what a year

Two People, One Room, 16 Months: The Studio-Apartment Couples of the Pandemic

Marnie and Desi would have had a tough 2020. Photo: HBO

“We have what I call ‘camp rules.’ When one person goes to sleep, the other person goes to sleep. It’s lights-out,” said John Spangler, who started sharing his 425-square-foot Chelsea studio apartment with his boyfriend, Alejandro Mendez, during the pandemic. For many, perhaps even most people, sharing any living space with a partner over the past year and a half has been an unwelcome exercise in forced intimacy. But the most claustrophobic COVID-19 couples experience of all? Sharing a New York studio apartment, a single room where everything from the other person’s work calls to pandemic workout routines became inescapable.

“In a lot of ways, we felt trapped,” said Ashleigh Orlando, who spent the pandemic in a Dumbo studio that she and her husband, Jonathan, purchased in February 2019, back when they spent most of their waking hours at the office. “Before the pandemic, we literally never worked from home. We never would have bought the apartment if that was the situation.”

The Orlandos had initially planned to buy a one-bedroom, but they were drawn to the studio’s generous size — 925 square feet — and big windows with a view of the East River. They also liked that, unlike many of the one-bedrooms they’d looked at, it didn’t have a weird layout since it was a single room. They considered enclosing the sleeping area but decided against it. Without interior walls, they had space for things like a large dining table, which they could never fit in their one-bedroom rentals. “Then the pandemic happened, and we were basically working from either end of the dining-room table,” said Ashleigh, whose job is in finance. “I had to do all my performance reviews in the apartment, which is really hard to do with someone else in the room.”

Walking the dog — one of the only things they didn’t have to do in close company — provided one of the few escapes. Ashleigh started savoring her errands and cooking and cleaning a lot more. “I’d immerse myself in that, put on headphones, and be like, ‘Don’t even talk to me.’” Jonathan got his alone time by staying up late after Ashleigh went to bed at 10 p.m. (No camp rules in their apartment.) “That was really difficult,” she said. “Fortunately, I can sleep with the lights on.” As for other strategies, “we probably could have done better,” she said. “We just drank a lot of wine. And we loved The Sopranos, so we watched that over and over. We tried to do things like that that brought us joy. And yeah, a lot of wine.”

Judging by demand numbers, the last place anyone (even single people) wanted to live during the pandemic was a studio apartment. Between December 2019 and December 2020, the average price of a Manhattan studio dropped 18.9 percent, from $2,838 to $2,301 a month, according to brokerage Douglas Elliman. That’s a bigger percentage than for any other type of apartment. Brokers spoke of rent-stabilized studios that were languishing on the market for months. “For a while, studios were really not going,” said Caleb Funk, a Bond New York real-estate agent, who added that it wasn’t uncommon to see listings on the Upper East Side for under $1,500 a month last year. “We had so many empty.”

Affordability was part of what convinced Cole Burden and Caleb Dicke to live together in a 284-square-foot Harlem studio. During the pandemic, the landlord dropped the rent on the apartment, where Dicke had lived alone for several years, to $1,500 a month. “It was hard to know what was going to happen with finances and what New York would even be,” said Burden, an actor, singer, and producer.

“We knew the studio was too small for the both of us,” said Dicke, an actor and dancer. (Technically, there were three of them, since they had adopted a cat, Vivien Marie, during a visit to Dicke’s family in Ohio.) “But also, we liked it. There is a huge window, and the bathroom shower has a window. It was small, but we saw sky: gorgeous sunsets, the moon every night. We called it ‘the treehouse.’”

They learned each other’s schedules. They took turns going on walks or up to the roof when one of them needed to make a private call. Burden got rid of most of his clothes. “I had three closets before. Now I have like one outfit,” he said. They decided they loved living in a small space so much they even started a company, Simplify NYC, to help other people do it well by decluttering and organizing. Still, after a year, they were ready for more space. “Cole likes to stay up and watch TV. I was working on an HBO show and starting my days at 3 a.m. to get there for the call time at 4:30 in the morning. It felt like we needed maybe another room,” said Dicke.

A studio does have one additional space, and that’s the bathroom. “We called it my office,” said Mendez. On Zoom calls, “my colleague would see the tiles in the background and be like, ‘Oh are you in the office again?’” Back when everything was still closed, he had to defend his thesis at the same time Spangler had a bad tooth infection. “I didn’t want to be sick in the background of his Ph.D. defense,” said Spangler. “So I took a four-hour bath.” Their apartment has a roof deck, and they made ample use of it. They also tried to work out disagreements inside the apartment, instituting a no-storming-out rule. Mendez said it made him open up more: “I used to not be the kind of person who talks. Living in a small space, you work it out. People said, ‘You need to live in a one-bedroom. It’s more sanity for your relationship.’ But this has really helped in some areas of our lives.” Even so, by this winter, tensions were running high. “We had done every holiday there; we were going to the roof in blankets in the snow. We were burned out,” Spangler said. They ended up taking a staycation at a Times Square hotel. “I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to square feet for a hotel before, but I was like, ‘We’re getting a suite.’”

The Orlandos got out for good: They listed their studio apartment for sale in January. By May, it hadn’t sold, and Ashleigh was thinking that maybe they should stay. “I was like, ‘We stuck it out for a year and a half,’” she said. “But my husband was like, ‘I can’t do this one more day.’” It did sell soon after that — they got three offers in one weekend — and the couple moved into a two-bedroom rental in Jersey City. “I miss the city but not the apartment,” Ashleigh said.

This March, Burden and Dicke started looking at one- and two-bedroom apartments with Funk, the Bond real-estate agent. He showed them a two-bedroom on the Upper West Side for around $2,000 a month that he thought they would jump at, but nothing felt right until they went to look at another Harlem studio. At 600 square feet, it’s about twice the size of their last studio. But it’s still a studio.

“It was actually more expensive than the Upper West Side two-bedroom, which was beautiful,” said Burden. “But this is a luxury building, and we just liked the space more. We’re drawn to this Polly Pocket living. I used to be a celebrity assistant, and I was in a lot of multimillion-dollar homes in this city. Walking into them, you don’t necessarily feel like you see your $5 million. I think this is where we’re going as a society. And we enjoy so much making this work.” He pauses. “We might also be sadistic.”

The Studio-Apartment Couples of the Pandemic