Property Grunt

Sunday, September 16, 2007


This is a particularly good hunt because this is par for the course in New York City. There is no such thing as a perfect apartment, especially if you have a low budget. What Tabitah and Benjamin have experienced is another reason why people should really understand what they are dealing with when they decide to move to this city.

This is truly an amazing place to live. But there is a steep price to pay. And if you can't bring the cash and then you might have to sacrifice your sanity.

September 16, 2007
The Hunt
Can It Get Any Worse?
IF only they had it to do over again, they would never have moved from that first rental on East 17th Street.

Instead, Tabitha Shick and Benjamin Klein unwittingly embarked upon a cycle of serial moving, hunting first for a home that would be bigger and better, then for one that would be affordable and livable. The couple found themselves rushing from one ill-advised choice to another, living in five apartments in the last two and a half years.

They never intended to be endlessly on the hunt. “We have almost always moved out of necessity,” said Ms. Shick, 22, who is from Upper Sandusky, Ohio. “I don’t want to be one of those people who moves constantly and is discontent in her home. It is so stressful to move so many times.”

Ms. Shick met Mr. Klein, 25, a native of Los Angeles, when they were students at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif. In January 2005, both transferred to New York University, where they lived briefly in dorms in the financial district. Ms. Shick had roommates who kept her awake at night. Mr. Klein found the neighborhood a “weird vortex” of desolation. That spring, they embarked on a search for a place of their own.

Desperate to move, they rented the apartment on East 17th Street, paying $1,650 a month for a small one-bedroom. One wall in the narrow living room was so sharply angled around the window that it made part of the space unusable. “You can catch claustrophobia,” Ms. Shick said. “It happened to me.”

Looking back, she said, “I made the mistake of wanting to have a full living room and a full bedroom and a place to work.” The two could have bought a sofa bed and turned the bedroom into the living room, or something. But, back then, they still believed it was possible to live in the city without compromise.

They received more loan money from N.Y.U. to defray housing costs and believed they could upgrade. “It was easy to say we’ll spend the extra $100 a month, then $200,” Mr. Klein said. “An extra $300 a month is only $150 each.”

Feeling flush, they got picky. They declined places with no dishwasher and with too many student tenants. Finally, they saw a 700-square-foot one-bedroom on West 55th Street that was everything they wanted, all for a too-pricey $2,500.

They were going to pass it by, until they were told that the landlord would pick up the broker’s fee. That was the incentive they needed.

“We couldn’t have been happier,” Ms. Shick said. That lasted a year. Then the rent was slated to rise to $2,600.

Ms. Shick figured they could get a better deal if only they hunted hard enough: They would start in Brooklyn, looking at places for rent by owner, thereby avoiding a broker’s fee. A top-floor one-bedroom in Park Slope, for $2,150 a month, fit the bill. It was fully renovated, with a dishwasher, fireplace, washer-dryer and terrace. The owner lived downstairs.

“We couldn’t imagine how this place couldn’t be perfect,” Mr. Klein said, not realizing they would be living as houseguests in the home of a novice landlord, who let himself in to make repairs and then criticized their housekeeping.

They were told not to leave a bottle of olive oil on the marble countertop. “I said, ‘If you have special rules for the counter, you could have told us two months ago that marble is delicate,’ ” Ms. Shick said.

They were told their television made too much noise, so they bought wireless headphones.

When workers let themselves in to reach their terrace, “we said it is fine if they need to get through, but could they knock first,” Mr. Klein said.

One chilly fall day, the landlord insisted they open their windows to clear the air of the smell of cigarettes.

“We don’t smoke,” Ms. Shick said.

“We do,” the landlord replied.

“He said that smoke rises so you have to air the apartment out.” Ms. Shick said. “From this place we discovered that looks aren’t everything.”

After a screaming match with the landlord, Ms. Shick and Mr. Klein declared their intention to move out.

By now, Mr. Klein was planning to attend film school at Columbia University, so the couple decided to search on the Upper West Side.

They were turned down for one nice brownstone apartment in the West 80s because Ms. Shick had run up some credit-card debt and because their guarantor, Mr. Klein’s father, didn’t have an annual income of 80 times the rent of nearly $2,000.

The building’s manager, though, also had a place on West 103rd Street. How could they be qualified for one place but not the other? It was a different owner, who had different requirements, said the agent who rented them the apartment.

Desperate again, the two signed a lease for $1,950. The eight-unit building was a noneviction co-op with three co-op units, one of which they were renting. Five units remained rent-regulated.

“We were thinking, we can work within this space,” Ms. Shick said. “We can fix things.”

But they couldn’t fix the water, which was almost always cold. “It was like the Arctic in the bathroom,” she said. The neighbors told them, “We listen for the pipes and see if other people are taking a shower,” she said. “I don’t have time to sit around listening to other people’s pipes. For almost $2,000 a month, I should be able to take a shower.”

Then there were the mice. An exterminator spackled some holes in the walls. Ms. Shick had visions of cartoon mice, “laughing at us and chewing through the concrete. We would see the concrete in crumbled little piles.” She caught 13 mice in six months. Dali, their dog, was uninterested in helping.

They broke the lease, claiming the apartment was uninhabitable. By now, the couple were willing to hunt for a bare-bones place they could afford. Moving expenses — movers, boxes, fees — were taking a toll. “It was clear we needed to live within our means,” Mr. Klein said.

They turned north, to Hamilton Heights. One apartment had a bathroom filled with dead roaches. “If you see them when you look at the place, you are going to see them for the rest of the lease,” Ms. Shick said. Another had all its windows directly on the street. “There’s no point to having windows if you have to use shades all the time,” she said.

A one-bedroom on Hamilton Place, just $950, was grungy for sure, but also dirt cheap. Taking it was the smart thing to do, they decided. Ms. Shick, who graduated in the spring, had just landed a job coordinating the production of television commercials and needed to begin repaying those school loans.

The two moved in during the summer. “I have never had to deal with neighbors who play music so loud the floor vibrates,” Ms. Shick said. “The noise is unbearable. I feel like such a complainer. Is there something wrong with us that we are so finicky, and at the same time have such terrible karma?”

They have flashbacks to 17th Street, their huge regret. “The fatal mistake was we didn’t push ourselves to adjust,” Mr. Klein said. “How much simpler our lives would have been if we had just stayed there.”

And now there is something new.



One of the tactics used in affordable housing is to mix affordable housing tenants with market rate tenants. What occurs is what is called a corrective effect and the affordable housing tenants adapt to the new environment. Call it institutional peer pressure where the affordable housing tenants will learn the proper social cues to relearn new habits and be better neighbors. And if they do not or are unable to comply, their new peers will call cops.

The reason why they are hearing so much noise from their neighbors is that their neighbors don't care. They are probably living in a similar hell hole and feel they can do whatever they want. Hamilton Heights is way out on the west side near Columbia. It is not known for its nightlife or entertainment. Their neighbors are probably too poor to afford to go clubbing or too far away from the nearest hot spot. So they turn their own homes into a place of drink and dance. It is also a way for these people to cope with their living conditions. Some people drink, others toke up and some people just play the bass really loud.

This is the reality when you don't have the budget.