due for an upgrade for another six months. The case was useless to me.

Over the next few weeks, every time I went to toss the brand new case away, First World guilt took over. I didn’t want to throw away a perfectly good case. So when my iPhone 3 finally died, I decided to give the ol’ OtterBox a go.

Its first test came during a climbing trip up Monitor Rock when I accidentally knocked my phone off a ledge. Considering the height from which it fell and the number of times it hit rocks on the way down I was pleasantly surprised to find only a small crack on the screen.

While the feat was impressive, the ultimate test of the OtterBox’s durability came later.

On a recent powder day I was skiing down a short mogul run on Aspen Mountain when my phone popped out of my pocket and was instantly lost in the snow.

I spent a few hours lapping the run and recruited some friends to help the search effort. I used Apple’s “FindmyiPhone” application to pinpoint where exactly on the run my phone had fallen. Still, with all of the powder, I was out of luck and I went home defeated. My phone had been donated to the powder gods.

The next day a friend took a lap and spotted it sticking out of the pow. Although it was pretty shocking that my phone was found at all, I was most impressed by the fact that the recovered device was still fully functional and had full battery life. The incident was enough to convince me: OtterBox is the real deal.

A cell phone is a very personal thing. We check them compulsively, get anxious when they’re not near us and many of us even take them to bed. Some people like to pamper their phones with bedazzled or furry cases, while others pride themselves in not relying on a case to protect their fragile phones. I’d like to think I don’t need a case, but if history has taught me anything it’s that I can’t own a phone for more than a year without cracking its screen.

Without the OtterBox in my life, Apple would be richer, I would be poorer, and no one would ever be able to get a hold of me. Consider me a believer.

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Gear Pick: Pee pants to bring out the man in every woman

I have never been in a situation where I needed to pee so badly while skiing that I didn’t have time to make it to a bathroom or behind a tree to pop a proverbial squat. But maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I’m not gnarly or open minded enough to try a simple solution — investing in a pair of my own pee pants.

The hands-free pee pants, made by medical professionals, look pretty much like what you would expect if women were to come up with their own solution to relieving themselves without sitting down. The pants are tight nylon shorts with a rubber funnel and a long tube attached to the crotch. Wearing them is probably the closest I’ll ever be to knowing what it feels like to be a man. I wouldn’t say it’s comfortable. The hose hangs awkwardly in between your legs and the rubber funnel bunches around sensitive parts. Still, if you’re in a bind and need to pee quickly it can do the job.

The egress is aligned ergonomically to minimize the amount of waste that comes in contact with skin and the slippery rubber material makes sure that most of the urine does in fact make it out of the funnel. The pants were designed for women with active lifestyles, according to the product’s website, and the company offers portable bags in a range of prints including a hot-pink zebra pattern so you can carry around your own waste in style.

Although the product seems excessive and brutish, the more I think about the pee pants, the more I warm to the idea.

I’ve had many hikes up Highland Bowl with male friends who whip it out — almost ceremoniously — to relieve themselves at the top before heading down. Sometimes I think they do it just to prove that they can or, like a dog marking its territory, to stake claim to the mountain. I’ve never had that urge, but with pee pants I wonder if I could. Despite it’s silly nature, I wonder if pee pants could be the final chapter in feminist’s attempt to level the playing field between men and women. Although we are able to vote and are now outperforming men in the workforce, at the very base of it, women are still limited to dominating mountains by our junk — or lack thereof.

In order truly to be equal, we need to come at things with the mindset of a man. The mindset that we can own things, simply by standing and peeing on them.

With pee pants, I can one day stand at 12,392 feet peeing myself while taking in the view and assert that the mountain is mine. Then, for the first time ever, Highland Bowl will be owned by a woman.

Let the revolution begin.

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