In this series, Looking to Settle, Emily Gould will chronicle her search to find a two-bedroom apartment.
It’s commonplace that New Yorkers only want to talk about real estate, but in my experience, this isn’t true. Sometimes they want to talk about things that are wholly unrelated to housing. I, unfortunately, have lost the ability to talk about anything else ever since learning in late February — while I was sick with COVID! — that my landlords were putting my apartment up for sale.
A mad scramble ensued, some of which was documented in this very magazine. Long story short, we could not afford to buy our apartment at the top of the bubble, but some other dumdums could, and last week, they did. We now have 60 days to find a new place, which is, I realize, not the worst thing that’s ever happened to anybody. It’s not even the worst thing that’s ever happened to me! But if you are in this moment with me, searching for a rental apartment in Brooklyn, you already know that things are fucking bananas out here.
I’m talking about a market in which your best and maybe only hope is to find out about listings from a whisper network — friends of friends, internet strangers, listserv posters, NextDoor (!!), Facebook groups, building managers, and supers — before they go online. If you’re showing up to an open house for a place you saw on StreetEasy, you’ve already lost the battle. Everything you see online that’s passably decent or some kind of known quantity gets snapped up as soon as it’s posted, sometimes by a renter who hasn’t even seen the place in person. Bidding wars for rental apartments, which are illegal in many other places and should be illegal in NYC as well, are now standard. Our current place has two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a dishwasher, a washer-dryer, and excellent soundproofing — necessary to keep neighbors from being annoyed by our children’s constant high-pitched screaming. However, we have already begun to reconcile ourselves to the idea that some or all of those features, which we’d just begun to take for granted, might not be available in our next home. Basically we hope for two bedrooms, functioning appliances, and the ability to commute to the school that’s been the one constant in our older kid’s life for the past two chaotic years. Here’s what happened in week one.
The first apartment we saw last weekend was within a block of where I still all-too-temporarily live. It was $3,800 per month and was being shown by a personable young broker in sweatpants named Justin. He gamely ushered me into the place as its current inhabitants put away their groceries in the kitchen, which was also the living-dining room. They had already packed up most of their stuff, which gave the place a desolate feeling underscored by the building’s fluorescent overhead fixtures. It was, yes, a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment with a washer and dryer. But something about it was … bad. The narrow balcony, accessible via a door in the living-dining-kitchen space, had a railing just low enough to permit an intrepid child to lean all the way over and dangle in midair for a tantalizing moment before plummeting headfirst into the bank of trash cans two stories below. “I would have to padlock that door,” I heard myself murmur to Justin. “Both of the bedrooms are big enough to fit a king-size bed!” he announced, as though I cared. I tried to figure out why I felt like I had been in a similar space recently, and eventually realized that I was thinking of the break room at Lumon Industries.
Two open houses on two adjacent blocks of Halsey, in Bed-Stuy, were my next stops. I had begun looking in that neck of the woods because I like the neighborhood and it’s commutable (just barely) to my kids’ current school. The first one, listed at $4,900 plus first and last month’s rent, security fee, and a 15 percent broker’s fee, comprised the two top floors of a small house. Idiotically, I brought my children to this showing. They absolutely loved the place! They loved that it was a house and that the owner had both a fish tank and a cat. I did not love the rickety wooden stairs leading down to the shared backyard or the fact that the promised washer-dryer was in a shed at the bottom of those stairs and also was either nonexistent or yet to be installed. The apartment did have two bathrooms, though, two bedrooms, and a kitchen that seemed to have functioning appliances, though some were obscured by a pile of planks. The stairwell leading to the downstairs unit was filled with boxes and detritus. The broker pointed to the pile, “A great idea, to use that area for storage!” he proclaimed. He reiterated his willingness to accept offers over the asking price of the apartment several times, perhaps mistaking me for some of the many other people attending the open house. As we waited for the bus on the corner, I saw one of those couples dart back toward the house, perhaps to make an offer. Good luck to them!
The next apartment was also a duplex, listed for $4,999, and was in much better repair. Its owners, who operate via an LLC, had hired the broker to ensure that there was no gap between the current occupant’s mid-month move-out date and the next tenant’s first rent check. The broker was more from the Selling Sunset school of real-estate professionals than either of the gentlemen I’d dealt with earlier in the day — even though it was late in the day, her composure and hairstyle weren’t wilting (the latter likely thanks to the unit’s central air-conditioning). The non-bedroom space of the apartment was one long room with windows on both ends — so pretty! But it was also not totally apparent where we would put a couch and a table. And the washer and dryer were in the hallway just outside the unit’s front door, which “is actually so nice,” the broker said, because that way you don’t have to hear all the noise and vibrations. The broker estimated the square footage of this space to be “about 2,000 square feet,” which, because I am not a complete moron, I understood to be a lie. She then told me that she assumed the place would go for “$5,300 or more.”
I wanted to just accept this and call my search over and move on with my life and start mentally living a solid 30-minute, twice-daily bus commute to my kids’ school back in Clinton Hill. There was nothing actually horribly wrong with the apartment at all. But could we really justify paying $1,800 a month more than our current rent in order to secure our spot in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in a building owned by people who were clearly bent on squeezing every possible penny out of their tenants? So many things about the situation just seemed wrong, and in the end, we decided we couldn’t bring ourselves to bid on a rental. Will we be able to do better? There are only a few weeks left to find out!