NPF: HOVEL FINDER

There is a new – and I mean brand-spanking new – Tumblr called The Worst Room dedicated to one person's online search for decent and affordable (by NYC standards) accommodations in Brooklyn or Manhattan. Granted, s/he is looking in what is likely the most expensive market for rental quarters in the United States, but it is nonetheless staggering to see how substandard some of these places are – and at what price. If you doubt that these would-be landlords will find eventual takers for these hovels even at these inflated prices, befriend some young, marginally employed New York folks and they will set you straight. Sure, perhaps the guy asking $1900/month for a loft bed in Lower Manhattan might be overreaching, but I wouldn't put it past any of my New York comedy friends to live in these places. Hell, they'd probably try to fit multiple people in the $300/month breakfast nook.

There are many, many advantages to living in NYC, including nearly unlimited access to entertainment and cultural opportunities. The rest of us miss out by comparison. That said, it's pretty nice to pay under $800/month for a giant two-story house built in 1911 rather than $1200/month to share a third floor walk-up with two weirdos I met on Craigslist. I know, I know, the costs are low here for a good reason, namely that there is no demand. Nonetheless, every time I've looked at the costs of living in places like New York I've been floored to say the least.

Two quick anecdotes. First, I was once shown an apartment in Madison, WI in the attic of a house with a sharply angled roof. The ceiling was approximately 5'10", or approximately 4" shorter than me. The realtor continued to make her pitch, as if I would be renting this apartment in which I could not stand. Second, an old acquaintance moved to Brooklyn in the early 2000s and ended up paying a couple hundred bucks per month to live (illegally, of course) on the roof of an apartment building under a tarp. I mean, at that point I'd probably forgo the NYC dream and settle for Chicago.

45 thoughts on “NPF: HOVEL FINDER”

  • I don't understand the crazy about moving to NYC. If I had to live on a coast, I would move to San Fran or San Diego. Maybe Philly. I don't know anyone who has livable square footage in New York City unless they have a ridulously high paying job for their age. Any major city has access to culture and entertainment at better prices.

  • craze*

    I understand people who grew up around there or got offered a high-paying job, but how is NYC largely different than any other major city in America?

  • The most money I've ever made was an entry-level Network Support position in Manhattan. It in no way would have provided me the money to get a decent place in NYC, not without multiple roomies. I lived at my sister's place just over the river in NJ, but the commute (total of 3 hrs PER DAY on buses and trains) made it hardly worth it. FUCK that rock…

  • Spiffy McBang says:

    That breakfast nook one doesn't look as bad as I would have expected. As long as you keep it clean, it reminds me of those build-it-yourself mini-houses that some people adore. And that's about as nice as I can get here.

    @Daniel: Living in SF is marginally cheaper than NYC, if at all. I live in Sacramento, and there are more people than you might expect who either commute to SF for work (which is insane) or have a place to stay closer to SF during the week while maintaining their main residence in Sac (not an option available to many).

    As for why people would live there, in a lot of ways it's a dreamer's city. America's entertainment hubs are NYC and LA, and NYC is the only one with functional mass transit, so people try to scrape by the best they can for a shot at whatever it is they want to do. Some people are drawn in by the mystique, but they clearly haven't spent much, or any, time there and get disabused of that shit real quick.

  • I get why New York is expensive, but what the fuck is the deal with that hamlet Boston? It's got none of the coll NY stuff, but it's as expensive as Manhattan. What the hell gives, man?

    Is it all the rich asshole kids going to all the second- and third-tier schools in Boston, driving up rents for everyone else? Place looks like one big fucking campus, though only MIT is the real school in the whole town.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    The problem in NYC today, isn't necessarily Manhattan, which was always the borough for the extremely rich, and the very poor – unless someone got lucky, paid a lot in "key-money," and got the rights to a rent-controlled apartment.

    Back in the early 80's, I had a buddy who, when his parents died, "inherited" the rights to their 3 bedroom apartment in the East Village, and was paying only $87 a month for rent – and he was living alone. I was paying $200 a month for a 2 bedroom apartment in Brooklyn which I shared with 2 people.

