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Cuck Money Is the New Key Money

Photo-Illustration: Curbed

Andrew* and his fiancée thought it was a good sign that the guy showing them the duplex in Bushwick had co-founded a nonprofit that “works to end poverty.” The application process was presented as “very vibey,” Andrew says: The man handling the lease was a friend of the landlord, lived down the street, and was “collaborating” with him on finding new tenants. The couple had found the place on the Listings Project, a weekly newsletter that advertises itself as “committed to building an anti-oppressive community that is rooted in collective self-care.”

Things quickly became very un-vibey. The landlord’s friend told the couple they were being “shortlisted” among a few finalists and would need to send over their “best offer” on the rent, which, rather than a set fee, was now more of a floor from which to negotiate. The couple’s willingness to pay above the $3,000 asking price would not be the only factor considered by the landlord, they were assured over email, but would “help guide” the landlord as he made his decision.

The pair offered the most they reasonably could: $3,400 a month. Regrettably, that nearly $5,000 a year in additional rental income was not enough to guide the landlord toward their application, though the landlord’s friend really enjoyed meeting them.

Rental bidding wars are not unheard of in New York City. They are expressly forbidden on rent-stabilized and rent-controlled apartments, a ban that gave rise to the somewhat retro concept of “key money” in the 1970s and ’80s: an illegal bribe paid under the table to a broker, landlord, or existing tenant in order to help a new tenant get a coveted unit. (Nora Ephron infamously paid $24,000 in key money to secure a rent-stabilized apartment in the Apthorp on the Upper West Side, which she figured would “amortize out to only a thousand dollars a year” if she lived there for 24 years.) For market-rate apartments, where the practice of offering or soliciting rent above asking price is allowed, it more typically occurs at the high end, where tenants can afford to splash out.

But bidding wars have trickled down in the current pandemic-rebound market, where the vacancy rate barely exceeds 2 percent in Manhattan according to recent data collected by the appraiser Jonathan Miller, who also reports that one in five apartment leases in the borough ended in a bidding war in the last two months. That means that in addition to all the other hurdles renters have to clear — manically checking listings, dropping everything to run to showings, paying for a credit check and a security deposit and even a broker fee — there is still one more to go: raising your own rent.

If “key money” is a nearly forgotten term, I propose a new one for this kind of palm-greasing: cuck money. It encapsulates the abject indignity of the renter right now, in a market in which not only is everything more expensive, but the competition is so crazy tenants are offering to make it even more expensive themselves simply to end the process and crawl home in shame. The crassness offers its own kind of precision: The tenant is not just getting fucked over by the landlord. The tenant is asking if the landlord would please fuck them over. Cuck money is a form of collective debasement — and there is no sign that it will abate anytime soon.

Asking for a “best offer” on a market rental apartment is legal, even if it seems like it shouldn’t be. “If it’s a free-market property,” says Neil Garfinkel, an attorney at Abrams Garfinkel Margolis Bergson, “then it is certainly open to obtaining the highest lease amount that someone is willing to pay. There is no limitation, and no control there.” Accordingly, there is no regulation of the way bidding wars are conducted. “There is no protocol,” Corcoran agent Tiga Mcloyd tells me, governing the way an owner or representative can solicit extra rent. Euphemisms for the practice abound: “strong offers” or “robust offers.” Prospective tenants can find out the rent is the subject of a “best bids” round in person at showings, or even when they are still standing in line.

For some, the solicitation is in the application: “Hello and thank you so much for coming by my open house today,” one agent wrote to a prospective tenant in Greenpoint. In her email, she listed the “asking rent” ($4,995), the broker’s fee of 15 percent of one year’s rent (at least $8,991), and the required one month’s rent and one month’s security. Then: “Please submit your best offer,” she instructed. “I will collect all offers and go over them with the Landlord this weekend.” In a follow-up email, the broker clarified the apparent distinction between best and highest offer: “A prospective tenant is welcome to offer what they feel is fair and negotiate where they see fit,” she added. (The applicant did not get the apartment.)

This kind of throat-clearing is common. Another agent instructed a renter: “To be clear, it is NOT necessary to offer more than the $3,000 asking price in order to stay in the running” and then promptly added that “the landlord will likely choose an offer over the asking price.” The renter said the whole process, which occurred over 72 hours, felt like The Hunger Games. (He also did not get the apartment.)

Then there are the tenants who preemptively make an offer themselves: Alyssa Cass, a political consultant, recently went to a showing in Brooklyn where the first couple in the door marched up to the broker and offered $1,200 above asking. Brokers are not obligated to inform prospective applicants that bidding has occurred at all, if the landlord has already accepted one of these proposals. A friend who was applying for a $4,500-per-month apartment in the Clinton Hill area, while arranging a showing, was abruptly told by the agent they had already received “multiple strong offers for above $5,000.” (“Don’t people want to see the apartment? What if it has mice??” her husband replied.) Many of the people I spoke to who had been burned in a bidding war went into their next attempt simply offering 10 percent or more over the asking rent to increase their chances — it’s like asking to be findommed, a sexual fetish in which a submissive gets off on sending a dominant money, by a landlord. Except only one side is having a good time.

“I’ve never seen inventory this low in 16 years,” Lesley Steiner, an Elliman agent in Manhattan, recently told me. Steiner had three bidding wars on walk-ups in Chelsea and Soho in the last few months, after hundreds of inquiries on each, that all went for more than $600 above the asking rents. Mcloyd, the Corcoran agent, said that even brokers are overwhelmed by the demand: “Bidding wars are an upsetting situation.” He said it doesn’t feel good to tell qualified applicants that someone has swooped in with an astronomical offer — like he recently had to do for a Brooklyn one-bedroom apartment, listed for $3,500, that went to a grad student whose parents called at the eleventh hour and offered $4,800. Still, “I don’t believe it’s unfair,” Mcloyd, who is also a landlord, said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s the market.”

The question of whether “the market” is an effective steward of what is fair and unfair seems increasingly relevant, however, as it extracts more and more money out of New Yorkers. It is ominous to think there is simply nothing stopping the competition over finding a place to live from accelerating into total madness — especially when the regulation we do have on illegal rent practices is already haphazardly enforced. The city agencies who police income discrimination have been reduced to a fraction of their size under the Adams administration, with accordingly minuscule budgets. In the course of my conversation with a housing attorney for this story, I discovered that the $500 deposit my own broker requested for my apartment application, which I unhesitatingly paid, was potentially illegal.

I asked Charles McNally of NYU’s Furman Center, which collects rent and eviction data, what we can expect to happen if people of means are willing to pay a premium on a very low inventory of available housing. Is this a distortion of the market? His answer was bleak: “No, then that is the market,” McNally said. “That’s what’s going to happen in a situation of housing scarcity.” Renting in the city already felt like getting a sharp slap in the face, but the current market has somehow made it more grotesque: Tenants are reaching out for the landlord’s hand and slapping themselves with it.

Cuck Money Is the New Key Money