My exhausting search for a new apartment in Geneva

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Not my apartment, just some random street in Geneva.

At the end of October, I learned that I had to get out of my apartment ASAP.

First, some back story: I had always bragged that I was extraordinarily lucky, because I was offered an apartment on my very first day in Geneva. My flight from Frankfurt touched down around 2pm, I checked into my Airbnb by 4pm, and by 6pm, I was at my first apartment viewing.

Everything was perfect. The one-bedroom unit was huge, with large, almost panoramic windows looking onto Geneva’s iconic Jet d’Eau and the Jura mountains in the background. It was also completely furnished and even came with an in-unit washing machine; all I had to do was move in with my three suitcases. That was especially ideal, seeing as my work didn’t help with relocation at all, and I was so broke from my nonprofit job and student loans that I had no money to buy furniture. With this apartment, everything was taken care of.

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Nice view, right? This was just before they shut down the Jet d’Eau again, when Geneva entered a second lockdown.

Rent was steep at 2280 francs a month, and the apartment was a sublet, but that worked for me: I didn’t speak any French and was nervous about dealing with government forms and the régie, the notorious property management middlemen universally hated by the tenants of Geneva. The couple I’d be subletting from seemed nice. Originally from Canada and the United Kingdom, they were fellow native English speakers and knew what it was like to uproot yourself and move to a new country.

That night, they texted me to offer the apartment for a sublease of one year. I accepted and moved in the following week.

So many red flags in hindsight

Before moving to Geneva, I had never seen so many sublets in my life. Facebook groups, local expat websites, they were everywhere. Back in DC, the only situations I knew of that involved sublets were when you had to leave town for a month or two and didn’t want to be stuck paying rent for two places, so you brought in someone to fill that gap. But here, sublets are often protracted. It’s common to offer one’s apartment for six months, a year, even more. You can’t help but wonder: why? You don’t even live in this city anymore. Why not just leave your apartment and give it to someone else who needs it?

A few months into the sublease, I began thinking about moving out. The apartment itself was fine, but I was starting to become annoyed with some of the more minor quirks, like not being able to have my name on the mailbox. Which was the first item on a long list of red flags that I ignored:

  1. When I asked the tenants if I could add my name to the mailbox downstairs, they told me that wasn’t possible because I was on a sublease. In Switzerland, not having one’s name on the mailbox is a much bigger pain in the ass than one would expect. Here, postal workers deliver not to apartment numbers, but to individuals’ names. Every time I ordered something online or signed up for an important service, like a bank account, I had to add an extra ‘c/o’ line in the mailing address to include the name of the current tenant. In hindsight, it’s clear that the tenants didn’t want to change the name on the mailbox because they didn’t want the régie to notice that someone new had moved into the apartment. Which brings me to point number two.
  2. The tenants were most likely hiding the sublease from the régie. Upon signing our first sublease, I had asked, the régie is okay with this, right? Can I get a written statement from them saying they’re cool with the sublet and they won’t kick me out? “Of course,” the tenants reassured me. “We’ll notify them, and they’ll send a formal acknowledgement in writing by September.” No such acknowledgement ever reached me — and looking back, I doubt that there was one in the first place.
  3. I have no idea how much rent the tenants were actually paying. On Facebook, I began noticing that similar one-bedroom apartments in the area were being offered at much lower price points — 1900 francs, 1700 francs. My boss, who probably makes twice my salary, was paying 1800 francs for her one-bedroom a block away. The pandemic had severely curtailed migration to Switzerland, and for the first time, demand in Geneva’s preciously scarce housing market was dropping. And here I was, paying 2280 francs a month like a sucker. It’s likely that the tenants have been upcharging me this whole time and making a small profit, since I had never seen their lease agreement.
  4. The sublease lasted longer than a year. In April, as we were still coming to grips with the impossible weight of the pandemic and the confinement, the tenant reached out, asking if I wanted to renew the sublease for a year. I had been isolated at home for weeks at that point; I couldn’t even imagine venturing out to see other apartments, be in the company of possibly sick people. I agreed to renew. But again I couldn’t help but wonder: what’s the point of continuing to sublet an apartment indefinitely, in a city you no longer live in, when you’ve moved away permanently? Strange, isn’t it?
  5. The security deposit went into a personal account, rather than an escrow account. This should have been another clear sign that I was in a shady, non-sanctioned arrangement.

