Love Letters to the Apartments I Never Rented in San Francisco

Lovelorn adventures in SF apartment hunting, 
as experienced by the author and her partner

Those who have lived in San Francisco for any amount of time can attest to the joy of daydreaming about apartments that never were. They are the domiciles that for whatever reason evaded us, the enchanting studios — and even one-bedrooms! — we never had the chance to organize our succulents inside, the ones that got away.

Over the years, I’ve amassed a laundry list of San Francisco apartments I may have inhabited in an alternate universe, had things gone just a little differently. So, in an act of wishful thinking and gratitude, here are my love letters to them.

Oh, tall-ceilinged, sun-infused studio in Pacific Heights,

How gloriously San Franciscan you were. Images of you remain burned in my memory over a decade later: your gleaming hardwood floors, warmed by the sun through towering antique double-hung windows, your bright white-tiled bathroom with its immaculate clawfoot tub. (That tub continues to set unrealistic bathroom expectations to this day.) I remember rounding the corner at Pierce and California and first setting eyes on you: a picture-perfect Italianate gleaming heavenly white in the spring sun. Just one glimpse and my imagination ran wild. I reveled in the image of myself at a big writing desk overlooking the neighborhood Victorians, drinking tea surrounded by pothos plants. To think we could’ve lived a life like that! Of course, I should’ve known, you were too good for us. I can only imagine what kind of hip techie intellectual ended up hanging art pieces on your ornately-trimmed walls. We were newcomers to the city, at least one of us unemployed, just beginning to dip our toes into the water. You were out of our league and we knew it from the start.

Still starry-eyed,

Your Faraway Admirers

Cozy apartment on 3rd Ave. and Parnassus,

Our acquaintance started so promisingly. I have fond memories of the landlady who introduced us, explaining that your previous tenants were a young family who had left for another opportunity, not because they didn’t like your style. She didn’t have to worry about trying to convince us. I was charmed by the hulking vintage stove sitting unabashedly in the middle of your cramped floor plan, and the water heater peeking out from behind a folding room divider. From the kitchen I could see into the living room and bedroom at the same time. It was cozy, to put it nicely—the bed barely fit in the bedroom and, sitting on the couch, one’s knees might almost touch the TV stand. But I could see us inhabiting your space so clearly, chilly nights snuggled up near the radiator with the cat we didn’t yet have. We eagerly sent in our application, already imagining our morning walks to the coffee shop down the street. But a few days later your sweet landlord replied with the news. We were one of two couples perfect for the apartment, she’d said, but when it came down to choosing, she had such little to go off of. In the end, she’d picked the applicants who were most in need (now our dual income was a hindrance!). She was so apologetic. As heartbroken as I was, I understood. I wanted to believe we were your perfect match, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.

Wishing you nothing but the best,

The Other Couple

Elegant, moody apartment building on Judah,

Climbing the stairs from street level directly into your dramatic 1920s interior literally took my breath away. (Seriously, that was a lot of steps.) I don’t remember too many details, but I remember the light—late afternoon light—angling in through gorgeous wavy-glass windows and illuminating your dark walls. The N Judah rolled by right outside. My partner wondered if it might be too loud; I didn’t care. I loved the idea of city sounds right outside our window. Anyway, I wasn’t alone in my admiration for you. We went home and submitted our application right away, and were answered by radio silence. I resisted the urge to email again and ask if the landlord had received it. A week or so later, when I finally followed up, she tersely told me you were no longer available, in a way that made me feel foolish for ever getting my hopes up. I’d be lying if I didn’t feel cheated every time we pass by your regal facade going east on Judah. What could we have done for a better shot? Oh well, I try to comfort myself by saying I wouldn’t have liked the fog, anyway.

