Rental Dementia: Dementia Circa 1995

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I can almost sympathize with today’s renter. The vacancy rate is still desperately low, and prices continue to rise. Rental agents are once again in good positions and in high demand. In fact, the market is almost as bad as it was when I first moved here. There was no Internet, nor fancy pictures or eloquent descriptions littered with misspellings to assist me. You kids have no idea how good you have it.

It was 1995 and my girlfriend and I were looking for our first apartment in NYC. A few people suggested we look in the outer boroughs, but the appeal of Manhattan—and the idea that somehow living outside of the island meant we were sub-New-Yorkers, prevented us from even considering it. Naïve and excitable, what did we know? We still thought the Village ended on a street named after a city in Texas.

It was before the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, Alphabet City, Astoria, Harlem, Washington Heights or Red Hook became habitable, at least in the mind of the new renter. The boundaries were significantly tighter and limited to Manhattan below 96th street and above the Financial District. West of 9th Ave. was a no-man’s land as well. (Unfortunately, for some, this is still true.) And with the crime rate double what it is today, the demarcation lines were in place for good reason.

A few hours of circling potential newspaper ads followed by a few hours of sleep and we would hit the streets running. Literally. I didn’t know the city or how building addresses worked, but I always knew the right building by the line that had formed in front of it. You were expected to bring your checkbook and paperwork. There was none of this “think it over” bullshit. Inside the space, people huddled in corners and up against walls, frantically filling out applications. It was common for twenty people to look at a space at roughly the same time. If the space didn’t work, you left immediately and headed to the next one. There was no time to waste.

I distinctly remember looking at one perfectly square box in midtown with brick wall views and a pull-man kitchen. It was dusty with filthy windows and cracked floors, even the ceilings felt too low. The broker confidently stood in the doorway and never said a word. I looked it over, “You got to be kidding me.” He smiled and shrugged. I left and, in the stairwell, passed three more people on their way up to see it. Had I possessed any business acumen whatsoever, I would have jumped into the business right then.

Citi Habitats had only been in a business a year so I find it ironic that their agent’s were already having breakdowns in the backseats of cars. We had driven up that day and, with three apartments to see in no specific neighborhood, our middle-aged, slightly frumpy, agent suggested we take the car. I should add that it was also raining. We settled and waited for her direction. Nothing. “OK, where are we headed?” I asked. She simply stated, “It’s so hard.” An awkward pause was followed by an awkward moment, which in turn was followed by a really inappropriate breakdown in my car. She started crying and repeating, “It’s so hard.” My girlfriend got her to settle down so we headed to our first place. This, by the way, was my first experience with a real estate agent … well, one that spoke anyway.

She took us to a building on the corner of 5th Ave. and 31st street. It was bright, large enough and only $200 over what we told her we could afford. We both agreed that it was “do-able.” The transformation was incredible; only moments before she was sobbing in our car like a wounded little kitten. We expressed a hint of interest and magically she became a fierce, no-nonsense Manhattan tigress. If we didn’t return to her office immediately, we would have no chance of getting the place. So we did. We filled out what seemed to be mounds of paperwork, wrote a deposit check and began calling our parents to explain what a guarantor was and to notify them that they would soon be one. Our manic agent was now beaming with confidence. Confused and overwhelmed, we headed home, believing that it was at least over. It wasn’t. We didn’t get the apartment.

Like all fruitless, frantic searches, we eventually found a great little place on the Upper East Side through a friend of a friend. It was a five-floor walk-up, but sunny, good sized and no-fee. For three months, I was perfectly happy there. My relationship didn’t last and, as everything moves quickly in this town, our break up was equally accelerated. Still unbelievably new to the city, I was once again on the hunt for decent and affordable housing. Eleven years later, I’m an expert.

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