I did notice some of these red flags, but I was also complacent and non-confrontational. I stuck my head in the sand — until the day it was no longer possible to do so.

The scary red letter

One Tuesday in late October, I was working from home when a series of brusque knocks came at the door. I didn’t open the door; we were in the middle of another lockdown, and I wasn’t expecting any deliveries. I heard the shuffle of paper being jammed into the door crack. Probably advertisements, I thought.

A few minutes later, I approached the door and retrieved what turned out to be a red, scorching, angry letter. It was from the Office des poursuites, the local government agency responsible for tracking and prosecuting outstanding debts, and addressed to one of the tenants. Its contents made my stomach drop.

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The gist of the letter, for non-French speakers: you owe money, and we’re getting pissed that you keep ignoring our letters. If you don’t show up at our office next Wednesday with all of your legal and financial documents, we will send the police to your apartment, force our way in and seize all of your property.

How would you react — or how might your body react — if you received a letter like this?

I learned a lot about myself and my physiological response to stress that day.

The first thing I did was change into pants. I’d been wearing a comfortable long robe and leggings, but I stripped them off and put on sweatpants, a sweatshirt, socks, a jacket for going out. I hooked both my personal and work phones up to their chargers. I drank a glass of water and cleared and organized my kitchen table, which had been messy with tangled cords and work documents. I took a photo of the red letter and emailed it to both my work’s HR department and CAGI, the local welcome service for international workers, asking for urgent advice. Then I packed my messenger bag with my phones, my wallet, my ID, and headed out.

I actually went to the Office des poursuites. But not to ask them about the letter — I was in extreme fight-or-flight mode, and nearly all of the French I knew had temporarily escaped me. The only thing in my mind was I need to find a new place to live, NOW. I was only concerned about self-preservation.

At the office, I requested and paid for a copy of my attestation de non-poursuite, a key document needed by any prospective renter in Geneva to prove that they are not being prosecuted for any unpaid debts, unlike the tenant of my apartment. On the way home, I stopped by a print shop and asked them to scan and email the document to me, so that I could also have an electronic copy. I was rapidly assembling a dossier, or my renter’s profile.

On the way home, sitting on the tram, I kept thinking, this is a bad dream, right? I’m going to wake up. I’m going to wake up. My mind drifted in and out. I would think about something else for a moment, and then suddenly, with a nasty jolt back to reality, I would remember what was happening.

By the time I got home, I was able to connect with both HR and CAGI. We’re not sure what the letter means for you exactly, in terms of the threat to send the police, they both told me. But you should be looking for a new place ASAP.

I sent an email to my supervisors, trying to keep the tone more stressed out and less straight-up panicked, to let them know that I might not be able to work full-time during the week due to this unexpected situation. Then I sent a mass email in bcc to my friends and colleagues, briefly sharing my situation and asking if they had any leads on housing.

This was the only silver lining that came out of this nightmare: the warmth and support of my network here in Geneva. Within an hour, I was offered three house-sits, four couches, and a guest bedroom in France. To be honest, I don’t think I even had more than one or two friends like this back in DC. I’ve always been a lone wolf, but this experience — and this year, really — has shifted my perspective on why it’s so important to have genuine human connections with other people.

One coworker skipped a work meeting so she could call the Office des poursuites on my behalf and ask about the letter. The conversation brought reassuring news: the guy who’d signed the red letter basically told her that the threat to send the police was just that, a threat, and would take months to actually process and formalize. Most situations are resolved far before reaching this point. She spent ages on the phone explaining to me that this is just how things work in Switzerland: lots of fines, lots of empty threats, and lots of conflicts that can be de-escalated easily with a simple conversation in the local language. Later, I learned that she had fallen down the stairs the day before — while in her last trimester of pregnancy — and had spent the night in the hospital, but graciously took on my situation without a word about her own. (She’s fine, thank goodness!) To say that I’m thankful would be a gross understatement.

