Her 80-square-foot apartment has no oven. There’s just one window, staring out at a brick building. To sleep, she pulls her bed down from the wall, she demonstrated for TikToker Caleb Simpson. But at least it’s just $1,750 a month in Manhattan.
The consensus, often, is not very much.
Rent rose a record 11.3 percent in 2021, and another 2.1 percent this year, while wages have flatlined. Some viewers are grateful: it turns out their apartment is a sweet deal compared to others. Some find inspiration: if someone else can make a micro-apartment work, maybe they can, too.
“I’m curious about how much they’re paying: like, do I feel better about how much I pay, or do I feel worse?” said 39-year-old Simone Moragne, a devout Simpson-house-tour follower.
Moragne and her young son have outgrown their two-bedroom apartment at the edge of the Bronx, she said, and she’s ready for something new. Her rent has increased, too, from $1,650 when she first moved in, to $1,700 last year, and up again to $1,775 this month. But if there’s one thing she’s gleaned from Simpson’s videos, it’s that her apartment is a steal by New York standards, she said.
“It definitely inspired me to stay right where I am,” Moragne laughed.
The average rent for a one-bedroom is $2,170 in the New York City area, up 39 percent compared to five years ago, according to data from the National Housing Conference and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In Los Angeles, it’s $1,747, up 36 percent since five years ago, and in the San Francisco area, it’s $2,665, up 7 percent.
Throughout the nation, rents have risen to historic levels, according to David Dworkin, president and CEO of the National Housing Conference, who estimates the country is 3.8 million housing units short to keep pace with need. “As long as we’re not building enough affordable housing, we’re going to continue to see rents rise.”
The videos serve almost as an emotional affirmation, providing a rare window into her peers’ realities, and how it lines up against her own.
“I kind of feel like, as millennials, we’re all struggling,” Moragne said.
About 44 million households in the U.S. rent. Of those, about 24 million — or 54 percent — are millennial and Gen Z renters, according to real estate research firm CoStar Group.
In the United States, most people don’t become homeowners until age 35. Meanwhile, Gen Z is fresh on the rental market.
“One of the reasons these videos went so viral is because younger people seeing these videos are the ones experiencing this most severely, they’re personally experiencing the problem of, ‘I can’t believe this is all I get for this rent,’” Dworkin said.
Rental prices have severe implications, Dworkin added, echoing Moragne’s sentiments on the so-called millennial struggle.
“Most people don’t become homeless because the rents are high. But most people end up having to go into a much smaller apartment, spend less money, have less disposable income and have a lot more stress,” he said.
Simpson, who was born and raised in North Carolina, didn’t set out to comment on the real estate or rental markets. Instead, the 31-year-old wanted to showcase uniquely human stories.
An apartment is “a window into a personal life,” Simpson said. “People are very private. It’s an intimate part of someone.”
Some viewers question whether his series is staged — who actually lets a stranger off the street into their apartment? But Simpson said, his early videos were authentic and entirely spontaneous. He walked around New York City, where he’s lived for seven years, and approached strangers at random with his familiar opener: “Hey, how much do you pay for rent?”
When he began seven months ago, 1 out of 100 people would be willing to show him their apartment, he estimated. As his videos went viral — amassing 7 million followers on TikTok and another 1 million on Instagram — about 1 out of 10 people say yes now, he said.
Because of the series’ popularity, Simpson now can plan apartment tours. He receives direct messages, posts call-outs when he’s in a new area and coordinates among his social networks, preparing tours accordingly. He tries to limit interaction with anyone he schedules ahead of time — even declining to see their apartments beforehand — until he’s on their doorstep with his camera, he said.
Home tours aren’t a new concept. “MTV Cribs,” Architectural Digest and Apartment Therapy have displayed homes for years. But Simpson sees his videos as windows into everyday life.
“We want more real, authentic connections, and something that feels more like our lives, versus a celebrity’s life,” Simpson said.
Comments on Simpson’s TikToks are full of presumption, opinion, joy and dismay. Audiences applaud someone’s decor. Others see exorbitant rental fees and wonder if they’re witnessing inherited wealth. Sometimes, viewers comment in a sigh of relief when they see a rare decent apartment at a fair price — and then insist it’s rent-controlled.
Katelynn Manz, 32, takes comfort from seeing she’s not the only one lost in the rental market maze. Manz, a national park ranger who lives in Port Angeles, Washington, has spent the past year looking for a place closer to Seattle.
“It’s an issue affecting the country, that everything’s just really expensive right now,” she said. “Some of the prices people pay are outrageous.”
Other tips to be gleaned from the series include hacks to live in small spaces and, for Manz, suggestions for outfitting a lofted space like hers.
But for some, the series offers a glimmer of hope — even in the form of a micro-apartment.
“There is proof that there is an apartment that I can afford, even if it’s the size of a shoe box,” said 39-year-old Nina D’angier, a Chicago-based artist. “Others are watching it like, ‘Holy crap, can you believe these idiots are paying this much for this little?’ And for me, that looks like, oh, that’s totally worth it. I get to live and do my art in New York.”
Simpson has traveled to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Hong Kong and Tokyo for apartment tours, and he has more destinations lined up this year. His favorite part of the series simply remains meeting people, “and being able to chat about their lives, learn about what they care about.”
But, he won’t stop asking the all-important question any time soon.
Nor, as it turns out, will he shy away from answering it. He pays $2,800 in rent for his share of a three-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, he told The Post.