Soon after I moved to New York City at the end of 1997, it became clear I wanted to remain here long term.
The friends who preceded me here – and encouraged me to take a shot at living in the big city – are all gone now. They cited the cost of living and the state of the public school system as factors for leaving.
For me, the monthly rent loomed as the only threat to me staying. What saved me up until now was a lucky break with the studio apartment I’ve been at in Jackson Heights, Queens for the last sixteen years. It was listed in the Times real estate section back in late 2002. I responded to the ad, looked at the place and paid the guy repping the apartment’s owner first and last month’s rent, security deposit, a big broker’s fee and the cost of a credit check.
I lived on the first floor of a six-story co-op building and loved the neighborhood. My commute to LaGuardia was ridiculously easy – and it became even more so a few years ago when the MTA initiated express bus service to the airport from Jackson Heights via the Q70.
My rent was $850 in 2003. It has gradually climbed to what I’m paying now: $1350 a month. My landlord has been fair. I’ve never personally met her. I just send the check to her PO box. Only twice in sixteen years did I call her seeking help. Once for bed bugs and once for a protracted months-long cooking gas outage. On both occasions, I got little more than lip service and worked through the problems on my own. But on balance, I never got sour about my living situation because I loved the apartment so much. It was perfect – or nearly so.
The wood floors, shower head, kitchen appliances and radiator all worked to perfection. I was a ten-minute walk to the subway station which would whisk me into midtown in another ten minutes.
I was so close to the Mets ballpark, I could get home in time after the game to listen to the post-game wrap-up.
It’s only in the last two or three years that I began getting concerned that I wouldn’t be able to stay forever. There was an obvious and dramatic influx of people with money. In my building. In my immediate neighborhood. At my train stop.
This invasion was really noticeable on my Sunday morning visits to the nearby greenmarket. People were openly discussing co-op unit sales figures and parading their rare breed dogs and fancy strollers while clogging the market’s pathways.
In my building, brand new residents didn’t wait to flex their muscle. They sought to rally pressure on local elected leaders to stop airplane noise (good luck with that). And they moved formally via board action with backing from building management to isolate and embarass longtime Russian occupants who smoke cigarettes in the outdoor common spaces.
My lease was year-to-year with no protection from either ouster or significant rent increases. While my landlord offered renewal each autumn with tolerable, incremental hikes, I didn’t have the slightest read on her long-term intentions. Her letterhead indicates she’s in the real estate business. About six or seven years ago, she intervened on my behalf legally to stave off an effort by my building’s co-op board to get rid of sub-tenants – or residents who did not own their units. Eventually, the composition of that board changed such that the building adopted a more tolerant position toward sub-tenants.
The real fear I had came while seeing neighbohood real estate listings with rent and sales numbers for units similar to those of my size and quality. Since there was no meaningful bond with the owner of my apartment, why would she continue settling for substantially less than what the market would bear?
Concurrent with my feeling of insecurity was a progressive push by the city’s current mayor to force builders to set aside a substantial portion of new development projects for “affordable housing.” It is now a condition of most new construction in the city to earmark a percentage of units at below market rents to people in qualifying income brackets.
Via a web-based lottery system, I put my name in the hat for nearly every opportunity in all of the city’s boroughs except Staten Island. A different mail-in effort landed me on the waiting list for a building at 110th and Amsterdam. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me, my position on that list stalled hopelessly in recent years.
I started getting nibbles late in Bill deBlasio’s first term via the Housing Connect site. There was a fifth-floor walkup in Harlem that I got cold feet on because of the stairs. And then a brand new building on the ocean in Rockaway (across the street from Rippers). I nearly acted on the Rockaway chance but then did a few practice commutes and decided I couldn’t handle the really long bus ride to work every day.
Last year, I had a fitful interaction off an invite to advance in the process for an apartment in a new high-rise in downtown Jamaica (Queens), but a series of blunders by the management company handling that tenant search ultimately left my application in limbo. That experience – along with another badly-hosted interview for a building on the west side of Manhattan left me cold on the whole process. I started to feel like the game was rigged. I had decided about midway through last year that my fallback position was readiness for a move to market-rate spots in further-flung neighborhoods with perhaps lesser quality living arrangements. Amazon’s announcement late last year sent further shivers through the renters’ psyche – especially in Jackson Heights which has become front and center as an emerging neighborhood after years of what felt like a best kept secret.
In late October of last year, I had another interview – this time for a new building on the lower east side of Manhattan. The woman who conducted the interview was warm and encouraging about my chances. She noted my longevity at the airline and offered suggestions about how best to present information on certain parts of the application.
A couple months went by and the same friendly woman from the interview called seeking supplementary documentation. My application was now in the hands of city government which makes final inquiries and approvals on tenant selection. During the period from just before Christmas until around New Year’s Day, there were further questions about my finances. And then out of the blue – on the 4th of January – a woman from the real estate management company offered me an apartment. I would be allowed to see it on January 7th but would have to decide on the spot whether to take it – or leave it. If I took it, I’d need bank checks for first month’s rent, a month security and one for $25 for the carbon monoxide detector.
All of a sudden, I had four days to decide whether to make a move with significant implications on all life’s fronts.
My income put me in two categories of contention for a studio apartment and the one I was offered was in the much higher cost tier. The rent is $1967 a month! My annual income is on the flat bottom to qualify. More ideally, I would have been offered the same apartment sitting near the top of a lower income tier but that didn’t happen.
So, I looked at the apartment on that Tuesday. It’s small but new and has a view that will never get old. I said “YES,” signed a lease effective immediately and started sleeping here on the 22nd of January.
I handed off the keys of my cleaned-out old apartment in Jackson Heights on the Tuesday after the Super Bowl. The landlord was totally cool about the hasty exit. She graciously accepted my explanation for leaving and my offer to forfeit a good chunk of change on the way out the door.
With little time between the job and all the detail work associated with the move, the last six weeks or so have been a blur.
The new rent number is an imposing one for sure but the key to this decision is that the rent is “stablized,” which provides government-imposed protection on the level of future increases.
Set aside the fact that I’m now living on the lower east side of Manhattan. The way rents are going all across the city means the market will make my rent look more and more “affordable” as time goes by.
$1967 is a lot now. And it will be a lot in five years for an hourly airport worker. But at least there’s some form of a harness on it which I didn’t have at the market rate apartment.
I only got the internet hooked up last week and have started to sleep a little better now that I’m settling in.
I’ve always wanted to live in Manhattan and now I’m here. I’m very excited about learning and living and seeing and experiencing the old streets and businesses and people who comprise the Lower East Side.
I can’t stop looking out my window.
Much more to come on this new chapter…