    A decent apartment in a decent neighborhood in Manhattan, without rent-controls, was alway expensive.
    Apartments were affordable in what were then considered sh*tty neighborhoods – the Alphabet Jungle, the Bowery, the Meat District, Hell's Kitchen, and "Black and Spanish Harlem."

    Then, came "gentrification" – and now, those are unaffordable Yuppie enclaves, with all of the local ethnic "flavor" lost to Mickey D's, Starbucks, Subway sandwich shops, and chain pizza joints (why on Earth anyone would order some sh*tty chain pizza, when some of the best pizza in the world is easily within walking distance, I'll never understand).

    The problem now is the gentrification of the other 4 boroughs, which are making them unaffordable to the lower and middle classes.

    Back in the 80's, you could have a decent apartment in a decent neighborhood in one of the boroughs, and enjoy the city for what makes it the treasure it was, and still is – the culture, the food, the music, ballgames,the museums, etc., – and the mass transportation system that affordabllt took/takes you to whatever you want to do.

    In my dotage, I'd love to live in NYC – in any of the boroughs. But, unless I win the lottery, there's no way I could afford it.

  • Anonymouse says:

    My parents were born and raised in NYC. I live and work just outside of Washington DC. If I could find a job in NYC, I'd go there; DC is a no-public-transportation, nothing-to-do hellhole. I had a meeting there earlier in the week; a 12-mile trip took me 3 hours and $40 to park because I'm nowhere near public transportation and would have to buy a parking pass ahead of time (you can conveniently buy them INSIDE the city) to park at a Metro lot.

  • Neal Deesit says:

    Stand up joke: "Renting a place can be tough in New York City. I looked at one apartment, the chalk outline was still on the floor."

  • Americanadian says:

    As someone who remains in Champaign in lieu of trying to move out east and sleep in my aunt's backroom in an effort to hack in the city, I can appreciate this from the same angle you do – and there are far worse places to be stuck. Just hop on 74, or catch 155 to the south (and East St. Louis, Cahokia, West Memphis, Jackson et. al.) for proof.

    I've been in Central Illinois through four years of Normal West and six years of the U of I/being a self-centered, unemployable, spoiled millenial brat, and I can safely say that, compared to my little sister who went to Columbia and then tried to hack it in the city after graduating (ending up in the aforementioned aunt's backroom, before leaving the country to join my parents abroad) that there are far worse values for money in the US of A.

    Although maybe it's just a side effect of fond college memories and the Twins being 8-1 in games I've personally attended at New Comiskey.

  • All I kept thinking is that the lease holders are scalp the crap out of the sublettors for fun and profit.

  • My NW DC apt. was only slightly bigger than the breakfast nook – for $700 a month… (Free museums, right next to Rock Creek Park, very very limited parking…)

  • Lou Reed said it this way: this room costs 2,000 a month, you can believe it man it's true, somewhere there's a landlord laughing till he wets his pants.
    My 3rd kids down on a condo was more than my 2nd kids house. It's all in the zip code. Kinda funny that way.

  • Ed,

    I get the impression that you never lived in Chicago. Not the burbs, not the Midwest, but in Chicago proper. Really, cool neighborhoods, museums, the lakefront and the FOOD! i can't imagine a better place to live if you are young.

    Chicago isn't settling. If you ever get an opportunity to live and teach in Chicago, jump at it. The burbs not so much. The commute in the burbs is 'gun in mouth' but in the city is so much better.

    Easy access to the White Sox and Blackhawks Lots of comedy clubs, too. I just saying……

  • anotherbozo says:

    I can't resist weighing in on this since I've lived in Noo Yawk for 50 years and also have a couple of rentals, which keeps me involved in the housing market. First of all, I'd invite any of you who think NYC andlords are bloodsuckers to examine their tax bite. Mine is obscene, and computer-programmed to get worse with each passing year: the increases are automatic, exacerbated when the city-wide RATE of taxation is also raised.
    But enough whining. My own property is free-market but rent control and -regulation have been no friend to housing availability. Pre-forties rent-controlled tenements can't be torn down and replaced with bigger apartment buildings while people are occupying them, and there are grossly insufficient incentives for developers to build low- or even moderate-income housing here. So: what you get is even worse than what it would be in a sane world. (Rent control was installed post WW II as a temporary measure; now no politician would dare oppose it)
    Even so, the demand to live here would probably always exceed the supply. I just got back from a week's stay in Berlin and got the impression that their cultural life can't hold a candle to ours, for all their enthusiasm and dedication to the arts. The Times has an Arts Section every fucking day and TWO parts to it on three of those days. And the arts scene is multi-layered; most of is isn't reviewed at all, since critics would be overwhelmed. If you love any kind of art, find a place to live and I'll lead you to a full schedule of first-rate performances and shows around here that are FREE. If you have a little left over after rent and can afford a modest ticket or two, the whole world opens up to you.

