Basic needs

When people walk into my hundred year-old house for the first time they often tell me how charming and beautiful it looks. We have fancy molding and real wood doors. Our bathroom has a claw foot tub and our bedrooms have hardwood floors. “What a wonderful place to live,” people say, and for eight months out of the year, they’re right. But for the other four months, I feel like I’m living in a meat locker.

When we first moved in I saw the two-year old gas furnace in the basement and thought, this place is going to be warm. And it was for a few weeks. But when winter really started in late October, the house started to become unbearably cold. And damp. Moisture kept our windows fogged all day and prevented our towels from ever drying. So we did what any reasonable Portlanders would do: we weather-proofed. We put plastic sheeting over windows and foam covers over pipes. We put new gaskets in our door frames and shoved styrafoam into the empty crevices of our basement. We even put foam inserts behind our electrical outlets, which surprisingly didn’t violate our local fire code. All of these things helped, but not enough.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a matter of throwing more heat at the problem. No matter how high our thermostat was turned up, we still lost most of our heat. If it was below forty degrees outside, we could never get it above sixty-five degrees inside. It sucked.

The next winter we decided to see if there were other things we could do to keep warm. We brought in a contractor to see how much it would cost to improve our insulation, but it turned out that improve wasn’t the right word. We didn’t have any, he said. No insulation. It was like complaining about your shivers without realizing you were naked. But there was good news. Insulating is relatively cheap ($600 for our attic) and there are lots of tax credits to help pay for it. All we’d have to do is get our landlord’s approval. She’d want us to be warm, right?

It turned out that our landlord couldn’t care less. We told her that we’d split the cost with her, but never heard anything more than her promise to consider it. And although I want to blame her for the fact that I can see my breath almost every morning when I get out of bed, I can’t. I can’t blame her because she owns this house to make money. She doesn’t stand to gain financially from insulating the house, so why do it? In a way, it’s the same reason why everyone always hates landlords. If it costs them money, you’re going to have a hard time getting them to do it. Of course, you could say that investing in the house will pay off for her eventually, but who knows? Maybe the housing market will crash again and she won’t have anything to show for her investment. Or maybe the cold and the damp will rot the house from the inside and it’ll fall down around us. Or on us.

It’s not very often that I’m reminded how basic our needs can be. Food, clothing, shelter. Maybe we’ll get that last one right the next time we sign a lease.