Losing Your Dream Apartment
Sarah Abramson Cusick was smitten the moment she laid eyes on the beaded Victorian screen door outside the garden apartment of a mammoth brownstone in Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn. “Before I even crossed the threshold, I was like, ‘Yes, this is my home!’” she said.
The apartment was immense and adorned with Victorian woodwork. The kitchen had custom-made cabinets, a dishwasher and an original ice box with a built-in pie safe. There was a separate butler’s pantry with a copper sink, a big garden and even a washer and dryer. The rent was $1,600 a month.
“I was immediately throwing myself at the landlord’s feet,” said Ms. Cusick, a manager on the security engineering team at Etsy. She came over for three interviews, vowing to attend block association meetings, gardening days and the annual block party. To seal the deal, she delivered a handmade chocolate cake.
It was worth the effort. Living there was just as incredible as she had imagined it would be. She held garden parties and game nights. Everyone who visited gushed about the place.
Her boyfriend, Theo Cusick, moved in, and they eventually married and had a daughter, now 2. The apartment seemed big enough to evolve with them, and they expected to stay for years. Then one day last fall, five years after she moved in, the landlord told them they would have to leave. He was selling the building.
Finding the ideal rental apartment in New York City is not unlike falling in love. But it may be a good deal rarer, as the city is notoriously unkind to its renters. And much like those who fall in love, renters lucky enough to land a dream apartment often find it is hard to make it last.
Landlords change, as do circumstances and people. Some renters move in swearing they will never leave, only to find that their occupancy is as tenuous as their lease term. Others discover that what they thought was a dream apartment is actually a nightmare: Roommate relations go south, neighbors turn hostile, raccoons come crashing through the ceiling.
“It was phenomenal, until it wasn’t,” said Linda G. Maryanov, a Manhattan lawyer who vividly remembers leaving an apartment on West End Avenue and 85th Street more than 30 years ago because of a roommate’s increasingly bizarre behavior.
For Kelsea Beck, who moved to New York from New Orleans five years ago, it was the landlord’s wife who drove her out of a townhouse in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Ms. Beck, a performance artist and nanny, took over the room of a friend who was moving back to Louisiana; he had only good things to say about the apartment. At first, so did Ms. Beck, who loved curling up on the living room window seat to watch the snow fall. The bay windows were perfect for house plants, her room was huge and the rent was $650 a month. The landlord, who lived downstairs, had grown up in the house.
But then the landlord’s wife started to make regular visits. Ms. Beck and her roommates would hear the couple fighting, and then the landlord’s wife would turn up asking for a drink. Or she would try to sell them makeup, which seemed to be from her own collection, saying she was short on cash and wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes.
“Over time, she became more and more comfortable asking us for bigger things,” Ms. Beck said. “It went from $5 lipsticks to ‘Can I have $20? I’ll take it off the rent.’”
The visits increased in frequency, and if Ms. Beck said she didn’t have cash on hand, the landlady would ask to her to go to the ATM. If she knocked and no one answered, she’d let herself in; the door had no lock. “Sometimes I would pretend to be asleep,” Ms. Beck said.
The smaller three-bedroom share she moved into last September is a step down in many ways: There is no natural light in the living room — half of her plants died after she moved in — and she has a noisy, street-facing bedroom. But Ms. Beck is happier there.
“It’s so nice not to have to constantly be dodging my landlady’s call or dreading that she’s going to knock on the door,” she said.
If an apartment seems too good to be true, sometimes that’s because it is. When Mirra Kardonne and her boyfriend were looking for a two-bedroom in Astoria, Queens, to share with a friend a few years ago, most of what they saw was grim. Then their broker took them to a true two-bedroom on the top floor of a house for $2,150 a month.
“It had a front yard with a persimmon tree,” Ms. Kardonne said. “We go upstairs, and it’s enormous: There’s a huge foyer, and the dappled light from the persimmon tree is coming in through the window onto the hardwood floors.”
It quickly became evident, however, that something was living in the ceiling — a squirrel, Ms. Kardonne figured, as they were right next to Astoria Park. And although the landlord refused to investigate, they renewed their lease for a second year, over some objections from the roommate, who claimed the scrabbling and loud thumps kept her awake at night.
A month later, after a week of torrential rain, Ms. Kardonne woke up one night to discover leaking water being sprayed around the room by her ceiling fan. A few nights later, it was her roommate’s screams that awakened her: Two raccoons had crashed through the rain-rotted bedroom ceiling.
The raccoons “were so scared they totaled her room,” Ms. Kardonne said. She called the landlord, who called the police. They caught the raccoons and advised the roommates to either get the roof repaired or move. When the landlord sent over a painter rather than a contractor to fix the damage, the choice seemed obvious.
Ms. Kardonne, who moved to New York from Toronto, which she called “the raccoon capital of the planet,” said she was “haunted by this feeling of ‘they’ve found me in America.’”
If there are few things as exhilarating as finding a dream apartment — the social cachet; the sense of being favored by the gods; the conviction that this good fortune will surely spill over into other areas of life — there is little that compares to the devastation of losing one.
