‘Rent, Forever’: The Price of Living in New York City

New York City is a renter’s town.

For many residents, to love this sprawling metropolis is to never have your name on a deed.

About 66 percent of the households around the United States own their homes. In New York City, that number falls dramatically to half that. In the Bronx, only one out of five households owns their homes.

It’s a horrible price to pay, and yet, people keep coming, keep pouring their souls into making a life here. The renter is the constant in a city that continuously morphs into a newer, shinier version of itself. The renters are the turbines of this city, thrusting it further with their labor and giving New York its flair, drawing more people who long to be part of the crowds filling sidewalks and craning their necks at the skyscrapers where many luxury apartments, worth millions of dollars, sit empty.

The city’s population continues to expand at a sharp beat, despite very little new housing being built in recent decades. Between 2010 and 2020, 600,000 people moved to the city, according to the 2020 census. In that same time period, only 438,088 apartments and single family homes were built.

And it doesn’t look like there is relief on the horizon. On Tuesday, the Rent Guidelines Board, which regulates rents in New York City, voted 5 to 4 to raise rents by at 3.25 percent on rent-stabilized apartments. In May, the median rent in Manhattan reached $4,000, the highest ever reported by Douglas Elliman, a brokerage firm.

That leaves little for savings, nothing for a down payment. Some New Yorkers often forgo medical and dental care, to be able to pay for their apartment. They are left with no other alternative but to rent, forever. And while moving out of the city might be an option for some, that also requires a sum of money upfront.

The influx of people, a scarcity in housing and older apartments becoming less affordable over time, has stressed the housing market, according to Charles McNally, the director of external affairs at the N.Y.U. Furman Center. “When there’s constraints on supply, you see the existing housing becoming not more affordable, more expensive over time. People buy it, people renovate it and then it’s sold or rented at a premium,” he said.

Of the 1.2 million low-income households in the city, 78 percent are rent burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, according to a rent relief funding report the office of the comptroller released last summer.

I wonder why people live here. I think about my own family, living in a tiny tenement apartment when I was growing up in Harlem.

My mother, Sandra Rodriguez, moved into 602 West 132nd Street in 1986. A friend told her about the apartment across the street from the then Alexander Doll Company. The rent was $311 a month. She was working at a garment factory and pregnant with her first daughter. She thought that the two-bedroom, one-bath, would be a good place to grow her family.

Through the years, she raised her three children in that small apartment. Christmases, birthdays, graduations, holy hours, all came and went for my family in our cramped but loving home. When my mother’s extended family arrived from the Dominican Republic, they all took turns staying with us until they were on their feet enough to wander further on their own. The children would often share a bunk bed with one of the guests.

Still learning to maneuver in the city and confronted with a language barrier, my aunts and uncles found that small apartment was a life raft. And we had other family: our neighbors, some of which were welcoming family from abroad, just like we were.

Find the right building and have the right luck and a 600-square-foot apartment can be a lifelong residence, a place to raise a family, entertain and shed the weight of a long commute. The apartment becomes home base for a string of generations.

Before Celia Aguilera was born, her parents, Brigida Aguilera, a seamstress, and Juan Aguilera, bookbinder at the Franklin Mint, bumped into each other on their way to work at Columbus Circle and fell in love. It was serendipity, Ms. Aguilera said, because the couple had known each other when they lived in the Dominican Republic and immigrated to New York in 1960.

About five years later, Mr. Aguilera heard of a vacant apartment that was available at 363 West 17th Street in Chelsea. The apartment was in poor condition, but it was affordable, $56.32 a month. They moved into the railroad two-bedroom apartment in the winter of 1965. Two months after they moved in, Ms. Aguilera, who now works in psychiatry, was born. “When my mother passed away, I got the apartment,” Ms. Aguilera said. Her mother died in 2010 after a lifetime in Chelsea. Her father died in 1986 of renal failure. “Some of us stay because of tradition. We’ve been here all this time. I feel like my apartment is like a runway for my family.”As Chelsea has changed decade after decade, the Aguileras were a fixture. The Aguileras have celebrated, cried, held and nursed each other back to health, in their home.

“My granddaughter, she’s 12 months old, was born with the address in that building. My grandson, he’s 3, he’s also born with that address, so that’s going into another generation.” Ms. Aguilera, 57, said of her family. “When you’re in an apartment like that, you didn’t leave.”

Two years ago her building was placed under new management, and she got the opportunity that so many long-term New York renters dream of: to buy her apartment. Through her lawyers, she managed to purchase her family home, the same railroad apartment her parents paid $56.32 a month for, in three payments. (She preferred not to disclose the final amount she paid.)

It’s hers now. She can do what she wants without asking the landlord. She has plans to knock down a wall in the apartment and change the bathroom which is currently next to the kitchen. That still can’t change the size. It’s still a shoe box.

“The joke is that you can take a shower while eating,” she said with a chuckle. But Ms. Aguilera is not in a rush to make changes. “I don’t want to change it, there are a lot of memories in there.”

My mother, a home nurse, has not been as fortunate.

In 2019, the building she moved to 36 years ago, the one I was raised in, was demolished. Columbia University intends to further build out their West Harlem Campus on its footprint. The former Studebaker factory building that was home to the Alexander Doll Company, where I often saw doll torsos crawl across a large window on an assembly line, is now a human resources building for Columbia.

After being priced out of a gentrified Harlem, my mother moved to the Bronx, where she continues to rent.

She plans to retire and visit her brother, who lives in Pennsylvania in a rented house where my mother has taken to gardening, often, for peace and quiet.

It is not a fair shake for a woman who dedicated her life to a city that so quickly abandoned her for a buck. Like most New Yorkers, regardless of not being supported by the city, she is proud of having survived it through its most tumultuous days and having been able to raise her children safely here. She has fond memories of her first apartment and the many milestones her family reached there.

“I am frustrated having to still pay rent,” my mother told me. “At this point I have lived in New York longer than I have in the Dominican Republic, where I was born.”

“Yo amo a New York,” she said.

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