Welcome to Curbed's Renters Week, our five-day exploration of the ever-wild-and-wooly world of leases, landlords, Craigslist, and more. We've invited Vox Media cohort Chris Plante, a senior editor at The Verge, to wax introspective about life as a renter—and why even the best things can't last forever.
For the final half of my decade spent living in New York City, my wife and I shared a rental in the former West Village Police Precinct. Technically, we lived in the old holding cells. The unit was separated from the stone complex of the main building by a narrow four-foot wide path, and the 500-square-foot layout featured a narrow living room and half-kitchen downstairs, a bedroom and bath upstairs, and a low-ceilinged loft above that. (We once thought we'd turn it into a reading nook. It quickly became storage.)
Cramped? Sure. But we had two floors, no neighbors above or below us, and a courtyard only accessible to four other neighboring apartments. The other folks were living in what were once, when Teddy Roosevelt was Police Commissioner, the morgue and horse stables. Those neighbors, some of whom have lived in the building since its conversion over three decades ago, planted flowers, held courtyard get-togethers, and allowed their cats to roam free, keeping birds and bugs from taking over the open-air space. I never thought we would leave.
We signed the lease for less than anything else in the neighborhood—a lot less—thanks in part to the recession and a generous dose of luck. I'm hesitant to reveal the exact number (around $2,500) because it's a figure that probably repels everyone outside of Manhattan and dumbfounds everyone who lives in it.
Did I mention we had an extra third-floor space just for storage? I did? Well, we did! We couldn't have had it better. Truly. We looked every time our lease renewal arrived. Nothing compared, and in time that became the problem. For eleven years, we'd lived with the carpe diem attitude required of any person who can burn thousands of dollars each month to rent a one-bedroom and not want to drown themselves in the Hudson River.
Hell, we loved the Hudson River and its trash-speckled majesty. We loved everything about where we lived. We strolled down the West Side Highway every weekend, weather permitting. We had favorites for everything: ice cream (The Odeon), soup dumplings (Joe's Shanghai), pie (Bubby's peanut butter), movie theater (Battery Park), picnic spot (the big lawn on Governors Island). We didn't have a lawn to mow or a foundation to repair or any other obligations you hear homeowners say swallow weekends like a vacuum cleaner swallows dust bunnies in suburban living room. An apartment in New York City is less like a home, and more like a line at a theme park. You want it to be comfortable, but really it's just a place you endure when you're not doing something fun.
We were happy. Except all the times we weren't: when we opened our bank account and wondered where our paychecks had disappeared to; when we squabbled over who would send in the month's rent check; when our favorite affordable Italian restaurant in the neighborhood closed, then the Mexican restaurant, then the coffee shop; and when the huge question mark of our uncertain, capital-f Future creeped up from the bowels of our sad savings accounts, and kept us awake at night (in addition to the couple in the main building who alternated nights of loud sex with nights of louder crying).
To survive in New York City as a couple who wants to have kids, we needed to make a lot more money than our careers as professional writers could ever produce. Or we needed to adapt, and bid farewell to the notion of comfort, savings, and retirement. We like our jobs, so we tried for the latter, spending a good portion of the past couple years researching, investigating, and crafting our plan to stay and work ourselves to the grave. What started as a probable, practical plan to move to Brooklyn morphed into an excited plan to head upstate, then a vague, "Do we move to Connecticut?" or "Jersey?" We even worked our way toward "What about South Carolina?" (that Charleston food scene and beach combo!).
In October of last year, we house-sat in Austin, Texas, for two friends while they took their honeymoon. We'd spent time in other cities, but those couple of weeks shed the scales from our eyes. The life we had in New York in our twenties didn't align with the life we want to have in our thirties. We ran the math, and it appeared we could be more comfortable, more active, and save money by the truckload. And with JetBlue flights regularly on sale, the occasional surprise trip to New York would be totally doable.The best way to enjoy New York, we ultimately decided, was to not live in New York.
The house we now own—we closed on the first of May—is a few doors down the street from our newly-married friends. It's been a few weeks into our new reality, and our expectations have, in no uncertain terms, adjusted. Here we are, first-time homeowners, rosy-cheeked not from the Texas heat, but from the rush of blood to the head every time we see a new bill. We moved to save money, but right now, we're hemorrhaging it. Debt, like humans, contains multitudes: Roofing debt. Plumbing debt. Kitchen debt. Everyone we knew already living outside of NYC told us about the colossal headache that home ownership produces. I guess we didn't imagine that headache would be worse than spending $5 on a single roll of bodega toilet paper, or getting stuck on a crowded subway car that someone just shat in.
