Finally Making It to Manhattan

For those in other boroughs who dreamed of Manhattan, there was a silver lining to the pandemic: lower rents.

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Jeff Godfrey, who spent the last 11 years living in Brooklyn, realized a longtime dream this spring: He moved to Manhattan.

“I just always wanted to try living in Manhattan,” said Mr. Godfrey, a 34-year-old artist and bartender, who scoured various listings sites for months after realizing that, thanks to plummeting rents, the borough was finally within reach. In April, he pounced on a spacious, newly renovated two-bedroom on the Lower East Side that rents for $2,400 a month — the same price he was paying for an unrenovated two-bedroom off the Halsey J train stop in Bushwick. The new place is even rent stabilized.

Which is perfect, as he plans to stay for decades.

“There’s creative energy, human energy — not just artists but many different types of people. You see more people on the streets,” said Mr. Godfrey, who shares his apartment with a roommate, but hopes one day to have the space to himself. “All of New York has that, but Manhattan has this compressed energy.”

Which is a far different vision of Manhattan than the one that has been widely broadcast over the past year: hollowed out by the pandemic, a place of empty office towers and boarded-up storefronts, many of its residents having fled to the suburbs or Florida, never to return.

While hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers left the city during the height of the pandemic last spring, with the biggest losses sustained by the wealthiest neighborhoods, most of them in Manhattan, the vast majority of New Yorkers remained here.

Many did move within the city, however, taking advantage of lower rents to improve their living situations. And nowhere were there better deals to be found than in Manhattan, where rents bottomed out in November 2020, at a median of $2,743, factoring in concessions, according to the residential brokerage Douglas Elliman.

“There has been a tremendous amount of musical chairs,” said Jonathan J. Miller, of Miller Samuel, the appraisal company. “People are moving to get more for their money: a nicer view, a larger apartment, a better location.”

For those who had always hoped to secure a foothold in the priciest borough, the past year presented a rare opportunity: Apartments in prime Manhattan neighborhoods were, in some cases, cheaper than comparable spaces in Brooklyn or Queens. In Brooklyn, rents dropped by about 11 percent during the pandemic; in Manhattan, they dropped 22 percent.

“People have been able to live in Manhattan who never could have afforded it before,” said Stephanie Diamond, the founder of Listings Project, a weekly newsletter of real estate and other opportunities. “It opened up new possibilities.”

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Amit Erez moved to the West Village this spring after realizing she could find a better deal there than in Brooklyn.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

Amit Erez, 27, who works in ad sales for NBCUniversal, was living in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn, before the pandemic. Last March, she traveled to Florida to stay with her mother for what she thought would be a few weeks. She ended up staying a year.

Moving back this spring, Ms. Erez initially looked at apartments in Williamsburg and Greenpoint — mostly dark basement studios — before realizing that she could afford a much nicer place in the West Village.

“In Brooklyn, the prices were the same as they were pre-Covid,” said Ms. Erez, whose budget was around $2,000 a month. “If I could have found something comparable, I would have gone to Brooklyn. But I was able to get a lot more for my money here.”

Ms. Erez signed a lease in April for a bright one-bedroom in the West Village, for $2,050 a month. Unlike the places she saw in Brooklyn, the building is well maintained, and the landlord offered her an additional two months free, bringing the monthly cost down to $1,750.

“I always thought if I lived in the city, I’d want to live in the West Village, but it seemed like a dream,” she said. “It’s really charming over here.”

Isaiah Dunn, the Compass real estate agent who helped Ms. Erez find her apartment, has moved many people into apartments that they could not have afforded before the pandemic.

“A lot of people wanted to take advantage of the situation — upgrade from Brooklyn, move into their dream neighborhood or a luxury building,” he said. “I would say 40 percent of people that I worked with this year would not have been able to afford their neighborhood or tier of building.”

The pandemic also provided a chance for renters priced out of Manhattan in the past to return. Benjamin Knop, a 23-year-old restaurant manager, lived in East Harlem when he was a student at Marymount Manhattan College. But he grew tired of paying more than $1,000 a month to share a “really old, rundown three-bedroom apartment with five other people.”

In an apartment near the Bedford-Stuyvesant/Bushwick border, he had his own room in a new building and paid a much more palatable $900 a month.

“But I hated living in Brooklyn. It was so far from everything I did. And it’s an entirely different speed,” he said. “For me, the dream was always New York City, and New York City was always Manhattan. The fine dining, the high-rises, the bright lights.”

Last June, Mr. Knop was searching on StreetEasy and found a $1,600 rent-stabilized one-bedroom on the Upper East Side.

“I was like, ‘This has to be one of those fake listings,'” he said. “When I went to see it, it was also no-fee. It blew my mind. I was like, ‘Jackpot!'”

Some people who moved, or moved back, to Manhattan from elsewhere in the city did end up paying slightly more or settling for smaller apartments — trade-offs, but ones that wouldn’t have been possible before the pandemic.

Chantel Ellis, 39, a documentary film producer, moved to a large one-bedroom on the Upper East Side with her husband and 4-year-old son in December, after living in Brooklyn for 11 years, most recently in a two-bedroom in Flatbush.

The family pays about $300 more each month for their apartment in the East 90s, but the building is well maintained, has soundproof windows, a doorman and even a private playground. The layout also makes it easy to convert part of the dining room into a second bedroom.

“We used to have a 45-minute walk to get to my son’s school, and now it’s a block away,” Ms. Ellis said. “There’s a post office and a FedEx nearby, a Whole Foods and a CTown, Central Park and Carl Schurz. And now that we’re in the phase of being vaccinated, I can’t wait to start taking him to the museums.”