  • "Affordable" housing in Manhattan is notoriously cramped and depressing. Rooms are tiny, bunk beds are ubiquitous, and almost everyone who is single — even (supposedly) well-paid professionals — lives with roommates, and I mean the word "roommate" literally; the number of non-independently-wealthy people who can afford to rent anything more than 1/2 or 1/3 or 1/4 of a small room here is vanishingly small.

    Lately, landlords have been converting already tiny rooms into "mezzanine lofts" with the result that the lower level is a box with an oppressively low ceiling, while the "mezzanine" feels almost like you are sleeping in a coffin, with barely enough head room to sit up.

    Seeing and experiencing such living arrangements leaves you wondering how buildings that are so overcrowded and so subdivided into cavernous, tiny multi-level partitions can possibly comply with municipal fire codes.

    Years ago, I visited an acquaintance at his "studio apartment" on the Upper West Side. Beyond the building's impressive pre-war facade and an Art Deco lobby, my friend's living space seemed to have been converted from what was once, in happier days, a kitchen. The "apartment" packed the living space itself, a bathroom and a kitchenette into — I kid you not — 90 square feet. At the far end of the "studio" was a window, which was a window in the academic sense only: it faced a brick wall mere inches away, so that the "apartment" was dark even during the day. The tiny space between the window and the brick wall beyond it was packed with all kinds of refuse (including a couple of dead birds) that had been dropped from above or blown in and stuck. I remember thinking 2 things:

    (1) How can it even be legal to rent something like that to people? and

    (2) This is like something out of a late 19th-century Russian novel, a perfect room in which to commit suicide.

  • Things really have changed. I lived in NYC in the early 80's and rented a bedroom and full bathroom in a loft on Park Avenue South. The only other occupant was the owner, an older divorced woman. My setup was twice the size of my friends' studios and I only paid $300.00 a month.

  • My son and his fiancee and two cats rent an actual studio apt. in Williamsburg for $1600/mo. (The cats don't actually chip in with the rent.) It's tiny compared to our four-BDR house outside Seattle, but it's a palace compared to these crapholes.

    When I was in NYC in March my son and I visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Deja vu.

  • The tiny space between the window and the brick wall beyond it was packed with all kinds of refuse (including a couple of dead birds) that had been dropped from above or blown in and stuck.

    Ever read "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?" Betty Smith's description of the air shaft in tenements fits this exactly. Which brings me to Jacob Riis and his photographs of tenements. Housing for the desperate in NYC hasn't really changed that much in a hundred years…

  • Seriously? It falls to me to swat this nonsense down? Okay, haters, it's on!

    "… but how is NYC largely different than any other major city in America?" Dude, if you have to ask, you're never going to know.

    "I get why New York is expensive, but what the fuck is the deal with that hamlet Boston?" Uh, tech and banking. Half the equation is supply, and Manhattan is obviously limited by geographical footprint, but the other half is demand—if and only if high-paying jobs are to be found in a metro region will escalating prices be supported.

    "… unaffordable Yuppie enclaves, with all of the local ethnic 'flavor' lost to Mickey D's, Starbucks, Subway sandwich shops, and chain pizza joints…." So, so close. The block at First and I think Sixth has a McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts, and there's a Subway… somewhere, probably. But the E.Vill. remains desirable and expensive in large part because it doesn't have these chains, by and large, and because the yuppies looking to live there are paying extra precisely for the experience of living nearby the cool, independent restaurants and cafes. The line outside Artichoke is never less than 40 minutes long, but there's not a Pizza Hut, Domino's, or Papa Johns anywhere. Yes, New York tolerates Starbucks, but it's hardly as if that chain is squeezing out the (far busier) traditional coffee shops.

