Your parents might have stayed together for the kids, but some New Yorkers are shacking up for the money.
I relocated to New York for work in 2013, and I met my boyfriend shortly after moving into an apartment in Crown Heights I couldn't quite afford. It was a last-minute choice after my initial housing situation fell through, and I had to take what I could get. I wasn't yet unpacked when I met him at Brooklyn Museum for the first time. We made it official in October, said "I love you" for the first time in December, and in April I posed the idea of moving in together — for both romantic and financial reasons. I wanted to live with him, but I also didn't want to feel so broke all the same.
Conventional wisdom is that renters shouldn't spend more than 30 percent of their monthly earnings on housing, and I was well over that mark — sinking 36 percent of my income into my tiny Crown Heights apartment. But according to statistics, I am far from alone: 52.5% of renter households in Brooklyn spend more than 30% of their incomes on rent.
That culture often forces people into risky — but potentially cost-effective — living situations with their significant others, especially young people. In the past six years, rent in the city has increased a gargantuan 34 percent, but millennials' incomes aren't climbing along with it. As the New York Times reported, median incomes for young workers have fallen by 9 percent since 2000. New Yorkers have always had to get creative to make it work — Rainn Wilson lived in abandoned buildings before landing The Office — but it's not just starving artists that are feeling the burn. Statistics show that far too many are forced to do whatever it takes to get by.
I spoke anonymously with a Crown Heights couple who have saved between $8,000 and $9,000 — including rent and apartment costs — since moving in together. (I will refer to them, as with other interviewees, by their train stop.) Franklin, 25, said the pair split the apartment with another young couple, and nearly every other couple they know had done the same. His fiancé referred to it as the "Costco mentality": "You save through bulk."
Others have made the city's rising rents work for them in other ways. I spoke with a Park Slope resident who moved in with his partner earlier this year. Atlantic-Barclays, 26, said that it was nearly impossible to make rent in the city working 50 hours a week on a modest nonprofit stipend. He works as the director for an after-school program, making just $1,400 a month. Over the phone, he told me that on the equivalent of $7.70 an hour, you "can afford to pay rent and do light grocery shopping. ... You don't have any money at the end of the day for yourself." By moving in with his partner, he was able to start paying back his student loans and stay in the city. Otherwise he couldn't afford it.
My boyfriend and I are both in the same situation: By the time he finishes grad school next year, we will owe $175,000 in student loans between the two of us. If 2015 estimates suggest that the average college graduate will have to pay back $35,000 in debt, we are currently the equivalent of five college students. Yahoo Finance's loan calculator offers even worse news: If I have $100,000 in debt at a 6.25 percent interest rate (I do), while making the minimum payments that I currently make, I would never pay off my loans without forgiveness. I would die still in debt.
Shelling out for student loan payments on top of rent is like paying for two apartments when all you get is a cramped closet in Brooklyn. You never cease to be surprised how little your money gets you. What people often don't take into consideration is that rent is just the tip of the iceberg: After factoring in cost of living — like travel expenses and food (eating out is $48 a head on average) — there was almost nothing left in my budget every month. I got a raise to move, only to quickly start losing money. Were I to make $50,000 a year in Chicago — the median household income in the United States — I would need to earn around $95,000 to keep pace in Manhattan (and a relatively reasonable $72,000 in Brooklyn).
That reality leaves you feeling trapped, a theme I heard frequently. When I discussed this piece with a former co-worker, she confessed that without her boyfriend's income to help subsidize rent, she'd likely have to commute from Long Island instead. For Utica, 26, moving in with her boyfriend (now husband) meant that he was able to stay in the US during a time when he was struggling to acquire a visa. She was forced to pay a majority of the couple's $1,600 rent in Bed-Stuy — leaving them broke after the first of the month. "Nobody could afford to make this situation a little bit more bearable," she recalled.
This might sound like a young hipster problem, but it's really a New York problem. Last year, the New York Post's Beth Landman profiled the recent trend of divorced live-in couples in the city. After divorcing, successful real estate brokers Chris Lipman and Carol E. Levy decided that it wasn't worth letting a little thing like a divorce spoil their dream house. The exes divided up their six-bedroom Central Park West duplex by floor, which they now share with their two daughters and Levy's current husband. Cellist Eugene Moye and his wife were forced to keep living together, despite not being on speaking terms: "She still lives here, but we stay in different rooms and act like ships passing in the night," he told the Post.
These situations recall a type of story I heard several times during interviews: the cheating couple who decide to move in together anyway. Columbus Circle, 29, reported that a friend in West Harlem decided to share real estate with his partner — despite the fact that he wasn't being faithful and wasn't happy. "Somewhere along the line, he decided to reconcile the relationship, and they immediately moved in together," he recalled.