Still kinda salty,

The Forgotten Applicants

Funky, hip Dogpatch loft,

Ah… where to begin. It seemed too good to be true. We’d been living on the west side for six years at this point, looking for a change of scenery, and you certainly delivered. You were the second unit we toured in the building, which admittedly wasn’t anything special from the outside: corrugated metal painted a dull grey-green. Your sister unit was smaller, overlooking a car shop and a soap(?) factory. We’d always played it safe when it came to living spaces, but there was always a part of me that wanted to try something a little more adventurous, a little bolder—like you. And holy buckets, how you blew me away with your wide-open floor plan, confidently exposed beams, and wall-to-wall windows. Up your stairs was not only a bedroom (admittedly with a low clearance, which both the landlord and Alex had to stoop to stand in) but a catwalk around the entire perimeter of the loft, which led to a sunny private balcony overlooking the sparkling bay. There was a shared rooftop space too, with the city lights view I’ve always wanted. Back inside I imagined your space full of house plants and records, pushing aside my concerns about precarious stair railings and the fact that the bathroom had no windows. There was also the matter of a view for the cat. No birds or trees in this industrial side of town. I sent in an application anyway. I think Alex expected we wouldn’t have a chance, or maybe he was ready to turn you down because let’s face it, $3500 was a steep price to pay for a place with no parking. But when we learned you were ours for the taking, I felt my heart leap. Blinded by images of Loft Life™, I tried to rebuff my pragmatic partner when he pointed out the shortcomings we’d talked about: no parking, a dangerous lack of upstairs railings, the block precariously located in a liquefaction zone. Finally, I had to pull my head back down from the clouds. Tasked with the duty of telling the landlord we couldn’t accept, I cried—nay, wept—the entire afternoon. I know now it was the right call, but at the time you really broke my heart.

Tearfully yours,

A Lofty Dreamer

Unexpectedly cool West Portal one bedroom,

Over time you’ve become hazy in my memory. But I remember your narrow kitchen with its comical lack of counter space and that surprisingly huge patio with room for a barbecue. I loved how your front windows overlooked the main drag on West Portal Ave., which is full of quaint shops, like an old-timey suburb in the middle of the tech capital of the country. In a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes, you made a statement: a grand Art Deco affair towering over the mom-and-pop shops along the avenue, complete with a grand foyer and carpeted stairs. We visited you in December when the light posts were decorated with Christmas banners and shoppers strolled the streets below with shopping bags in hand. We ultimately decided West Portal wasn’t for us (the fog belt, you understand) but I still find myself thinking of you every December in San Francisco.

Enjoying my Vitamin D,

Your Casual Acquaintance

Funky Bernal abode at the top of the hill,

Nothing beats your views. And wasn’t it you who had the restaurant-grade stove in your kitchen? You would’ve been a great catch; it’s too bad your landlord was so sketchy. We found ourselves trying to leave as soon as we arrived. He kept trying to get us to help him set up an electric heater, one of those cheap things that are made to look like a fireplace. And it was only after rambling at us for nearly 30 minutes that he revealed he was looking for a short-term renter, for like three months max. We admitted then that you weren’t for us, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to show us around the adjoining property and coming back to the fireplace-in-progress, asking again if we might be able to help. We finally pried ourselves away, and I hope whoever inhabited your space since then has made it out ok. 


The Long-Term Renters

Perfectly acceptable Excelsior corner unit,

Not gonna lie, you had me at “cat-friendly.” The kitchen views of Sutro Tower weren’t bad either. Yes, you were nice enough at the start. A little bland and sterile maybe, with greyish floors and charmless granite countertops. Maybe we didn’t give you a fair chance. The main thing was the transportation situation. Coming out of a long-term relationship in the Richmond, we were just so tired of long bus rides to get anywhere in the city, and you would’ve been just as bad, or worse. To hell with buses, we needed the light rail! BART! I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I hope you found a tenant (with a cat) who loved you for who you were. 

Can we still be friends?

The Fussy Commuters

PS: You may be interested to know we finally found a place within walking distance to Glen Park BART, but as it turns out, we take the 14 and 49 almost everywhere we go. Once a bus rider, always a bus rider, I guess. Let’s keep in touch…


Feature Image: Courtesy of Nikki Collister

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