The woman in my rental apartment has a bright smile. On this sunny California day, she’s moving into the tall cupboard of a place behind my house. It has lofty ceilings, a tiny living room and two small bedrooms for her kids.
The women in my apartment always smile, to mask their fear and relief. I’ve had men, too, who’ve seemed a little dejected, behind their wry and painful grins.
“Maybe I’ll have my interior designer friend help me with paint colors,” she says. “I’m thinking I need a brighter white.”
“Sure, that would be great,” I say.
The place is charming, with an iron gate and real wood fireplace, but I know how downsizing ex-wives can feel about renting and moving on.
Like the woman at my place, my real estate destiny had once looked pristine, as a wife in a big Newport Beach house. But as my 10th wedding anniversary neared, when California state law says spousal support can increase, my lawyer husband suddenly wanted our little boy and me out. We had to leave his elegant house immediately, although legally we had six months or more. He followed me around the house every day, asking angrily when we’d be gone. Soon the pressure became too much to bear.
I knew to have modest hopes about what we might find: a little yard and safe street, maybe a few miles from school. But rents were expensive, and my son’s special needs had left me unable to work. Nothing looked pretty in my price range.
This kind of outcome is fairly common. “Generally, women’s standard of living goes down and men’s goes up, just like the stereotype,” says Justin Reckers, a certified financial planner and chief executive officer of Wellspring Divorce Advisers, says of divorce. His clientele is 90 percent female, many of them mothers. And divorcing women “often can’t rent or buy until they get a court document granting child and spousal income,” says Reckers, noting that mothers “have less cash, yet spend more on the children.”
Lesser housing is the norm for both parties after a divorce, as experts cite difficulties with mortgage qualification or cash flow. But the drop is more significant for women. Thirty-eight million people, including kids, lived in single-parent households last year, with 75 percent headed by women, according to U.S. census data. And about 40 percent of all female-headed family households lived in multi-unit structures and mobile homes.
Making things worse, from 2007 to 2014 the median U.S. rent increased by about 4 percent, from $901 to $934, says Apartment Lists’ Andrew Woo, while renters’ incomes have fallen by 14 percent. Rent is 60 percent of a person’s average wage and rising in top markets such as Washington, D.C., New York City and parts of Northern California, according to RealtyTrac. In the Washington area, for example, women earn an average of $61,718, versus $68,932 for men, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families. In Washington, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $3,130, a level “that’s unsustainable without other income sources,” such as spousal and child support, Woo says.
These high housing rates play into uneven outcomes during divorce. “While not a lot of people go from a big house to a big house, in most cases, the higher wage earner ends up in the better neighborhood and house. This puts the kids in two different situations,” says Carolyn Goodman, a family lawyer in the Washington area who negotiates joint settlements to save costs. (She says the dynamic in same-sex relationships is similar.)
“If she’s a caretaker and not a high-wage earner, her child and spousal support is nowhere near what he brings in,” says Doug DiGiore, a realtor in Orange County, Calif. “Some expensive cities have no affordable apartments for kids. Some places have tripled or quadrupled in the last three to five years.” But the costs may be worth it. “Many of my clients are happy. A lot are remarried,” Goodman reports. “They got through it and found the good life they were looking for.”
After touring dingy apartments as my divorce was happening, I took my ex’s down payment offer and bought a condo behind a convenience store. I moved in on a New Year’s Day when it was pouring rain. There was no room for Wedgwood china for 10, stuffed chairs or large paintings, so the movers pushed those finer things in the garage as rain streamed down my face. My car, which would turn out not to be mine, would have to stay outside. But I’d paid for fresh paint, and eventually this unit felt like home. I made meals for my son, repressed tears and went dancing. I’d dealt with the legal stress by playing squash.
Eighteen months later, I found a wiry athlete tying a rose to my door. An entrepreneur, he lived in his own divorce apartment behind a loading dock. We blended his three girls with their new little brother, rented a house and tied the knot in Tennessee. Two years later we managed to buy an old-world style home in Laguna Beach. Rumored to have been a getaway for Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth, its pink sink and faux gas lamps have sent contractors running. And the attached rental? It serves an important purpose.
“It’s a good-luck apartment,” I tell my tenant, as she shades her eyes with a ring-less hand. “One woman got married and lives in town.” She smiles wider, practically beaming. I’m not sure she believes me, or could, with her ex’s sports car temporarily in the driveway and a 4,000-square-foot home in the rear-view mirror. And that’s okay.
It’s not really about the apartment, but what she’ll do while living here.
“I think you’re going to have a good experience in this place.”
“Oh, thanks,” she says, nodding nervously. “Once I get in, it’ll be better.”
“Yes, it will.”