Confronting the tenant

Up until that point, I had not spoken to the tenants about the letter. My feelings towards them had hardened into ice in the instant that I read the letter. All trust was irrevocably broken, and I had to find out what my own options were before laying the cards on the table.

After receiving the information from the conversation with the Office des poursuites, I felt ready to move forward. I emailed the tenants a photo of the red letter. Keeping the language polite and professional, but with just a hint of cold anger, I informed them of my intention to move out of the apartment at the end of the following month. Let’s schedule a time to do a walk-through and return the security deposit, I wrote. I’d like to resolve this efficiently.

It was like dropping a bomb. One of the tenants — the one whom the Office des poursuites was after — called me, and I didn’t pick up. He began texting me on WhatsApp. There must be a mistake. I don’t owe anything; I’ll go visit them tomorrow and sort everything out. Don’t worry about it.

Don’t worry? I had spent the day doing nothing but worry. I was offended by the dismissive attitude, incredulous that they thought they could still get me to stay in this unsanctioned arrangement. I texted him back, reiterating that I was still going to move out. That wasn’t up for discussion. “However,” I added, “I’d be very happy to discuss taking over the apartment from you directly.”

To my surprise, he agreed. He said that they weren’t looking to come back to Geneva anyway, and had been talking for months about transferring the lease to me. He promised to contact the régie and let them know that they were ready to release the apartment, and that they had the perfect candidate in mind: me. He explained that the situation with the letter was all a misunderstanding, all because he’d forgotten to pay his health insurance bill the month before.

I thanked him. I let the phone call end on a positive note. But I didn’t trust him. I began searching for a new apartment right away.

How does one search for an apartment in Geneva, anyway?

I was not prepared for the housing search process in Geneva — how exhausting it is, and how strange and isolating it can feel, being judged by a régie against 50-70 other applicants, hundreds in some cases. How much money do you make? Are you a couple? What’s the length of your work contract? What kind of permit are you on? If you falter on even one of these points — if you don’t have an airtight dossier — expect to be shuffled to the back of the line.

Because the housing market in Geneva is so competitive, there’s little need to advertise vacancies widely. Every person who leaves their apartment has five friends or colleagues who’d jump at the opportunity to take over their place. You either find out about apartments through word of mouth, or through Facebook groups for expats — a necessary evil.

Having deleted my Facebook account nearly a decade ago, I created a ‘shell’ account with a half-real, half-fake version of my name and a profile picture that did not have me in it. I joined tons of groups: Geneva expats, Housing in Geneva, Apartments in Geneva/Vaud. Any time I saw a posting that met my requirements, I messaged the person immediately, with a short and sweet script that was designed to hit all the points:

Hi, I'd love to come visit the apartment. I work for an international organisation and have been living in [neighborhood] for the past year. Have a full dossier and keen to buy any furniture. Thanks!

Translation:
I work for an international organisation = so you know I make good money; also, notice how I spelled 'organisation' with an s? I'm probably European like you
Have been living in [neighborhood] for the past year = I'm already local and I know where I want to live
Have a full dossier = I know how the process works, and I have great credentials that the régie will love
Keen to buy any furniture = feel free to dump all the stuff you don't want on me

I got responses 80-90% of the time. For each visit, I brought a printed version of my dossier: an attestation that I did not have any debt, my work contract, my passport, my residency permit, my last 3 pay slips, and an already-filled out copy of the application form. Because this is the really fucked up part: if you like the apartment, you’re expected to hand this dossier to the tenant, on the spot, for them to pass along to the régie. If you tell the tenant anything they don’t want to hear — for instance, that you’d rather not buy their furniture — or if they simply don’t like your vibe, they’ll toss your dossier in the trash and not pass it along. The lack of privacy throughout all this is appalling. I imagine half of the people in Geneva have seen my passport and pay slips at this point.