Christian Lopez, an architect, had been looking for an apartment on Craigslist for six months when he found a spacious two-bedroom for $2,400 in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, close to the tennis courts where he likes to play.
Mr. Lopez, now 27, had been living in New York for three years and was renting a small, dark room in a somewhat chaotic five-bedroom in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Living with just one roommate in Fort Greene seemed as if it would be a step into a new stage of adulthood, but one that might be out of a reach — until he found that apartment.
“I would lie in my bedroom, which was huge, and look out the big windows,” he said. “It was so bright, it was invigorating. Coming home to that apartment felt good. Maybe too good.”
Just before moving there in March, Mr. Lopez injured his knee playing soccer, and he had to have surgery during his first month in the apartment. A week after the surgery, he came home early from work to rest and drifted off after taking his pain medication. He woke up to screams and black smoke curling around his bedroom door.
“I always thought that an apartment burning would look like a nightclub, gray and filled with smoke, but it was pitch-black at 4 p.m.,” he said. Everyone in the building made it out safely, but the house and almost all of their possessions were destroyed by what they would later learn was an electrical fire.
“I felt like I deserved this dream apartment after a few crazy years in New York, but maybe people build up the dream apartment too much,” said Mr. Lopez, who has since moved back to Clinton Hill. “I understand how important it is to people, how important it was to me, but maybe your apartment is just a place you go to after work.”
The problem with finding a place you love is that renting is by nature temporary, said Gary Malin, the president of real estate agency Citi Habitats. Some people might stay for many years, but the average is two or three.
And the more impressive the deal, the more precarious it usually is. After all, part of what makes a dream apartment such a dream is that, for one reason or another, someone is charging a lot less than they could get for it. Sooner or later — and often sooner — that ends.
For Courtney Luick, losing a dream apartment is just part of living in New York. When she moved back to the city from Los Angeles three and a half years ago, a friend offered her the second bedroom in his rent-regulated place in TriBeCa for $1,500 a month. It was a huge apartment, on the 40th floor of a doorman building, with a private terrace and stunning views of the Hudson River.
“You could just stare out at the water all day,” said Ms. Luick, who recently moved out to live with her boyfriend, David Kallaway. “It was pretty incredible, but it wasn’t really mine.”
Still, the apartment was so awe-inspiring that their real estate agent at Warburg Realty, Rafael Feldman, tried to convince Ms. Luick and Mr. Kallaway to stay there together, before finding them a pleasant, if ordinary, one-bedroom in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “I guess if you have to leave,” he said, “love is a good reason.”
Ms. Luick said she is a little in shock to wake up looking at a wall rather than a breathtaking view of the Hudson. “But I was excited to move in with David,” she said. “I wanted to start a life with him, to have our own place together.”
Of course, with time and circumstance, anyone’s definition of what constitutes a dream apartment can change, said Stephanie Diamond, the founder of Listings Project, a free weekly email of real estate and related listings. “The factors that make a dream apartment at 23 are not the same ones that make a dream apartment at 45,” Ms. Diamond said. “The question is, What space helps your actual dream work? Dreams expand and grow.”
A few years ago, Crystal Fawn Williams and Tomasz Werner faced that question after their landlord discovered they had a dog and tried to force them out of their rent-stabilized two-bedroom in Williamsburg. They had had the dog for years and might have kept both him and the apartment under the city’s pet law, which allows tenants to keep a pet if they have had it “openly and notoriously” for 90 days or more. But when they thought about it, they weren’t sure they wanted to fight for their apartment. It was definitely a deal — a little under $2,000 a month — but it was also a little rundown.
“I miss that apartment immensely,” said Ms. Williams, who has since moved to Los Angeles with Mr. Werner. “But everything great is not supposed to last forever. There’s this whole idea in New York that whatever you have is the best it will ever be. That’s like not breaking up with your high school boyfriend.”
If there is one takeaway from having, and losing, a dream apartment, it might be to appreciate the apartment for what it is: magical, but fleeting.
In 2010, Alex Robinson, now an editor at Thrillist, moved up from Florida into a loft in an old piano factory in Bushwick, Brooklyn, with three high school friends. It was large — about 1,400 square feet — and full of character. The rent was $2,000 a month.
“I have only fond memories of that place,” Mr. Robinson said. “It just fostered camaraderie. Living in an open space, you had to learn to deal with problems head on in a way that’s empathetic.”
He continued: “There was a roof that was kind of shanty-ish, but it had great views and became a meeting place for people in the building. We were too broke to go out to bars, so we’d pool our money for a 12-pack and go up there to hang out. And that would be our night.”
It eventually came to an end, of course. After four years, the building’s owners gave residents their marching orders; a gut renovation was in the works. Many of the tenants tried to fight it, but Mr. Robinson and his roommates didn’t have the money to hire a lawyer, and in the end, those who fought won only a little extra time.
“It was such a special first apartment. There’s no doubt in my mind that living in that space with my friends helped shape my relationship with the city,” said Mr. Robinson, who now lives in a three-bedroom Williamsburg share. “But I’m a big person when it comes to closure. I said goodbye to the building, it was heartfelt, and I moved on.”