Here's the current list of worries:
· A cable box, improperly installed.
· The internet, still not activated by Time Warner despite numerous calls and a home visit.
· A recently-purchased sofa, which arrived damaged.
· The gutters, ready to be replaced.
· Windows, ready to be replaced.
· A gap between fence and earth separating our house (and small, curious puppy) from the neighbor's yard (and big, barking dog) behind us.
· A hole in the attic floor, put there by our own doing while fixing another problem.
· Another hole, in the earth on the side of our house, put there by the incomplete work of a local landscaping company.
But I can't do any of that, because I have a full-time job that isn't repairing my home. No, instead I am here writing to an unseen reader who perhaps relishes the pleasures of apartment living. Let me assure you that those pleasures are real and valid. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I am vibrating with fondness for a life left behind. I'm writing to you asking myself, or maybe you: Did we make the right choice?
My parents raised me in a Midwest home that looked just like the home of everyone else I knew. In the 1990s, in our corner of Kansas City suburbs, every floor plan was the same. You could only ballpark your neighbor's wealth by the quality of building materials, the size of their television, and the candy they gave at Halloween. Almost every family I knew owned a house, and the reason was simple. The Midwest was, and to some degree remains, one giant, windy, featureless landmass, daring humans to inhabit it with its low, low prices and affordable movie tickets.
I never thought about renting until I moved to New York; and there, I never thought about owning. Moving to the city at the age of 18 required an immediate ground-up remodeling of what I deemed "acceptable" living conditions. My first place was a two-bedroom, one-bathroom, one-closet, no-kitchen dorm I shared with four other eighteen-year-old boys. The building was called Brittany Hall, located at the corner of 10th and Broadway. Neither the heating nor the air-conditioning could be counted on, nor could hot water. I made friends with people in the ritzy Third Avenue dorm just so I would always have a place to bathe. The foyer of our room, and at least two other rooms on the floor featured unbleachable blood stains. Twice the Brittany elevator lights flickered, and I dropped half a floor before whatever safety failsafe did its job and stopped us passengers from falling to our doom.
Like all pledges to the city, I was being hazed. College was a safe-ish space to rewire my brain so that it didn't malfunction whenever presented with the many absurdities of New York apartment living. That's why I never winced at the rent my family and I paid to NYU for the 2-bedroom, 5-person, no-kitchen dorm. If I remember correctly, it was around $1,200 a month. That's $10,000 a year (if you go home to your parents' place over the summer). One professor told me that the price at that location was a steal. Because this is New York and naturally someone you barely know feels comfortable telling you what to feel about rent. Whatever the case, I believed him.
In my eleven years in the city, I never moved outside of the Village. And I was proud of the "cheap" apartments I found. I never paid much more than the rate of that first dorm. While my friends suffered hour-long commutes to school and eventually work, I walked. This too felt like a scam at the time, like I had uncovered some great deal, walking 40 minutes to work each day because I was too stubborn and cheap to buy a MetroCard.
You hold onto these "bonuses" of living in under-an-hour walking distance from the office or Trader Joe's, and feel like you're almost making money living in New York. You have to. New York apartments don't have many of the benefits of apartments elsewhere. The market is so competitive that brokers easily and often rope renters into a same-day lease, then charge you 15% of your new annual rent for the pleasure. Tack on a one-month security deposit, plus first and maybe last month's rent in advance. If you're rich, you get a place with a doorman. If you're lucky, you get a place with a door buzzer that actually works. (We got neither.) You have to assume your super will fix one thing every five years you live somewhere, and only if you tip really well each Christmas. I never met my building's owner, though I would like to thank whoever it was at the main office that never in half a decade answered the phone, but did manage to send back our security shortly after we'd arrived in Austin.
Besides, those long walks truly were a bonus. Every morning on the way to work, I passed Macy's, Madison Square Garden, and the Garment District, all of which I can't stand. But they were living reminders of where I was. After work, I walked to fun places, great places, historic places. I saw theater in the Lower East Side at the Abrons Art Center, art in Midtown at MoMA, movies at Film Forum in the Village, theater at Lincoln Center, and food in (almost) every neighborhood of every borough. And I tortured my checking account with $25 movie tickets to $100 "affordable" dinners for two.
The good, the bad, the expensive—from the window of our New York apartment, they all looked the same.
