I found my first Manhattan apartment through sheer luck. An aunt in Belgium, a chance email, and suddenly I was sharing a two-bedroom apartment in a walk up in Hell’s Kitchen, with a Duane Reade on the corner and a place with beyond decent coffee on the same block. It was nothing less than an act of God.
I really liked my apartment, and would have never left on my own accord. But my roommate decided to follow a boy to London, and my boyfriend and I thought it wise to do the whole “taking the next step” thing and find a place of our own. I wanted room for bookshelves and a chair to have tea in, he wanted a living room he could fill with electronics. I would list them, but I automatically tune out when the words “Best Buy” begin a sentence.
Our budget became a punch line. 'You know this is Manhattan, right?' one leasing officer pointed out.
We made a series of small compromises while searching. He wanted to leave Manhattan, and I wanted to stay. I wanted a walk-up; he wanted an elevator building. I needed an updated kitchen; he needed a living room suitable for surround sound. I agreed to let his preferences take precedent, but I would not bend on Manhattan. I was not ready for the outer boroughs.
I’m cool with the outer boroughs, really. The vibe is more relaxed, the streets are less cluttered, and the rents are cheaper. But there is a chubby toddler in me unwilling to part with Manhattan’s tiny luxuries. (This toddler is also averse to living among other toddlers.) I can run my errands in a solid 10 minutes without leaving a three-block radius. If I have had one too many margaritas, I can catch a cab home easily. Tell a cab driver at 2 a.m. that you’re going to Brooklyn, and he’ll suddenly remember he’s off duty. Or just laugh maniacally and drive off. Seriously, that happened to a Gowanus-dwelling friend once.
I made my argument for staying on the island while inebriated, stumbling down 9th Avenue and making wild gestures at bums and buildings. I pulled the “Manhattan is magical!” bit, and told him to stop stomping out the last of my naïve hopes. I want to live among the bums and the twinkling lights. Let me live!
Maybe my monologue swayed him (more likely, he just wanted me to stop bellowing), but he agreed to “look.” We agreed that we didn’t want to use a broker (we had both been able to rent without one in the past), but found that no-fee apartments are a quiet lie. It wasn’t just the misleading Craigslist scams (we’ll get to those later). Management companies weren’t paying realtor’s fees anymore, a realtor friend admitted. A recent New York Times article confirmed the same. Rents were rising, and no-fee apartments were no longer a reality. Still, I believed I could emerge with tale of unlikely triumph. I could write about how I found the only no-fee apartment in Manhattan, a tale to tell the grandkids!
Only that didn’t happen. I sifted through hundreds of Craigslist ads trying to find no-fee apartments. I used the damn no-fee filter, but every apartment listed as no-fee by owner was actually a smarmy broker that thought he was beating the system. I would call and refer to the “no-fee” apartment to find there was only a “small fee” of 10 percent of the annual rent. After catching wind of the bullshit, I gleefully went through Craigslist ads checking off “miscategorized.” Unfortunately, there is currently no box to tick for “soul-crushing demons,” but I hear they’re working on it.
I managed to find three brokers that assured me they actually had no-fee apartments to show me. The first, a meaty Russian, took us to an apartment in Chelsea that had an enormous living room and slick wood floors. It wasn’t until after we left that he revealed it was a) way out of our price range, and b) had a fee. No, I didn’t throat punch him, but I really wanted to.
The next broker’s name was Gina. After getting duped by the Russian, I reiterated the “no-fee” aspect of the search, and she insisted she understood. I tried not to get excited, but I was. I wore my go-get ‘em red lipstick and a polka dot dress. I was going for “classy yet no-nonsense.” I fixed my boyfriend’s face and clothes like an eager chimpanzee. As I was dragging him out the door, my phone lit up. It was Gina, and she said she fucking sucked. No, what she said was that she had to “reschedule.” And then she never called again. The following day Alex did the same, this time letting my boyfriend and me arrive at the meeting place before dropping the hammer.
We were all like: “Forget Gina. We don’t need her.” We found a website of high-rise apartment buildings and showed up at management offices like an ugly blind date. Our budget became a punch line. “You know this is Manhattan, right?” one leasing officer pointed out. After a few more geography lessons, I began to doubt whether we could afford to live on this island. How high would we go? It was a reverse limbo of sorts that had us making uncomfortable contortions just to win that elusive prize.
We are at the mercy of hungry landlords who prey on our hopes because they can. They know what we want, and how badly we want it, and they require sacrifice. A baby lamb, and close to $4K for a suitable piece of real estate. If you’re unwilling to make an offering, you can take the city’s scraps—sub-par housing in unchecked pockets of crime, a half-dozen avenues away from a subway. You might have rats and roaches as roommates, but fuck it, you would all be living in magical Manhattan.
The day after Gina stood us up, I lamented about the situation to my super, and he revealed that my management company had designs to charge $400 more to the incoming tenants. So, I gave up, and crawled back to my cozy Hell’s Kitchen apartment. I called the management company and begged to renew my lease under the current terms. My two-bedroom apartment was larger and almost $1,000 cheaper than anything we’d seen on the current market. So yes, we got back together.
Anyone considering leaving their apartment in NYC in hopes of finding something better, stay where you are. Work out your issues. Call pest control. Look for a new roommate or slap a glossy coat of paint on the wall. Unless you enjoy wading through Craigslist fables, being belittled by realtors, and getting your heart crushed by brokers. Then by all means, get out there.
Still, I'm happy I never found the apartment I was looking for. As a person who is the farthest thing from practical, I didn't set out to pay less rent. I was looking for bigger and better. But now that I'm staying in the same place, I'm forced into making the smart, sane decision. Even if I arrived at it by nothing more than sheer bad luck.