With Rent Out of Reach, a Back Seat Becomes a Bedroom

For a Times journalist, months of reporting led to surprising discoveries about the growing number of Americans who, amid a nationwide housing crisis, live in their cars.

With Rent Out of Reach, a Back Seat Becomes a Bedroom

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Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times, who covers real estate and is a reporter, drove into a Kirkland, Wash. parking lot that was dedicated to people living in their vehicles. She expected to see old cars with bent fenders, or broken windows covered by cardboard.

Chrystal Audet is a 49-year old social worker who owns a gray Ford Fusion eight years old.

Callimachi was able to make this first of many discoveries while she shadowed Ms. Audet who lived in her car with daughter and her dog. The three-day journey was the culmination of a monthlong effort to report on how life is for tens and thousands of Americans living in cars due to a housing crisis.

Ms. Callimachi has spoken with over two dozen people.

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She interviewed many car dwellers who were employed. They had good jobs and incomes - Ms. Audet earned over $72,000 - but they did not earn enough to pay their debts, cover their bills, or afford a home.

In an interview, Ms. Callimachi stated that, "As someone who is not from this nation -- I was born Romania and was a refugee when I was between 5 and 9 years old -- it's shocking to see the level of hardships in America." This is an edited version of the conversation. She talked about her reporting.

What inspired you to write this story?

As I began to cover housing for The Times, in August, I encountered a


The number of people living in their cars is increasing. The shocking fact that the number of people living in cars in Los Angeles County grew more than 50%, from 12200 in 2016 to almost 19000 in 2020, was shocking. They are often working, but not in a position that pays enough to cover their rent. They may work as Uber or DoorDash drivers; they might be living on a fixed-income, such as Social Security. Or they could have been injured and need to live on disability.

How did you discover Chrystal

It took several weeks. They were being very cautious when I spoke to them. They wanted to be sure that the people they might interview would talk to me and wanted their names and faces to be used.

Why was Chrystal the ideal candidate?

I felt a genuine openness from her. You're asking a lot from someone who is facing a difficult situation to allow a reporter inside. This story is about financial hardship and homelessness, so I had to ask some very personal questions.

Why do you think she would have opened up?

She is a social worker and spends her days helping the poor. I believe there's an element of giving back. She's told me several times since the publication of the article that she hopes it will help others.

Why did you feel it was important to follow her?

You can ask someone, "Do you feel ashamed about this?" It's more powerful to be able see and demonstrate it. I doubt I would have been able to get the details from her about the shame she felt for using a public bathroom in the middle a state-run park. The park was hosting an equestrian event on the third day that I was there. She was surrounded with teeny-boppers in shiny boots, and thoroughbreds that had braided tails and manes. She had left her bucket in the car, where she usually kept her toiletries. Instead, she bundled up her razor and lotions in a towel that she carried under her arm. She said, "I don't like to attract attention."

Ms. Audet washes her dog's dishes in a portable toilet before going to bed.


Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

How did you record your observations?

I kept a recorder going for most of the time that I spent with Chrystal and wrote down important quotes in a journal. When I got back to my hotel each night, I typed up the most important things that happened during the day. Between my interview with Chrystal, and the other more than two dozen people I interviewed, I had over 50 hours of audio.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing this article?

We Times reporters must always be conscious of the power dynamics we live in. I am a reporter from a major media organization and this person is in a vulnerable position. I was very aware of this. In the end, I tried to be as truthful as possible about this person's financial hardship while still respecting her privacy.

Housing activists heard that Chrystal had been profiled by Times reporter and they helped her get housing.

How can you square this?

She is very vocal about her belief that The Times shadowing her has changed her destiny. In my first draft I didn't include this. Then I sent it to Ruth Fremson who was my photographer, and she told me that we should mention it because it would make it look like a Cinderella tale where the girl is in dire need and then gets a new apartment.

I wanted to let readers know that she was in a difficult situation. Then people started to notice her, possibly because a reporter for a major news organization was profiling her.

What are your next storylines in mind?

Some countries, especially in Europe have declared that housing is an equal human right to free speech. In the U.S., there's currently a movement that's trying to achieve the same goal.