For her, the ease of life in their new neighborhood is worth paying a little more for a smaller space. “This is by far the nicest place we have ever lived in,” Ms. Ellis said. “And the convenience is insane.”

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Madison Skudlarek and Xai Yang moved to Two Bridges, where they pay $200 a month more than they did in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But they upgraded from one to two bedrooms and also save on grocery shopping, visiting Chinatown markets instead of Whole Foods.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

Madison Skudlarek, 29, and Xai Yang, 32, both social workers, pay slightly more for their Two Bridges apartment than they did for their previous apartment in Williamsburg: $2,200 a month versus $2,000, but it’s a two-bedroom instead of a one-bedroom and nicer in other ways, as well.

“We had no closets; now we have two closets. We also have a tub now. And tons of natural light, which is great since we have around 100 plants,” Ms. Skudlarek said.

And, she added, their lifestyle is less expensive than it was in Williamsburg, where so many of the restaurants and stores were high-end.

“We’re able to shop in Chinatown; we don’t just have to go to the Whole Foods, which is what we did in Williamsburg,” she said. “There’s also really interesting street food and more laid-back restaurants.”

The lower rents have also drawn renters from around the country, like Douglas Lucas, 32, and his partner, Michael Walters, 49. In February, the couple left behind a house in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to move into a 700-square-foot one-bedroom on the Upper West Side.

Living in New York had been a longtime goal for the couple — Mr. Lucas is a theatrical wig designer and dresser, and Mr. Walters also works in the theater, as a performer — but savings from their stay-at-home pandemic lifestyle and lower rents finally enabled them to make the leap.

“We didn’t know when the first Broadway show would open, but we knew the vaccine was coming out and that rents would start to go back up,” Mr. Lucas said.

The surprise was that they could afford the Upper West Side. And not only the Upper West Side, but a doorman building with an elevator, for $2,100 a month.

“We were really delighted,” Mr. Lucas said. “We were able to find such a good situation. Normally, you have to sacrifice a lot.”

But how long will Manhattan rental prices remain where they are, with employers calling workers back to the office, schools resuming in-person classes and vaccinated 20-somethings who spent the last year in their parents’ homes eager to resume their social lives?

“You have to be careful if you move into a place you can only afford because of the concessions,” said Susan McGettigan, a Corcoran real estate agent. “These luxury buildings that are offering three months free, it’s not going to last. I’ve already seen a lot of deals going away.”

Gary Malin, the chief operating officer of the Corcoran Group, sees the surging sales market as a precursor to a rental market rebound. “There is huge sentiment — people missed the city,” he said. “New York City is on sale, comparatively speaking, but it’s still expensive and it’s getting tighter.”

In May, there were 9,491 leases signed in Manhattan, breaking the record set a month earlier for the most signings since 2008, according to Douglas Elliman. And the median rent, including concessions, was $3,037 a month, up 8.8 percent from the previous month, the biggest monthly increase in nearly a decade, Mr. Miller said, adding that the market was nearing a pricing bottom.

Landlords seem eager to return to prepandemic pricing, going so far as to offer leases for less than a year, in the hopes that rents will rebound sooner rather than later.

Braden Macdonald, 26, a flight attendant, signed an eight-month lease for a three-bedroom on the Lower East Side in November, moving in with one of his roommates from an apartment share in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

At the time, there were so many vacancies that the broker showed them two other apartments in the same building and one in the building next door. The landlord wanted $2,400, but Mr. Macdonald and his roommate negotiated the rent down to $2,000, paying the same per person as they had in Brooklyn and gaining an extra room.

Now the landlord wants to raise the rent to $2,700 a month when their lease renews in August, but will also offer two months free, making the net effective rent close to what they have been paying.

“We knew they would try, but that’s a lot,” Mr. Macdonald said of the proposed increase. “I feel like we wedged our foot in the door, and we’re going to try to do whatever we can do to stay. Once you taste life here, it’s so hard to leave. I loved living in Brooklyn, but being in the city, it feels like you’re in the heart of it.”

Although renters know that landlords will try to raise rents as soon as they can, most are still willing to move into apartments they couldn’t afford without Covid price cuts, said Matt Bauman, the founder of Bauman Realty.

“Nine out of 10 of my clients say, ‘Let’s take the risk. We’ll figure it out in a year, and if we love it, we’ll make it work.'”

It’s a very Manhattan mentality.

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Geraldine Yniguez had wanted to move to Manhattan since she was a child, but spent nearly a decade in the greater New York area before the pandemic brought the borough within reach.Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

Geraldine Yniguez, 27, an executive assistant from Southern California, has wanted to move to Manhattan since she was a child.

“My mom was a younger mom, a single mom, and she would often have ‘Sex and the City’ on in the background when I was growing up,” she said. “The fifth character in the series is the city. Watching it, I thought, ‘Wow, it’s a place where you get to form your own way.'”

Ms. Yniguez went to college in the Hudson Valley so she could be within striking distance of Manhattan, then lived in New Jersey and Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, before prices fell last year and she was able to afford a $2,255-a-month studio in Turtle Bay.

The day after she moved in last June, however, she was laid off. “I was like, ‘What did I just do? I have no safety net, and I’m paying four times the rent I was in Bay Ridge,'” Ms. Yniguez said.

But she never regretted her decision to move to Manhattan, she said, even before she found a new job in the fall.

“I have my own space in Manhattan, all 250 square feet of it,” she said. “Even now, every time I get sad, I can turn a block and see the Chrysler Building. Looking at something I dreamed of for so long, it seems super silly, but I can be having the worst day and I’m still like, ‘I made it.'”

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