I met a lot of people throughout this process. The common thread seemed to be stress and anxiety. I met so many people who were so visibly stressed that they seemed to be almost vibrating. I met a man who had been laid off (by my work, no less) and was heading back to his hometown in Switzerland; he was sad and resigned but also kind and gracious. I met someone who’d just been laid off by the International Labour Organization and trying to break her lease ASAP; her mother was also staying with her in one small studio apartment, their beds pushed together. As I walked around the apartment, the elder woman sat huddled in a corner, wearing a mask. I met someone who was moving to Kenya to support the COVID response there. Someone who had lost their job and was moving back to Italy. The sadness was overwhelming, palpable even as we hid most of our faces beneath masks.

Changing tactics

In all, I visited 10 apartments. Well, technically 9 — there was one where the tenant forgot to tell me the door code, and also didn’t respond to Facebook messages, so I just left. All in all, I applied to 4 apartments.

The results of my applications were not so favorable. While I was lucky that competition was lower than usual due to COVID, I was unlucky in that I only had 7 months left on my current work contract, which I soon learned was such a big dealbreaker for régies that it essentially rendered me un-rentable.

Faced with rejection after rejection, and exhausted from both a) the physical act of having to visit so many apartments around town and b) the emotional stress of being exposed to so many different people during a pandemic (we were all masked, but still), another blow came in mid-November. I received a text from the tenants of my current apartment. Big surprise, they had decided not to speak to the régie about letting me take over the lease after all; I could either keep subletting from them, or move out.

At that point, I could understand their perspective a little better. I had seen first-hand how hard it is to actually lease a decent apartment in Geneva — it’s like winning a rare prize, and people who have won that are reluctant to let that go. Plus, it was clearly a great business model for them: keep a furnished apartment in the center of Geneva at a reasonable rent, and keep taking advantage of clueless new expats like me who don’t speak a lick of French and would rather not deal with the grueling housing hunt process. A few hours after I told them that I was done with the sublet, I saw an ad for the apartment go up on a local expat website, the one I’d found them on a year ago. They were now charging 2300 francs for the sublet — and surely there would be new takers.

I had only two weeks left before my lease ran up, and I knew that my dossier wasn’t working. I reached out to my work for help and was so grateful, once again, to have an employer that is terrifyingly efficient. On Thursday evening, I requested an attestation stating that my work contract would be renewed; less than a day later, I received the letter, in French, signed by the head of HR.

How I got my new apartment

My new apartment was actually the second place I visited, and the second place I applied for. It was love at first sight: I walked in, and it immediately just felt right. Like home. I was so obsessed with the apartment that I literally didn’t fall asleep until 3am that night, and the next day, I raved to everyone I knew about it.

Obviously, I left my dossier with the tenant the evening I visited. The next week, the tenant sent me a message: the régie had declined my application because I only had a few months left on my contract, but was I interested in subletting for a year, with the option to take over the lease afterwards?

I wasn’t thrilled about the sublet, but I did love the apartment, and I was able to confirm two crucial pieces of information: a) is the régie aware of the sublet? and b) could I have my name on the mailbox? The answer was yes and yes. The transparency was reassuring. I confirmed that I was interested, but kept searching for and viewing other apartments in the meantime.

On Friday, when I received the attestation from my work, I decided to send it on to the régie to help my case. On Monday, I got a call. The letter had worked its magic; they were pleased with the proof that I would (technically) stay in Geneva until 2023, and were now happy to sign a direct lease with me, rather a sublet.

I was delighted to accept — in French. I should note that this entire conversation took place in French. I could tell that she deliberately spoke slowly, for my benefit. We discussed my move-in date, the length of my contract, where to mail my lease. At one point I apologized for pausing to look up something in Google Translate — “sorry, I don’t speak French well” — and the régie agent reassured me that I spoke just fine, with warmth in her voice.

Thinking about how I arrived in Geneva last summer — with two suitcases, no friends, and not a lick of French beyond “do you speak English?” — it makes me a little emotional just how far I’ve come. I’ve never regretted moving to Geneva, and this whole experience just goes to show why: I’m really starting to create a home here, a life, a group of people who care about me. Now more than ever, I feel so lucky.

4 comments

  1. I can understand that the process might have been stressful for you, finding a new place especially during these days is not easy. I’m happy to read that you were able to receive support.

    Liked by 2 people

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