    "I just got back from a week's stay in Berlin and got the impression that their cultural life can't hold a candle to ours…" I'm jealous. Still, Berlin is in some small part still getting over the Cold War hangover—the graffiti and alt-cultural scene; I suspect you might have a different view if you'd just come back from, say, Vienna or Paris. Or even London—theater there is superior to NYC's, in no small part because the government subsidizes it, so a show needn't be "The Book of Mormon" in order to make rent.

    "I lived in NYC in the early 80's …" Stop right there. You mean when the murder rate was over 2K/ann.? Yeah, no one wanted to live in the City then. And Blondie and the Talking Heads opening at CBs? Sigh. Those were the days, huh? (I'm not being sarcastic… woulda loved to be here back then. Sigh, again.)

    And to everyone making the oh-so-familiar neoliberal complaint about rent control skewing the market supply, stop. Just stop. This is nonsense that sounds sophisticated but doesn't actually have any content other than "let those with money do whatever it takes to make more money." In a related context, it appeared as the allegation that the subprime crisis was due to government assistance for poor homeowners. To put it lightly, there's no substance to the claim, and it takes only a second thinking about it—what about those buildings that aren't subject to rent control? are the rents there lower, or are they in fact far, far higher?—to figure it out.

  • Doctor Rock says:

    Born and raised in Miami, have lived in DC or NYC the past decade. DC bores me to tears, NYC is a constant reminder of how little money I have.

    I wanted to get the hell away from FL growing up. Now I wouldn't mind moving back, at least compared to where I've lived.

  • chautauqua says:

    I had a unique stay in NYC for several months in the early 70's – free rooming, waterfront property, unparalleled view of lower Manhattan, a quiet, crime-free, Ivy-covered campus-like neighborhood. The only hitch was …. a hitch. In the USCG. On Governor's Island. Oh, well.

  • My second apartment out of college in Chicago (c. 2002) was a 3-bedroom, 1st floor apartment with an eat-in kitchen, separate dining room, walk in pantry, sunroom, hardwood floors, and a parking space, nestled half way between Wrigley Field and Boystown and just a 5 minute walk to the L. Rent: $1,525 per month, split three ways. Downside… 3rd bedroom was only large enough to accommodate a queen sized bed instead of a king, and the heating bills were outrageous in the winter.

    My roommate's brother lived in Manhattan at the same time in a 400 square foot studio for 3,000 per month. When he came to visit, he kept asking us how much we spent on rent, as if he could not comprehend that normal people might only spend $500 per person per month for decent housing. I can't imagine what this rent would be 10 years later. But I would have to say that our standard of living was much nicer – close to night life & Cubs games, but enough room that you could actually have people over and just kick back on the couch. Cause we had enough room for a couch. Well… three of them.

    Settling for Chicago? I think I'd rather live there than have to settle for a long-ass commute from New Jersey.

  • I believe Singapore has a foot print equalish to Manhattan, but is affordable. But there're a few reasons for this.
    A) the govt owns everything and sets the price. Call them commie-nusts and they'd out bank Wall St in a fraction of your NY second.
    B) the govt owns everything and doesn't give a F### what you think. We need more housing? Fine. What's old? shuffle people out, doze it, build something taller. Except for few things, there's no reason for those fancy palatial houses because they're historic. Doze em and get on with it.
    C) if you don't have the right qualifications/drive the govt/society is shameless in letting you know this. You're either some kind of middle climbing higher cannon fodder corporate flack, or you're cleaning toilets. If you want to be somewhere in between, and go at youre own pace… you're not wanted and they'll let you know this in no uncertain terms. Oh and BTW the door's over there if you don't like it. So sociologically enforced emigration.

  • I've lived in some rooms like that in NYC. A lot of them are illegal since housing code requires rented rooms to have at least one window.

    Funny thing is – I never minded. I just didn't spend much time in my apartment.

    But now NYC is more or less just a gentrified playground for the wealthy. Anything vibrant there perished at some point in the mid-90s.

