18 Friends Wanted to Lease an Apartment Building Near Wash U. What Could Go Wrong?


The author and his brothers partook in a housing marathon. - LOREN SHIN
  • The author and his brothers partook in a housing marathon.

At the end of an unassuming strip mall in Webster Groves next to a hair salon and a gym sits Roberts Realty. It's the kind of place you might drive past every day and never notice it was there.

Not me. I spent a good portion of the fall obsessed with this place. For nearly two weeks, my friends and I stalked the realty office, taking shifts at the Starbucks down the road so that it was never more than a five-minute drive away during certain hours. We haunted the receptionist. And we endlessly, tirelessly hit “refresh” on our email inboxes.

It all started with an email from Roberts Realty on October 17: "Thanks for your patience while we got information ready. We have not begun to accept applications yet. You will be sent another email once we begin to accept applications. Please do not try to come to the office to turn applications in." And with that, we were officially on the clock. Any time after this, between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, we might have to drop whatever we were doing and race to the Roberts Realty office.

This is the way Roberts Realty decides which college students can rent its apartments next to the Washington University campus. On a random day, at a random time, the realty company will send an email to everyone on its mailing list. From there, it’s first come, first served. Whoever gets to the office first gets priority to sign for an apartment. And so if you’ve got very particular parameters, getting there immediately is absolutely critical.

My friends and I indeed had very particular parameters. Eighteen of us from my fraternity decided we all wanted to live together, which meant attempting to secure a building with six three-person units. And that meant there were only two buildings within walking distance of campus.

The one we wanted was 6643 Kingsbury Avenue. There were whispers and stirrings of several other groups in competition for the two buildings; we didn’t want to be the ones left without one.

For each three-person apartment within 6643 Kingsbury, the monthly rent is $2,475. We were well aware that this was probably overpriced, especially for how gross the apartments inside are likely to be (we’re renting sight unseen, but general nastiness was a safe bet — a different fraternity has lived in the house for the past few years). But Andrew Roberts of Roberts Realty had us wrung around his finger; we had few choices other than to play his game.

Roberts, naturally, doesn't see it that way. When I contact him a few weeks after our ordeal, he tells me that the system that tormented me wasn't designed so much as it "just kind of morphed into it over the years."

He adds, "Last time I had told people that we were going to have a particular day that housing was going to open, we had people camping out in front of our office for like a week.”

While Roberts’ email blast did spare us from camping out in the parking lot, winning the apartment we wanted meant we had to be extremely organized. The system is legendary at Wash U for its unforgiving nature. We had heard stories from students who had sprinted out of classes, even exams, in the past to try to get to the office first.

The focus of our mania: Roberts Realty. - DESI ISAACSON
  • The focus of our mania: Roberts Realty.

So we devised a plan. Guessing the email would come mid-morning, we arranged to have three to four kids on duty every morning, camped out in the Starbucks down the street from the office. This way we could lock up at least three or four apartments before anyone else arrived. We guessed this would deter others from going for the remaining units, especially if they had groups as large as ours. Leaving some units unsigned was somewhat risky, but better than leaving from the same starting line as everyone else.

We had never wanted it to come to this. Our plan had been to live in the building that the seniors in our fraternity had leased for years. It was not owned by Roberts Realty, so we always avoided “the Sprint” in the past. But before we knew what had happened, another fraternity stole it from underneath us. Now we had to enter the rat race.

And so for thirteen days last fall, my morning schedule changed drastically. I'm not really what you might call a “morning person.” But the email could come at any time after Roberts Realty opened for the day. Worse than that, we were using my car to get to the Starbucks. Because Wash U won't let me get a parking pass for my side of campus, I park almost a mile from my dorm. Every morning, before the sun was up, I biked to my car with my hands tightly curled around the handlebars, grasping at the lasting warmth from my bed. After a short drive over to campus to pick up the two to three other kids on duty, we were off to Starbucks to sit ... and wait.

Each morning we would stop first at Roberts Realty, arriving just after 8:30 a.m. We thought maybe we could figure something out by being there. Does the office look busier this morning? Are there more employees there than usual? Does anybody see the mysterious Andrew Roberts? (We never saw him.) Two or three of us would walk inside and chat up the receptionist, Jessica. Some days we would brainstorm a new question to ask. “Do we need to have this form filled out?” “We heard they are turning a backyard into a parking lot — is that true?” It was always just a front to walk in and look for signs the email would come that day.