I heard the exact same story from another interviewee — Seventh Avenue, 26 — about a couple in Park Slope. I asked him, other than financial concerns, why this behavior was so frequent. "People think, ‘Oh, if we move in together, things will get better,'" he said. "But you're just bringing in another factor to complicate your already complicated life."
These stories take on urban legend feel — everybody knows someone who knows someone — but they're deeply ingrained in the rental experience. While people have always acquired roommates to make living New York a bit easier on the wallet, cohabitation adds a new dimension to our worst fears. It's terrible to have awful roommates that you can't stand, but it's even worse to share a dresser with someone you loathe. The Post profile offers the worst-case scenario we all fear: A divorced couple in Queens have managed to split a one-bedroom for the past two years. They even still sleep in the same bed.
For every real estate urban legend, there's someone who has lived through it. I did. During my junior year of college, I was stuck on a lease with a boyfriend who cheated on me, and for nine months we took turns on the couch of a dingy one-bedroom as we waited out the end of our personal hell. The problem wasn't finances as much as naiveté: We were both too young to know what our options were and too scared of the risks to do anything about it.
And I can't help but ask myself if I would make that decision again — given my current financial constraints. Would I stay with someone even if I wasn't happy? Would I let myself become that guy who plays house to keep a roof over his head? I used to say that I could never become another cautionary tale just for a break on my rent, but I don't know if I could say that anymore. If New York changes your definition of what "livable space" is (i.e., a 500-square-foot apartment with no bathroom), it also changes what you're willing to put up with to get it.
The definition of unlivable used to be "having too many roommates," but simply splitting an apartment with other renters isn't enough to make living affordable in many big cities.
In a post for Seattleish, Hanna Brooks Olsen calls it "the roommate fallacy," arguing that the "the cost of larger apartments, where a person could share space, is still prohibitive." Going by the aforementioned 30 percent rule, there's not a single neighborhood in New York where I could afford to rent a one-bedroom, and more roommates don't help matters much. The 30 percent rule only gets me a two-bedroom in a handful of neighborhoods in Brooklyn — including far-out locations like East New York, Canarsie, and Brownsville. Somewhere even remotely close to my office in the Financial District would have been unthinkable.
If we replace the "roommate model" with the "partner model," we can see just how different the purchasing power in New York is for couples. Were I in a similar situation to the Crown Heights couple I spoke to above, what neighborhoods would I be able to afford? Aside from the borough's most absurdly pricey districts — Dumbo, Brooklyn Heights, and Williamsburg — the 30 percent model gives me the flexibility to move basically anywhere in Brooklyn. Those kinds of financial privileges would be hard to give up, and they offer a huge incentive to make it work, no matter what.
And in our case, it was a major impetus to just do it. I did decide to move in with my boyfriend, and by shacking up way too soon with a guy I'd known for only seven months, the two of us saved a combined $8,820 a year in rent.
But while I adore my boyfriend and wouldn't take back that decision, I sometimes wonder if I could afford to fall out of love with him. Since moving in together, my quality of life is drastically different. I can afford to go see a chiropractor regularly for my prematurely bad back. I have the ability to spend too much money at brunch without worrying about how far it's going to put me behind on my monthly budget. I don't even have to grit my teeth anymore when I buy the 30-day unlimited MTA pass (currently priced at $116.50).
Today I asked my boyfriend for the first time why he chose to live with me so soon — would he have done so if we didn't have the financial incentive to rush into things? He said he wouldn't have and that he was initially apprehensive about taking the leap. "But first and foremost, you're my friend, and you needed help," he said. I feel the same way, but we both know we had no choice but to take the leap, even knowing what we do about the risks.
That's the same bet that compels many transplants to move here or New York natives to keep living in the city, knowing everything they know about how hard it can be. It's what keeps us looking for the best apartments, the most insane deals, and — if it works out — the best person to share in that gamble.
While the reality of the city can breed a "sense of helplessness," as a Bed-Stuy renter argued over brunch, the consolation is that you are far from alone — whether you're single, cautiously coupled, or living with your ex-wife's new husband.
"Whether or not you live with someone, everyone is just looking for the cheapest rent that they can, wherever that is, however that is," said Myrtle-Broadway, 28. "This is whether that's sharing a room and you have six roommates [or] whether that's living with four other people and your boyfriend lives in Jersey and you don't get to see each other that much."
It's not much in the way of comfort — but in New York, you have to take what you can get.
Nico Lang is a critic, essayist, and the author of The Young People Who Traverse Dimensions While Wearing Sunglasses. You can read his work on the Daily Dot, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.
Correction: This piece has been updated to include more accurate information about how much of their incomes New Yorkers spend on rent
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