  • Doctor Rock says:

    NYC can suck my cock. Overrated and overpriced. I'll move back if I ever become a billionaire.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    My sister lucked into a rent-subsidized apartment on the Upper East Side. Her neighbors were almost all rich and would throw away the most amazing things—-designer clothes and shoes that had only been worn a few times (if at all).

    My sis is very handy with crafts and would often gussy up, say, an expensive blouse with new buttons or trim. More than once, she shared an elevator with the person who had thrown away that blouse, and who would exclaim, "I had a blouse once that looked a little like that, but your is much nicer."

  • anotherbozo says:

    @Pat:
    "I suspect you might have a different view if you'd just come back from, say, Vienna or Paris."
    No, I've been there, both are essentially museums, with whatever contemporary art that exists being tucked around the edges. Not nearly as vital as NYC. Not close.
    "Or even London—theater there is superior to NYC's, in no small part because the government subsidizes it, so a show needn't be "The Book of Mormon" in order to make rent.
    This is true, and London's art world is healthier than Vienna or Paris too, and the English are chauvinistic in their support of their artists, but still… not as creative and diverse and cross-fertilizing as New York… providing anything like proof would take a big essay.

    "And to everyone making the oh-so-familiar neoliberal complaint about rent control skewing the market supply, stop. Just stop.

    Neoliberal? Also neoconservative. And maybe factual. No, it isn't the only thing that skews the market supply, just one thing.

    "This is nonsense that sounds sophisticated but doesn't actually have any content other than "let those with money do whatever it takes to make more money."

    I did mention the place of government incentives, tax breaks, etc. in encouraging mid- and low-cost housing. With only the poor and powerless to benefit, you can imagine how big those programs are.

    "…what about those buildings that aren't subject to rent control? are the rents there lower, or are they in fact far, far higher?—to figure it out. "

    Rent-controlled buildings drive up the rents in non-rent-controlled buildings because the latter are what's left of the open market, i.e., that much more in demand. Think!

  • Larry Dickman says:

    Posts like this make me glad I live in the cultural wasteland of Omaha. The wife attended university in Moscow, Russia and living here is obviously painful for her at times. She desperately wants us to end up in the Boston area and I'm dreading the cost of living increase.
    Currently we're paying about $800 a month for an 800sqft flat with garage and utilities. The only downside is living in Nebraska.

  • @anotherbozo, that's a thoughtful response but ultimately wrong. Yes, anyone who's taken an econ class or two can do the S&D modeling with a price ceiling and infer that rent controls must create housing shortages—and I'm probably to blame for part of that confusion, having taught an econ class or two. But this is a great occasion for that joke about economists being that species that sees something in reality and wondering if it works in theory: the actual world simply does not match the model.

    Take just a moment to imagine what implications of that would be. For the theorized mechanism actually to work, one would need to see either overconsumption or underproduction. For the first, we would need to see renters keeping an artificially cheap apartment they'd otherwise prefer to leave and move to, say, Kansas City. Suffice it to say, that ain't the world we live in; the beneficiaries of NYC rent regulation are people who want to live in New York City. Behavior isn't altered, so rent regulation isn't a market distortion; the word you want to use is "windfall." Now, it's an unequal and capricious one, which raises substantial equity concerns, but it doesn't prevent the market from clearing.

    Or similarly, you might suppose that fewer apartments were being built, because the lower expected rents make them less profitable. This, quite self-evidently, is preposterous; rent controlled apartments are all legacies in already-existing buildings, and rent stabilization is an election made by the landlord in exchange for tax preferences. If market rents but not stabilized rents would make new construction, well then, it would make economic sense for the developer simply to build the apartments and then make that election.

    Aha, you say—but the rent-controlled legacy apartments prevent developers from tearing down old buildings and replacing them with shiny new vulgarities! First, go back to Jersey and quit cheering on the co-bags making my City uglier. Second, you have a ludicrous overestimation of how many rent-controlled apartments are actually still around. Third, I don't have specific data on this, but my impression is actually that new constructions don't have more units than the buildings they replace, but rather bigger luxury apartments. (Felix Salmon confirms this impression; see link at bottom.) Fourthly, this isn't an argument against rent control but rather tenants' rights not to be evicted at-will; make the argument if you like, but don't be confused about what you're actually proposing. Finally, New York zoning restrictions (air rights, etc.) already constrain this theoretical reconstruction far more stringently than any theoretical market distortion.

