Sunday, April 20, 2008

Meet me in St. Louis

"The dream: finding a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment in an elevator building with a doorman in Greenwich Village for $2,000 a month." Sounds nice and all, but this makes clear why it is just about impossible to go to grad school in Manhattan and commute from somewhere other than the Midwest. $2,000 a month for one person? Even cohabiting grad students, or friends willing to share a room, could not afford this apartment. And this is the apartment recent college grads apparently wish existed; the reality is far less space for far more money.

The NYT story about how hard it is to find an apartment in Manhattan sums up the problem but not the solution:

[L]andlords want only tenants who earn at least 40 times the monthly rent, which means an $80,000 annual salary for a $2,000 apartment. According to census data, more than 25,000 graduates ages 22 to 28 moved to the city in 2006, and their median salary was about $35,600. Those who don’t make 40 times their monthly rent need a guarantor, usually a parent, who in turn must make at least 80 times the monthly rent. In addition to a security deposit, some landlords also want the first and last month’s rent. Tack on a broker’s fee and a prospective renter for that $2,000 apartment is out of pocket nearly $10,000 just to get the keys to the place.

Yes, that's the problem, exactly. The article then offers up a charming anecdote about two recent grads, one in consulting and one in banking, who, despite the odds, found a place near Union Square. In other words, the article does not address the problem it's claiming to address, that it is just about impossible to rent in Manhattan or now much of Brooklyn--really, anywhere within reasonable commuting distance to NYU--unless you work in finance.

The most ridiculous part of the article is how NYC real estate brokers who come to colleges to tell students the hard truths about the real estate market are portrayed as on some sort of do-gooder mission. When what they are in fact doing is, of course, looking for business from what they see as a naive but wealthy potential client base.

[A NYC realtor] said that when he shows prospective renters what their budget really can buy, they are sometimes so appalled that “they think I’m trying to fool them or something, and they run away and I don’t hear from them again.”

Or, maybe the realtor was trying to fool them, and they chose to look elsewhere. Because this does happen. My own experience trying to rent a place in Manhattan (end of story: I stayed in Brooklyn) was hopeless for just that reason. While realtors looking to rent to recent college grads tend to expect naiveté, when they don't find it, they invent it. By this I mean, I'm a native New Yorker, and I had already been renting in the city for two years after graduation. I was not what's generally meant by 'new to the market.' Yet no matter what knowledge I had, I was constantly belittled and told I knew nothing about living in New York. No matter what I said, the person realtors were speaking to was a 21-year-old newly arrived from Kansas with a massive trust fund. No one believed that two PhD students would be capable of paying rent. (And yet we all do, amazing!) I explained time and again that I knew NYC apartments were small. Realtors did not believe me, so they showed me tiny closets within closets and when I failed to be impressed, this was obviously because I was expecting a ten-bedroom suburban house like the one I allegedly grew up in.

All of this revisionist history of my life thus far became exhausting, and convinced me that outer-borough renting was the way to go. I don't doubt that the experience is dreadful, perhaps more so, for actual newcomers, but my point is that it's a mess trying to rent in Manhattan no matter what, again, unless you had the good sense to choose a career in hedge funds or similar.

On the one hand it's fantastic to be a grad student in NYC. If you need to sift through 1840s French newspapers, you're just a subway ride away. On the other, even if you are willing to spend half your income on rent, even if you're willing to live far from campus, you may start to think that pitching a tent near your office is the most practical and least fantastical solution to the question of where you should live.

1 comment:

Withywindle said...

You should (re-)read Pynchon's V. As you read about our characters crawling through the slums of the Upper West Side in the 1950s, the wretched 60s and 70s and 80s between Broadway and Central Park West, you can think what all literature grad students should think now: 'Wow! I'll bet it was cheap to rent there in those days! And so convenient to midtown!"