Photo by by Luke Saagi
Affordable housing. For most New Yorkers the term is an oxymoron.
Niklas and I moved to the West Village when we got married a few years ago, a romantic notion if not an especially realistic one. In the beginning we joked that we could live on love. But a sandwich is also nice sometimes. As freelancers living in an overpriced, exorbitant neighborhood, just stepping out the door was draining us dry. Living within our means had practically lost all meaning.
So last spring when our landlord threatened to raise our rent another $100 per month, we decided to see what was on the market, even if that meant leaving our beloved neighborhood. I had read that prices of rentals in Brooklyn were rivaling those in Manhattan—and after an extensive search for affordable digs in both boroughs, I can assure you that the statistics are accurate.
Yet there is little truth to the listings themselves. I have found that there’s nothing “real” about the real estate write-ups in this city, and they’re certainly not “estates” by any stretch of the imagination.
Wanting to shave a significant amount off our monthly expenses, we needed to find a two-bedroom apartment for around $2,000. More challenging than I imagined, I discovered areas I didn’t know existed—and how to interpret the ads in the process. While I give the realtors credit for creating great works of short fiction, I’ve compiled a glossary of real estate jargon, key words and phrases, offering more truthful translations.
Up and Coming Neighborhood. Actually means “down and out, crime-infested desolate wasteland.”
We couldn’t help but check out Williamsburg first, even knowing it had already arrived. In order to blend in we knew we’d have to act like aging hipsters and pose as the posers, so Niklas sprouted some facial hair and I wore ill-fitting eighties outfits to viewings. But somehow the hipsters had become richsters; apparently their bank accounts were bigger than their beards. The area was well out of our financial reach, forcing us further out. I pulled out my dusty MTA map and followed obscure subway lines searching out stops I’d never heard of. Some were getting so frighteningly close to JFK we considered just buying a ticket and moving completely.
Forever zooming in and out of Google maps, I tried to decipher where one neighborhood ended and one began. In the city for 13 years, I was familiar with Bushwick and Bed Stuy but didn’t know Ditmas Park, Leffert Gardens, or Vinegar Hill. We tried to be open minded, but many of the apartments we could afford were actually between up and coming neighborhoods—industrial areas surrounded by parking lots with more access to gas stations than subway stations—and the idea of any future development seemed overly optimistic.
Two Bridges, ChiBeca, and ChiFi. Translation: China Town, China Town and China Town. To make things more complicated, many of the neighborhoods I had known for years had new names—or even a few names. When did Hell’s Kitchen become Hudson Yards? I believe it was soon after the completion of the second section of the Highline. We looked at a place in Carnegie Hill only to find ourselves in the heart of East Harlem. In Brooklyn we explored ProCo, BoCoCa and GoCaGa, always tongue tied and never quite sure where we were.
Steps Away From. We were wooed by write ups for apartments that were steps away from all kinds of attractions: “Steps Away from the Park, Steps Away from the subway, Steps Away from Fine-Dining Restaurants with a Wide Range of Cuisine from Around the World.” How many steps they never said; it could be 30 or 3,000. On the way to every viewing, I would scan the area in search of the landmarks mentioned. Falling short, Niklas and I would scour the side streets looking for Cuisines of the World, wondering aloud if they were counting the KFC and Chinese takeaway.
In the end our criteria came down to finding just one restaurant where we could imagine ourselves eating.
When no parks, subways, grocery stores, cafés or bars are nearby, you will see: Steps to Laundromat! Steps to Post Office! Steps to Deli! Take that as a very bad sign.
Perfect for Students. We quickly learned to avoid any ad that mentioned the word students or made any reference whatsoever to higher education. You will walk into what you think is a wide entryway but is actually meant to be the kitchen and the living room, yet there’s no space for either. When they say 2-bedroom in these cases, they mean it; there will indeed be two doors within arms reach that open into rooms that will fit a small bed. But it’s not an apartment that has two bedrooms but an apartment that is two bedrooms. Though it has walls and a ceiling, it could never be considered a home.
500 Square Feet. You will rarely see square footage mentioned in New York City listing; the realtors don’t want you to know. It’s as if they’re embarrassed by what they’re about to show you, and rightly so. They might announce it if it’s 500 sq. ft. or above, as if that’s something to brag about, and even then you will question their math once inside.
Eat-In Kitchen with Full-Size Appliances and Laminate Countertops. An Eat-In Kitchen meant there would be some kind of enclosure or kitchen nook—sometimes you can only decipher it by the shift from hardwoods to linoleum—but you will not be eating in that kitchen unless you like to eat standing up hovering over the stove or leaning on the refrigerator. Full Size Appliances: as opposed to what, an Easy-Bake Oven? Laminate Countertops: I have no words.
Lots of Natural Light and Views. Indicates only that the unit has windows. Windows do not guarantee light on a ground floor apartment sandwiched between other buildings, just like a brick wall three feet away does not constitute a view. Yes, it is a view in the literal sense; I suppose it would be similar to the panorama you would have from prison. Yes, you will see enough natural light to tell whether it’s day or night outside, but no sunbeam will penetrate the apartment. We found that in order to get a decent amount of light there needs to be some kind of natural disaster metaphor. Instead of “lots of light,” look for “Sun-Drenched!” “Sun-Soaked!” or “Light-Flooded!”
Beyond the phrases, interpreting the photos can be tricky. There were the obvious red flags: certain rooms not being shown, or worse, no images of the inside of the apartment at all but rather a blurred picture of a park that’s two subway stops away. But when it came to the interior shots Niklas had an eagle eye. He would study them with the intensity of a CSI investigator. After a lengthy analysis of each image blown up on his large screen he would call me over.
“It’s a shithole,” he would say, dashing my hopes. “See how the crown molding continues in the first and third picture? Same room, different angle! Look at the smudge on the wall here. It’s the same one shown here, here and there. It’s a shoebox.”
After viewing forty falsely-advertised accommodations that took us as far up as 180th street, across many bridges and tunnels and through lots of self-proclaimed, realtor-named neighborhoods, we were beyond frustrated about the state of real estate: the rising costs of housing and lower standards of living pushing people to their financial limits even at the outer limits.
Yet after researching around 400 on-line listings, we finally found an apartment that lived up to its ad—even surpassed it—in a happening part of Harlem. We were practically pushed out to Brooklyn, but due to its rising rental costs, ricocheted back onto the island, happy not to be muscled off of Manhattan. Although they’re scarce, affordable apartments are out there. In order to find one, you really just need to know the meaning of two words: patience and persistence.
Christie Grotheim is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in Salon, The New York Observer, and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. She is a regular contributor to the West View News and has most recently completed a 15-part series of articles for petrolicious.com, documenting a two-month cross-country road trip in her ’79 Lincoln Continental Town Car.