    Alternatively, you could test the validity of your model with a quick gut check—the implication of the S&D model is that rent regulation leads to a shortage by making real estate not profitable, so you could place that suspicion alongside an observed NYC real estate market that's been exploding for about two decades, with anecdata every other week of foreign buyers and all-cash deals, that even post-crash is seeing enormous new constructions spring up in Midtown West and the LES, many of them undersubscribed and advertising for tenants, and ask yourself: Does any of this make any sense? Could rent regulation really be having this effect, in a world where this is happening?

    Or to put it in Noo Yawkah: "'Think!'? Same to you, buddy!"

    That Felix Salmon link: http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/05/04/why-americas-population-density-is-falling/

  • @Larry Dickman—that's odd; I had actually heard Omaha was kind of a hip place to live, these days. Have I been misled?

  • Doctor Rock says:

    @Pat
    I know for a fact that Omaha has a kickass music scene. Conor Oberst is from there, and I believe Saddle Creek records is based there.

  • New York is nice, and yes the arts scene is unmatched, but how often am I actually going to go to the theater? Once a month? Couple times a month?

    I don't know if the arts scene would really make up for the expense and difficulty of living there. I'd need to make an awful lot of money to live what I consider to be a halfway decent lifestyle in Manhattan. We're talking Wall Street trader money, not airline pilot money.

  • @Larry Dickman: Which is a lolt like saying that the only downside of living in Pompeii is that enormous volcano.

  • DC has changed enormously in the last 6 – 7 years. I hope it keeps changing but, right now, it's already a great town. Expensive, of course, but not NYC/SF expensive. And extremely livable, with a lot going on and tons of young, smart people doing interesting things.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    @ Pat Says: "the word you want to use is "windfall.""

    In the 1990s I told youngsters "take the 2 or 3 train to the first stop in Harlem, get out, and find the largest pre-war you can, with roommates. Stay put."

    In the 2000s I told youngsters "take the IND train to the Grand Concourse in The Bronx, get out, and find the largest pre-war you can, with roommates. Stay put." That's still applicable.

    (FWIW, 30 years in Brooklyn since graduate school, zero connections, no money and no job in hand, one successful rent-overcharge complaint, and 25 years in the same rent-stabilized apartment in the North Slope. I got lucky.)

  • Eric Titus says:

    Well the reason the rents are so high in New York is because plenty of people want to move their or at least think about moving there. And not just artists but business folks, marketing, design, and fashion people. Sure, the rents are high, but I'm guessing that people are actually willing to pay even more than they currently are.

    If you think about it, $1000/mo. rents come out the 12K per year. If you're making near 30K that might just be the price you're willing to pay to live in such a vibrant/culturally rich place. Especially if you spend much of your time out of your apartment. Obviously it's not for everyone, and if you don't see the appeal of moving to NY it's probably not worth moving there.

    Chicago continues to be a very affordable place for rents, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe it's that the rich people still tend to live in suburbs, or just that there's more space around.

  • @Eric Titus

    Chicago is not on island like Manhattan. New neighborhoods continue to gentrify, so the supply increases (for those in that price range,the doomed have another story.) Chicago can sprawl to the north west and south like no ones business thanks to a lack of natural boundaries. Wealthy people on the North Shore have easy commute to downtown via commuter train.

    The Chicago 2 flats and 3 flats create a ton of mom and pop landlords, so that has an effect an rent, though i am sure what is does exactly. The burbs are still an option especially if your job is in the burbs.

  • One thing I learned from hanging out with a friend in Manhattan years ago when we were in our twenties that I have not seen mentioned in connection with these rooms for rent: young people in NYC spend almost no time in their apartments. Many really are just renting a place to sleep at night, which is why someone might be ok with the breakfast nook. I was shocked by how little my friend actually owned and how little time he actually spent at his closet-sized apartment (and it wasn't just because he was out entertaining me). His idea of "housing" was not anything like mine.

  • Given a choice between NYC and Detroit, I'll take Detroit. I remember walking around Queens and feeling like I was back in Mumbai.

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