I fear this all sounds so cynical, but this is how many of us speak about the city: like we're in constant couple's counseling with thousands of buildings and 8.4 million other people. And taking control of your story feels good in the way sharing embarrassing childhood stories feels good. Whenever I spoke with friends about their own similar anxieties, they'd end each anecdote with the same phrase: "That's life." It's the secular version of "It's all in God's plan," a meaningful bit of positivity we say that prevents every New Yorker from taking that nosedive into the Hudson.
I can't be so cynical about our final apartment.
It's where I proposed to my wife. Where we planned our wedding. We celebrated new jobs; we mourned old jobs. We received good news and bad news, and discussed both most nights over dinner on the ottoman on our floor. We never did get a kitchen table, not like there was ever space. The living room wasn't large enough for more than six people, but that didn't stop us from hosting guests as often as possible. The apartment became a dining area, writer's retreat, and a screening room for anyone wanting to watch a new episode of Survivor or The Bachelor or whatever new addiction we collected during our time there. We lived in the greatest city on Earth, but had no shame spending entire weekends inside our glorified shoebox.
I know it's the brainwash speaking, but I loved the coziness of living inside an impossibly small space. When you adopt a dog, you train it to enjoy spending time in a kennel just large enough that it can turn around in. I know how that feels. And yet, it was our apartment, our beloved kennel of a jail cell, that finally convinced us to make the big move. We were tired of old things falling apart—a leaky shower faucet, a clogged bathtub drain, a ripped kitchen floor—and the building refusing to both let us fix them ourselves and fix them for us. We were tired of getting yelled at for taking the trash out on non-trash days. We barely had natural light, and our windows didn't open. We were always in each other's way. We fought.
The city has cheaper neighborhoods, but even a $1,500 two-bedroom apartment elsewhere came with its share of headaches. The commute, the fact that the living space was still laughably diminutive, the reality of rent being rent and not a mortgage—money that's gone once it's paid, and not an investment for the future. Living upstate felt like a silly compromise: terrible taxes, expensive homes, a commute so atrocious I'd begrudge it. And wherever we looked on the East Coast, we saw the same problems.
In the end, we wanted to own. Our biggest gripe about apartment living wasn't the cost or the space. It's the instability. The walls and floors are part of our story, but they aren't ours.They could and would be taken away at a moment's notice to make way for a British banker willing to pay a higher rent.
My wife and I adored our apartment. On the day we moved, we spent the hour before the cab arrived that would shuttle us to the airport taking photos of the gutted space, free of any signs that we ever actually lived there. The peanut butter pie, the ritzy museums, all the little pleasures: Everything we thought we cared about suddenly seemed so petty. You can always return to the public spaces, but once you leave your apartment, it's gone. It becomes something new to someone else. My wife cried. And then I cried. And then we both cried as we shut the door with the keys left inside.
New York trained us well for home ownership. The good, the bad, and the expensive are once again entwined. But let me tell you, as I scratch a few more to-dos off my list, the goods are really damned good. Especially if your idea of apartment living means no yard, no space, no dishwasher, no laundry. But now we have a washing machine and a dryer, and I need to constantly remind myself that there's no need to save quarters anymore. We finally have room for a dog, which we adopted immediately. Her name is Pasta Bowl. Last night, I had to let the dog outside around 3am. If you can't remember the last time your bare feet felt grass, or the last time you stood outside in your underwear with no fear of repercussions, let me tell you, it's something else.
I'm sure I will miss the creature comforts of the city, though I don't yet. We're too busy enjoying the outdoors, shopping at big box stores, shuttling things in our new (actually old) car; and fixing, painting, and decorating the place. Packing our life into a truck and moving halfway across the country was a stress test only paralleled to planning our wedding. And like planning the wedding, every bit of stress was worth it. We're no longer on top of one another. We can be in the kitchen at the same time, and that is a victory. It really, really is.
Adulthood trains most people to refresh friendship circles every few years. We leave our hometown for college. We leave our college town for work. But when friends go to college in a city like New York, nobody really leaves. For the past decade, my wife and I have been close with the same 24-person group. They were the real magnet that kept us in New York City and in our apartment. We can live without the food and the art and the culture. But how will we live without our friends?
Our current solution is regular visits. While we're in town, we'll see shows, art exhibits, and parks, in-between hitting our favorite restaurants. We'll have more money to enjoy everything we loved about the city—we're spending a lot now on home repair and homemaking, but our cost of living is already enormously less here than in New York. And in Austin, after we get ourselves established, we'll face the real hard work that awaits everyone, whether they rent or own: going outside and making the most of where you live.
· All Renters Week 2015 coverage [Curbed]