Hell to Pay For Manhattan Pad

By ANNE E. KORNBLUT and PETER GRANT
Daily News Staff Writers

Manhattan is rent hell. It's where $900 buys a 350-square-foot one-bedroom apartment no bigger than a suburban hall closet. It's where scores of people line up for hours waiting to snare a $1,200-a-month studio with slanted floors and a view of a brick wall.

It's where from Greenwich Village to the upper West Side, rents have spiked up more than 30% in the last three years, making it all but impossible for many New Yorkers to find an affordable place to live.

Yesterday, the Daily News revealed that rents in many areas of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx have increased dramatically in the past few years.

The big hikes are the result of Manhattan's super-charged rent market, and they dwarf those being felt in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge and Forest Hills.

Manhattan's sharp spike in rent is the result of too many people looking for too few apartments, experts said. It's also the consequence of an improving economy, which has lured more young professionals to live in Manhattan.

The average rental of a one-bedroom apartment on the upper West Side in an unregulated doorman building is $1,775, up from $1,350 in 1992, according to a survey by Feathered Nest, a major rental brokerage. A two-bedroom there runs $2,950, up from $2,050. A rent-stabilized apartment on the upper West Side goes for $1,475 compared with $1,200 in 1992, the survey shows.

The result is that many New Yorkers are settling for less: apartments with flaking paint, broken fixtures and inadequate closet space. Worse, some people are forced to double or triple up with friends or relatives or are being priced out of Manhattan.

Robert Zawadzkas knew looking for a place in Manhattan was going to be tough when he moved here last year from Boston to take a job as a trust officer with an investment bank. But with a budget of only $1,000 a month he had no idea what he was in for.

For six months, while he lived with his grandmother, he went from broker to broker. "It was ridiculous. Either they were 10 feet by 20 feet or had no closets or were in a basement," he said.

Desperate, he finally paid a broker a $2,250 fee to find him a one-bedroom, 350-square-foot apartment near Union Square that rents for $900 a month.

Even so, the apartment is so noisy from traffic and a nearby firehouse that Zawadzkas has filled his bedroom window with Styrofoam so he can sleep. "It seemed like a bargain compared with all the other places I saw," he said.

The rental boom began in the 1980s when rents soared before pulling back after the 1987 stock market crash. During that time areas like the upper West Side and East Village joined neighborhoods like the upper East Side and Greenwich Village as places that were becoming harder for the middle class to afford.

Even the state's rent control regulations have not been able to stop the inexorable march of the forces of supply and demand. Landlords of regulated units figured out a way to keep pace with the market by making major improvements or having a high turnover rate, thus being able to raise the rent.

Chris Iyer, a single mother with a 4-year-old daughter, set out to find a place last year after graduating from Columbia University's nursing school and moving out of student housing.

The job she got as a midwife at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx paid about $55,000 a year, not enough to afford the two-bedroom apartment she wanted to rent in Manhattan. "I was overwhelmed," she said. "I would start looking through the classifieds and it was like the pages would go blurry."

Iyer ultimately settled for a one-bedroom apartment in a building on 109th St. near Broadway. The $822 a month rent is affordable. But the apartment is too small, doesn't have enough closets and is on a crime-ridden block.

"I'm in a dump on the worst block of the upper West Side," she said.

Some people, like NYU law student Liz Cohen, have been forced to make huge sacrifices.

Unable to find a place she could afford, Cohen temporarily surrendered, moving into her twin brother's crowded $4,100-a-month apartment on the upper West Side.

It's hardly peaceful living. Her brother, Jonathan, is a band manager who often lets out-of-town groups crash in the living room and holds industry parties in the apartment until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.

Another roommate, an independent marketing consultant, works with British firms and gets phone calls beginning at 5 a.m.

Five phone lines run at once. Three televisions and the stereo constantly blare. An empty beer keg sits on the terrace. Three-month-old milk is not a rare commodity. "I have a totally chaotic situation," she said, laughing.

Real estate experts blame the runup in rents on the law of supply and demand. "We're losing housing, gaining population and not building that much," said Peter Salens, an urban planning professor at Hunter College.

Demand for apartments has intensified thanks to the city's improving economy. Thousands of new employees recently hired by Wall Street firms and new media companies are looking for apartments and driving up prices.

But the supply of rental apartments has been dwindling. Thousands of co-op and condo owners who used to rent their units are putting them up for sale now that prices have risen.

Meanwhile, developers have not replenished the supply during the '90s because they couldn't get loans from banks that lost millions from bad construction loans in the '80s.

New apartment buildings have begun to rise in Brooklyn Heights, western Queens and throughout Manhattan. But the developers of these projects hope to rent apartments at today's stratospheric prices.

Other New Yorkers, with some money saved, are seeking relief from sky-high rents by buying.

Kathy and Daniel MacGowan were prepared to spend $2,500 to $3,000 a month for a Manhattan rental.

"But my husband figured out for that price we could actually buy a nicer place than the apartments we were looking at, which were not in good condition," Kathy said. "It makes more sense to buy."

Fortunately, some relief is in sight. The most recent rental survey by Feathered Nest shows that for the first time in three years rents have leveled off.

"We've hit the top," said Nancy Packes, president of Feathered Nest.

Original Story Date: 03/10/97
Original Story Section: City Central