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Why it's easier to get a federal security clearance than a New York rental: An ex-intelligence analyst explains

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In the summer of 2012 my then fiancé (now husband) and I began our search for an apartment here, blindly assuming it would be as easy as anywhere else: show up at an apartment complex, go to the leasing office, ask what’s available, and decide. It would be our first time renting in NYC and we were aiming for a cozy one-bedroom with closet space somewhere on the Upper West Side. We planned to head up from our home in Virginia and get the job done in the 2.5 weeks before our wedding. 

As an intelligence analyst with the Department of Homeland Security and a Naval Academy graduate, respectively, we had both been through extensive background investigations—the kind where federal agents leave no stone unturned in your financial history, ask your friends from high school if you were “well-behaved” and sometimes even seat you on a lie detector pad and see if you can answer questions without any suspicious movement in your nether regions.  These investigations inevitably upturn your life, leaving you buried under a torrential downpour of paperwork. It is, perhaps, the only process that could have prepared me for renting in New York City.

All told, we wound up working with three brokers, saw close to 20 apartments, and opened ourselves up to an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Here's what we learned:

1. The search

When I was a young twenty-something applying for an analyst position with the government, the process was straightforward: find the posting via the USA jobs government portal, click, and apply. In NYC you have TruliaStreetEasyCraigslistRentHopNakedApartments, and countless others. And, oh by the way, the chance of all the listings being up to date (and factual) is slim to none.

If you're short on time, ask a few friends for brokers who aren’t terrible, hire one, and start pounding the pavement to look at apartments with them in tow. Don’t stop until you have seen at least 10 apartments to form a baseline of what your budget will realistically get you, especially if you're new to the process. For example, a studio for $1,800 in the Upper West Side will have windows, a kitchen, and a normal-ish bathroom. For the same price in the East Village, you can expect a windowless room with perhaps, maybe, a kitchen. (Yes, this was from a real ad.)

2. The paperwork

After finding an apartment that actually fit the bill—a West 68th Street co-op with a window (facing a brick building, but doable), hardwood floors, and three closets—we were ready to roll. Ten days before our wedding. 

We passed the credit check with flying colors, but it was time to get our documents in order. As we had already been through extensive background checks for our jobs, we assumed this would be a breeze. Nope.

Typically, one of the first things you do in any government background investigation is to fill out an SF-86 form which asks for details on your financial status, mental health, residences over the past 10 years, relationships with foreign nationals, etc. Thinking this previously compiled information would be enough, we dug it up to use as a reference. Little did we know this was just the beginning and that our rental agency (on behalf of the landlord) would also need copies of our 401K plans, an overview of transactions from our personal and joint checking and savings accounts, our marriage certificate, proof of future income, and proof that we could cover 80 times the rent. (Since we were renting in a co-op building, they may have had an even higher bar than your average landlord.) 

I jokingly suggested we should promise them our first-born child.  For a moment, our broker looked like he might consider the idea to boost our odds.

3. The rejection (back to square one) 

After hours of slogging through paperwork for the 68th Street co-op we thought, “That was terrible, but it can’t get any worse.” With the exception of a few college indiscretions, we were two people who lived on the straight and narrow, so our clean-as-a-whistle records and the financial enema we had just received would surely demonstrate our suitability as tenants, right? Not so.

The day I was slated to FedEx two checks to secure the apartment, our broker called to say that the co-op had decided not to move forward. No further information, no details on the rejection, just the ability to completely audit everything sacred in our family and say “no thanks.” Secretly, we think they were trying to sell it at the same time and found a potential buyer. 

In my former position I had heard of several folks having to take the aforementioned polygraph several times. In that case, you’re simply told to come back and reschedule the appointment. Nerve-racking? Sure. But at the very least you don’t have to endure the paperwork process again. In NYC, however, this is not the case. When you get rejected, you go right back to square one. 

4. The interview

We persevered, as you can imagine, and did find one last place where we repeated the above steps (we were pros at this point). I’ll never forget the nerves I felt walking into the final interview with the landlord. It had been a long and grueling, hot New York summer. I was more nervous for this interview than I had ever been for any aspect of my job in the past. 

Passing a "bomb shelter" sign on my right, I went through the imposing steel doors and sat directly across from a stern looking man hunched in a seat just barely short of buckling. It was clear he wasn’t there to make friends, and was ironically in the position of evaluating our integrity in the shortest amount of time possible. He was a New York City Landlord.

In a windowless brick room we sat with the landlord as he moved through our entire application page by page, looking up only to glance with skepticism as we confirmed the myriad financial documents at his disposal. In the course of the discussion he managed to turn up his nose at the job I had lined up working for a venture capitalist, insult my husband’s military career, and ask us no fewer than three times if we could really afford the rent. We stood our ground. That mold-ridden apartment would be ours no matter what!

5. The lease 

There’s something positive about getting your security clearance. It demonstrates that you can be trusted by a country you love to do a job that might be important, and may even save a life or two. Pride and honor surface as you go forth into your new position.

Conversely, obtaining an apartment in New York City is analogous to being released from Gitmo (well, maybe not that bad, but you get my drift), leaving one with a mix of emotions ranging from profound relief to disgust. Nothing beats divulging the details of your life to individuals that would barely pass through the paperwork process themselves. 

New York renters, I salute you. And remember, if you're going to go through the rental process, you might as well apply for The Agency. At the very least, you've already compiled the information, and then some. 


Shala Burroughs is a former intelligence analyst turned entrepreneur. She is the co-founder of CloudPeeps.com, a freelance marketplace that connects companies with social media and community managers around the U.S.

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