It never really mattered whether I was in class or Starbucks. I couldn't think about anything else. Incessantly refreshing my email on my phone under my desk once a minute was not conducive to focusing on what I was supposed to be learning. And Starbucks might usually be a fine place to get some work done, but not when your phone is sitting right on the table with your email app open, and you’re pulling down and praying for a new one to pop up at the top of the screen. Each new email sent a jolt of adrenaline through my body, blinding me for just a moment. When my eyes would refocus on the sender only to see it was from Facebook, Postmates, or ESPN, my heart would sink, and the frustration would return. Each day felt like it HAD to be the day. How could it not be today? Why are they waiting? What's the point? Why make us suffer?

It didn't matter where we were or what we were doing, every conversation circled back to the apartment and when we would get the email. Every morning in Starbucks, someone would try to focus on work, then abruptly slam their fist down on the table and look up. "When is this fucking email coming!" There was nothing we could do but laugh, but only a few minutes later, someone else would do the same thing. We were stuck with an unknown deadline.

I know Roberts didn’t set it up this way to be cruel. "I’m always open for suggestions on doing that,” he told me when I later reached him by phone. “It’s just, every year we start getting contacted earlier and earlier and earlier for people trying to get these houses… we do what we can.” But regardless of his intentions, the anxiety that comes with the wait is exhausting.

The apartment building of our dreams? - DESI ISAACSON
  • The apartment building of our dreams?

By Tuesday, October 30, we were running out of energy and out of hope. Spirits were sagging and communication breaking down.

But on this day, our disorganization worked to our benefit. That morning, a representative from all six apartments filed into my car. People hadn’t talked enough to organize four groups, so we'd inadvertently overdone it. If today was today, we would be at the Starbucks with everyone we needed.

And then, at precisely 9:28 a.m., Brandon yelled, "It's here! Email! Go! Go!" He was up and out of his comfy chair in less than a second.

It was mid-morning, so of course the coffee shop was packed. Everyone around us, including baristas, stared in shock as we grabbed only our most valuable possessions and jumped out of our chairs. My friend Logan left his laptop charger and papers on the table, only having time to grab his laptop and backpack. I left my hot chocolate, my egg sandwich and my reading assignment (I'm sorry, Professor McPherson). It was like a fire alarm had gone off, but actually urgent. We were out the door in ten seconds flat.

The six of us piled into my car, which was built to hold a maximum of five. I started backing out of the spot before even checking behind me. Everything was moving too quickly. A horn honked, and I slammed on the brakes. "Dude, you almost just nailed that Mercedes!" Then a woman was yelling through the window, "One of you left this full cup of coffee inside!" We yelled back that we had no time for that.

After almost hitting the Mercedes, we hit about every red light possible. I was reminded of Murphy's Law as I stared into the depths of each stoplight. But not today. We would not be stopped today. We had worked too damn hard.

I whipped around the last corner and into the parking lot, parked right in front of the door, and we were in. First!

We told Jessica, who knew she was in for her roughest day of the year, that each of us was there to secure a different apartment inside 6643 Kingsbury. "So you guys want all of '43'?" she asked. We all responded "Yes!" a little too loudly and way too aggressively.

We were almost done with our paperwork before any other groups began showing up. One girl hid her face: "I didn't have time to put on makeup!" Another walked in barefoot; putting on shoes would have wasted valuable time. The small waiting area quickly became crowded.

I wanted to stick around and watch the kids come in to celebrate or witness their dejection. We had been victorious, and I wanted to bask in the glory. But I had a class that had already started, and the waiting room was starting to make me claustrophobic. Plus, everyone else needed to get back to campus too, and mine was the only car.

As we celebrated in the parking lot, I started messing with the people who were just walking in, a good 30 minutes after we had been first on the scene. “Sorry, all the apartments are already gone. Might as well pack it up and go back home!” I was reminded of my high school coach telling me moments before we won our first championship, "Act like you've been there before." But I didn't want to act like I had been there before! In fact, in both instances, I hadn't been there before. Even more than that, I was happy that I would never have to be there again.

I hadn't had time to read the email when Roberts sent it, but I looked at it later that day. "Thanks for your patience. We are going to start accepting applications today.... Remember that one person from each unit must be present to put applications down on an apartment. Bring Photo ID too."

At this point, there was little more I could do than laugh and breathe a sigh of relief. Thanks for my patience? Screw you, dude. I changed my whole life for two weeks because of some silly little game you dreamed up, and you're thanking me for my patience?

I asked Roberts in our conversation a few weeks later if he was aware of how stressful this was for kids. “Uhhh, nobody's ever mentioned anything to me,” he said. If that is the case, consider it officially mentioned.

During our two-week marathon from housing hell, we were stressed, tired, struggling, and occasionally skipping classes. It was never our intention to enter the race. But if you're going to play the game, you might as well win it.

Desi Isaacson is a student at Washington University in St. Louis studying English and Creative Writing. You can follow him on twitter @desisaacson. He can also be reached by email at dkuhl23@gmail.com

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