Rising Rent on the Upper West Side (updated)
If you live in the West 90s and are friends with anyone who lives in the Westmont or the Key West, you've surely heard the rumors. Both buildings were acquired by Archstone-Smith over the past six months (the Westmont in July and the Key West in September). The new owners summarily raised rents by 30-50% on new leases. These new leases also forbad (forbade?) putting up the temporary walls that make these several-thousand-dollar-a-month rents affordable for young singles on the Upper West Side. (Side question: Is the Charles E. Smith whose name appears on the Archstone-Smith website the same Charle E. Smith who funded this day school, about which I've only heard amazing things? This implies that the answer is yes.)
Background: Many young, single Modern Orthodox Jews live in the Westmont and the Key West, in addition to the Paris and the James Tower. In most, if not all, cases, one bedroom apartments are occupied by two people and two bedroom apartments are occupied by four people. This is accomplished by hiring people to build temporary walls that turn small dining areas and half of the living room into two separate bedrooms. (This photo shows what looks like a 2-bedroom apartment without walls. In the converted apartment that I lived in, the two windows would have been windows to two new bedrooms.) Even in other buildings, almost everyone I know, including myself, has at least one fake wall or has turned a closet-less dining room in an old, pre-war apartment into a bedroom. As far as I know, if you have moved to New York any time within the past three years or so, this is the only way to find a place to live with your own bedroom between W 70th St. and W 100th St. for $1200/month or less. There are some very small bedrooms available in these Westmont/KeyWest apartments that are less money, but I couldn't live in a small space that had room for a twin bed and a dresser and nothing else. Other people get lucky and find rent-stabilized apartments with lower rents or where you get more for your money. Also, if you happen upon an apartment that has been passed down from person to person for awhile, with at least one previous tenant always staying on, you can get a very good deal, maybe even around $900/month, especially if you know Elba. (You have to know her and you have to bribe her, though, and there's still no guarantee something will be available. And if something in one of her buildings breaks, tough luck.) More information about typical Upper West Side rents here.
Anyway, so this is how people live.
But that opulent lifestyle is now threatened by rising rents. It's not just the Westmont and the Key West. I have a friend who lives in a door-man-less walk-up on 100th, between Columbus Ave. and Central Park West (not the fanciest part of the Upper West Side by any stretch of the imagination), and her rent is being increased by 10% this year. Maybe that's "typical" (is it?), but if your rent is starting out at $1200/month for a studio, having it go up to $1320/month is not easy.
In my building, which is not billed as a luxury building, new leases are being sent out with increases from 46% to 76%! Some people managed to "bargain" the management down to a 20-30% rent increase, but it's still crazy. We have a part-time doorman (8 am to 11 pm, roughly), laundry in the basement, and elevators, but that's the extent of the luxuriousness of my building. It was originally built in the 1910's and it has not been well-maintained. The plumbing is terrible, both in terms of wacky water pressure and in terms of sudden, surprising switches from temperate water to very hot or very cold water. It makes for unpleasant showers, but, well, we put up with it. Certain times of day are better than others. (The management said that they couldn't fix it without ripping out the entire building's plumbing and starting over from scratch.) There are also serious structural problems with the building. A few people have literally had their kitchen ceilings fall down, and it's not uncommon to see tiles buckling in the bathroom or large water leaks in the walls that the super comes and paints over every once in awhile. The lobby smells strongly of gas or heating oil when it's cold outside, and the doorman told me that it's been that way for the past 28 years and it's because they use No. 6 oil. Nothing can be done, he says with a shrug. How can you possibly charge $4000/month or more for a two bedroom apartment in such circumstances?
Entire floors of these buildings are, of course, moving out. The Westmont and Key West are, apparently, having enough trouble filling these newly-vacated, $4900/month two bedroom apartments that they're offering $500 to current residents if they find tenants. The floor below me in my building has emptied out, too.
I'm not sure what will happen. I'm hoping that nobody will be willing to pay these higher rents and that the rents come back down to the "reasonable" range.
Barring that, it is probably possible to find reasonable rents further north, between 100th and 116th Sts, or further east, say, around 103rd and Central Park West. There is also the possibility that large numbers of people will move to other neighborhoods like Washington Heights or Park Slope, but I am loathe to leave my Central Park, Riverside Park, and Fairway behind. It's also possible that all of my friends are teachers, social workers, non-profit-do-gooders, but that a lot of the occupants of these apartments may be lawyers and bankers and that they can pay the new, higher rents, and are willing to. (At some point, even rich people must get tired of throwing their money away.)
Only time will tell. In the meantime, if you know of a good deal on a place starting late summer, I might be looking to move...
I don't know about the assorted legalities (IANAL, B"H), but I would assume that there are probably safety regulations against building the fake walls - in DC, a room must have two different egresses and a closet (and be of a certain minimum size) to be called a "bedroom."
Perhaps one of the concerns is the population density from a "how many people can fit down the stairwells during a fire?" point of view...
I did hear, though, that the Westmont and Key West were having trouble finding new tenants at the raised rate, so are relaxing their lease rules about fake walls (lots of leases say that fake walls are illegal, but everyone ignores them).
As far as fires go, well, our apartment doesn't have a fire escape at all. There is only one way out--the front door--and then there is one stairway down (plus an elevator, not to be used in event of a fire). I don't know if it's legal, but I can't imagine they would have been able to build the apartments the way they did if it wasn't.
But I'm ready to be done with the Upper West Side, as long as everyone I know agrees. What neighborhood should we all move to?
Despite all this, the landlord increased our rent this past summer by 15%. 15%!?!?! There was no negotiating with him. He told us we were "lucky" to pay that much for our apartment and if we didn't want it at the new price there were plenty of people who did. This seems to be true, alas, since new people keep moving in all the time. (I do think that they are lawyer/finance/etc. types).
Varying dynamics are at work in our neighborhood, but I'm convinced that everything is connected: the new Ariel buildings going up at 100th and Broadway that start at $1 million for the smallest apartment, the fact that my beloved Zen Palate and Fishs Eddie lost their leases because they couldn't afford the increases, the fact that in the last few years virtually every empty store in the 'hood has been replaced by a bank, the fact that there have been more homeless folks visible in the neighborhood this year than in the last six years, the fact that graffiti has returned to the 1,2,3 lines...
The question is what we do about it. A first step would be to think about trying to organize your building's tenants against the rent increase. (Email if you want suggestions for organizations that might help.)
A second step would be to push your shul, school, or union to join Manhattan Together (see http://www.stbarts.org/blog-post.asp?ID=43).
Manhattan Together is what is sometimes known as a "power organization" that organizes churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, unions, and sometimes other nonprofits to work together for serious and systemic change in NYC. (Their sister organization, East Brooklyn Communities, was the group that built the famous Nehemiah (affordable) housing in burnt-out Brooklyn. Other related organizations were the ones who ran the first successful living wage campaigns in the US.) Right now Manhattan Together is working on affordable housing, public education reform, and immigration. Check it out.
Above all, I think it's important that, as your post did, we share what's going on with our personal situations. Knowledge is (or can sometimes be) power.
It all started (in late 2003) with HEALTHY PLEASURES. :(
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