The apartment fantasies of Carol Wallace, a 30-year-old working woman come to live in Manhattan, were typical of the unenlightened. She was willing to pay $600 a month, quite a high figure, she felt, for a nice one-bedroom apartment. She envisioned herself, finally arrived in glamorous New York, "swirling out onto Fifth Avenue from some beautiful ultramodern place."
Of course, she had heard the horror stories of the housing situation in New York. Of course, she had attended a few New York parties in which seemingly normal people spoke of hunting for apartments for years. But for someone willing to spend as much as she was, she didn't expect any problem. In philadelphia, after all, $369 had gotten her a one-bedroom apartment in one of the nicest buildings in town -- and she had found it in an hour.
Seven months later, still without an apartment, she had begun to understood housing in New York. She had been told she would never get a decent place for under $700. She had been shown, for $680, a "one-bedroom" apartment that turned out to be an L-shaped room -- all the tenants build their own wall, the agent said.
At length, in desperation, she settled into a $566 one-bedroom East Side Manhattan apartment in a building near the Cuban Mission. The widows in the building had been bombed out twice.
The view overlooked an airshaft. The bedroom was barely big enough for a dresser and a bed, the garbage chute had been built into one of her walls so that nightly she heard the garbage whooshing by. Next month, she will move again, to a large one-bedroom in a high-rise apartment house on the Upper East Side. She has accepted the fact that she will have to pay well over $700.
Middle-class housing has been at a premium in New York for some years now, but real estate brokers and housing specialists agree that prices -- particularly in Manhattan -- have never been higher. They say that these conditions, while more extreme in New York than elsewhere, are beginning to be seen around the country.Rental apartments are getting scarcer. Gasoline -- and therefore transportation -- is getting more expensive. And cities are getting more fashionable.
While the customary rent for a small one-bedroom apartment in a Manhattan high rise is now $700, the "typical" cost in Northwest Washington for a one bedroom, say, along upper Connecticut Avenue, is only about $325, according to the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington. These "typical" $325-a-month apartments in D.C., however, are rarely available -- and a newcomer can easily find himself paying upwards of $450 a month for a place in the basement of a DuPont Circle townhouse.
Most everyone agrees, however, that D.C. apartment prices do not approach those of Manhattan.
"Agents are apologetic that they can't get me a two-bedroom for under $1,000," says one young mother in a two-income household. "That's uptown. In the Village [Greenwich Village, one of the more desirable neighborhoods] you have to raise them out of their stupor to get them to take an application. There's no turnover. Tell them you want a two-bedroom for $1,000 and they look at you like you're from another planet."
The reason for the rents varies with whom you talk to.
Landlords and investors blame the local rent controls, claiming that these controls coupled with zoning regulations have discouraged developers, resulting in "zero construction." They cite a citywide housing abandonment rate here of 40,000 units in the last year -- the highest abandonment rate, they claim, in the country -- and an additional loss of 60,000 units in the last six years, mostly to conversions. They speak, in socio-jargon, of the increased demand in premier urban areas that has been going on for the past five years. "Empty nesters returning to the city," said a real estate agent. "Uncoupling . . . nationwide, there's a 3-million-unit-a-year demand created by uncoupling."
Tenant advocacy groups see it differently. They insist that there are not too many controls here but too few. They blame the nationwide trend to co-oping, a procedure that they insist allows the landlord to make a fast, high profit.
"To say that rent control is responsible for the housing shortage here is the lie of the century," fumes Jane Benedict, the chairman of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, a citywide tenants union. "From 1971 to '74 there was a period of a vacancy decontrol, and no building took place. And housing is abandoned because the landlords milked it dry over a period of 20 years, so that whole areas which were middle class, like the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, are now deteriorated."
(Rent controls in New York vary. There are New Yorkers who have lived in the same apartment for 20 or 30 years and who have tremendous bargains -- six-room West End Avenue apartments for $186. Newer tenants in the same building may pay Market values -- as much as five or six times that amount. But there are no controls on the initial rents in new buildings or conversions and no control on five-unit buildings or less, such as brownstones. And during a period of decontrol here in the early '70s, when controls were removed upon vacancy of the apartment, many rentals soared.)
"There are two separate markets for housing," says Peter Marcuse, a professor of urban planning at Columbia. There are "high-income markets, where the incomes are enough to warrant new construction, and at the other extreme, people who can't pay enough to keep the building minimally maintained so that the neighborhood is undesireable for anyone else. The people in the middle are squeezed."
Even $1,000 won't get something special anymore. A working mother with a budget of $850 to $1,000 for a two-bedroom, recalls a $1,000 two-bedroom apartment she was shown on East 41st Street in Manhattan.
"The floors had paint and tar all over them, there were gaping holes in the plaster, there were no kitchen cabinets. It looked, when you walked into it, like 'Midnight Cowboy,' like Dustin Hoffman was going to be sick in the other room."
Faced with such a market, both agents and tenants resort to desperate measures. Reading the obituary page to find a vacancy, presumed by out-of-towners to be just smart New York talk, is not an uncommon practice.
"I don't like doing it, it's such a morbid thing, but I've done well with it," says Jeffrey Feurer, a local real estate agent. "You call up and say, I'm sorry about your loss, but what are you going to do about your apartment' . . . I remember one co-op I got that way . . ."
Aware that apartments are assets. tenants and building superintendents as well as landlords try to profit. Feurer, who prefers to deal with high-rent apartments, claims that many apartments are no longer being turned back on the market by the tenants. "Rather than give up a two-bedroom Park Avenue apartment at $800 when they move out of town, a couple might rent it for $1,500 or $2,000 and keep the profits themselves rather than giving it to the landlord," he said.
Superintendents, learning of such deals -- which are often illegal -- may in turn try to profit, demanding hush money from tenants who are illegally subletting, or demanding fees as high as $1,000 for information leading to apartments. Finders fees or key money, though technically illegal, are also charged tenants -- ostensibly for "improvements" or "fixtures."
Like the rents, these fees have been skyrocketing. One free-lance writer, having found a two-bedroom apartment high on Manhattan's Upper West Side for $750, was told by the tenant that "key money" for the apartment would be $5,000. By the time the writer left, a half hour later, bidding from other prospective tenants had jacked the figure to $10,000.
Those key fees and rents are giving rise to new social patterns. They've meant single working people taking in roommates, parents with growing families making do in small apartments. They've resulted in a variation on the empty nest syndrome -- the young adult returning to live with his or her parents after graduating from college and finding employment, because he or she cannot afford to live alone.:
That was the case with one 24-year-old Tufts graduate working in New York as a publicist. Unable to find a Manhattan studio apartment for $350, he lived at his parents' home on Long Island and commuted to the city. This month, after a two-year search, he's found a place of his own.
"I lucked out, a girl I know got deported to Israel," he rhapsodizes. "I took over her lease in her name -- $261 in a modern building including gas. "She was paying in money orders, so that's what I'm going to do. The Landlord will never know. I just got lucky."