It’s called the Golden Handcuff Syndrome. At least, this is what an anonymous commenter on Craigslist tells me about the paradox many SFers find themselves in: violating the lease to keep an apartment.

Theoretically, lease violation might lead to eviction, but sometimes city apartments are so hard to come by that it’s easy to feel backed into a corner. There’s something so good about the space – maybe it’s the light, the rent control, the location, or the very fact that you have an apartment – that you’re willing to put up with or do almost anything to make it work.

I am not a rule breaker by any stretch of the imagination, but I moved to San Francisco with a pet rabbit. This was fine in my first two flats, but when hunting for my third, I’d explain how quiet and clean a rabbit was, and my prospective landlord would respond with words like “exotic” and “rodent” and “no.” So when I came across my dream studio in a no-pets-allowed building, I figured I’d just move Simon in, and no one would be the wiser.

I’ll tell you now that Simon has passed that I was never discovered at that last place, but the experience was not without a lot of stress. I always lived slightly in fear of being found out as I carried bulk packages of Timothy hay into the building and smelly garbage bags of Simon’s refuse out. I never got to know my neighbors very well because I couldn’t invite them in, and I’m sure they heard the clicking of little rodent nails on the hardwood floor or the thwacks of hind legs against the cage in the dead of night and wondered what I had going on. I even found myself waylaid by my landlady one day while Simon was inside the shopping bag I carried, en route to the vet.

Harboring forbidden pets, it turns out, is not so uncommon, nor is subletting a rent-controlled unit so that you have the option to go out into the world and return if you so choose. Here are just a few of the real-life tales I heard:


On hiding two cats:

Basically, I found this amazing apartment in my price range, but it didn’t allow cats. My aunt had hidden her cats before, so I thought, “I’ll try it.” It was in the Outer Sunset right along the beach.

I always transported my cats via suitcase. You can imagine how much they loved that. I had a collapsible cat carrier in my car. I’d put them in the suitcase, lug it down the stairs, get in my car, drive a few blocks, then put them into the cat carrier, and take them to the vet. To keep them out of the window in the front room, I piled stuff on the window ledge on top of the curtain to keep it against the window. I never, ever, ever opened the curtain or the window behind it. As a result, the curtain got moldy, and I had to buy a whole new one out of my deposit. Every time I drove home, I looked up to my window to see if I could see my cats.

The biggest issue happened one day when I was sitting in my living room watching TV. I heard a dripping noise and wondered if I’d left the sink running in the bathroom. I walked in – nothing. Then, I looked over and saw that my upstairs neighbor’s tub was leaking into my tub! I ran upstairs to let her know and she said, “OMG! Go tell the manager now!” I paused, as my cats were out in the apartment, litter box and all, and they had the bad habit of meowing and tearing up the carpet when I locked them away. I said, “Um, I have to clean up first.” I ran downstairs, threw my cats in my room, sprayed the apartment with a scented spray, hid all their toys and ran to get the manager. I prayed and prayed that my cats would stay silent during the inspection. It would take a few days to repair the leak, so I found a good friend who let me keep my cats in his garage; but it was a drive to Daly City and back every morning and night with the cats in the suitcase. The whole situation was extremely stressful, and I swore afterward that I’d never live somewhere where my cats are not allowed.


On subletting her place when she moved to NYC:

It is the first place I properly furnished, decorated, and, essentially, nested in. It has its flaws; it seems pretty old and flimsy, so I’m sure it would not survive a big earthquake. There’s pretty much no heating, the windows are really thin, and there is no dishwasher, disposal, or laundry. But it’s spacious and cheap, the living room gets amazing sunlight, and – most importantly – there’s a backyard. I strung up lights everywhere and bought a fire pit, so I often had house parties that easily migrated to the Mission or Dolores Park or Corona Heights. I’m getting homesick just writing about it.

I’m pretty stressed out about subleasing because it definitely is my neck on the line. My housemate is trustworthy, and I feel fine leaving her there, but I’ve never met the person who took my room. However I feel that the benefits outweigh the risk. It’s so comforting to have a backup plan and be able to come home to SF in six months instead of having to deal with the Craigslist battlefield.


On being caught subleasing:

I moved into a room a friend was moving out of. I didn’t know any of the other roommates, and the month after I moved in, all the other roommates on the lease moved out. I had to scramble to find replacements, and in retrospect, I should have just gone to the landlord then and signed a new lease.

It was a pain in the ass to get cash from the other roommates and go to the post office and get money orders. I’m not sure how the landlord found out. I know he ran a credit check on the guy I was paying the rent under and found that he had a lease elsewhere in SF, which was odd because he had moved out of state. I think the apartment manager was told to make a sweep of anyone paying with money orders and shake them down. My husband and I decided to just suck it up and pay. I love everything about my flat! It’s a sunny three-bedroom in the Mission with views from the living room of most of this side of the city. I can even see Mt. Tamalpais on a clear day.


On being party to an illegal rental:

Our corrupt landlords started construction on the apartment below us without a permit after the previous tenants moved out, and made it into an Airbnb-style apartment without our consent. At the time, our deal was that when there was a weekender, our month’s electrical bill would be 80% comped because we were on the same meter as the unit downstairs. Our landlord couldn’t raise our rent or do anything to us because we held their illegal acts over them. Oh, SF life! It wasn’t until vacationers started showing up with their drunk asses and crying babies, leaving the back door to the alley open and compromising our safety, that I got angry with the situation.


On hiding snakes:

In our last place, our landlord had a very strict no-pets policy, and she used an agency to rent her place out; so it was very clear that everything was by the book. A pet was a pet, and there was no room for interpretation. So it was a huge fire drill every time we heard that the landlord or her handyman was coming by. We’d always arrange for one of us to be home, and we’d always guard the room the snakes were in. Basically, we didn’t let anyone in that room, but the few times they’d have to come in, we’d unplug everything and cover the terrarium with piles of laundry. It looked like we were filthy-ass people with giant piles of laundry in our bedroom. During our last few weeks in that place, we had a puppy, and when the landlord needed to show the place, we fried up a bunch of garlic to cover the scent.


On subletting her place while living in Italy for —wait for it— six years:

I have always traveled and had the urge to be gone for at least one year, but I wanted to be able to come back to my fantastic little home. I loved my apartment. I lived in it for 15 years, and the rent never went up once! In fact, it went down by $20 when I found out I was paying for the common hallway lights. Then, I subletted the place for 2.5 times the rent I was paying. It was awesome. I’m not sure how I ended up “getting away with it.” I just did it and waited to see what would happen. The owner never mentioned anything to me, so I just continued to sublet it. Thankfully, I never heard from him.

*Names changed upon request