Their Answer to the Housing Disaster? Residing With Strangers.

0
546
Their Solution to the Housing Crisis? Living With Strangers.

Two facts are painfully clear to New Yorkers: The rent is too high, and it keeps getting higher. With the median one-bedroom apartment hovering around $3,500 a month, New York’s rents are officially among the most expensive in the country. Between 2009 and 2018, the city added 500,000 jobs but only 100,000 new housing units. The profound shortage in rental units has forced the city’s residents to figure out their own ways to live affordably.

And that — especially for those moving to the city for the first time — often means living with total strangers. This spring, the magazine visited the homes of renters who have moved to the city during the pandemic, checking in on the pleasures and compromises of living with brand-new roommates: the tight quarters and awkward interactions, but also the mutual assistance and instant camaraderie that arise when people are thrown together. Some sleep two to a room or in what’s supposed to be the living room; many still struggle to make ends meet, even as they share tiny spaces. But they are all making do in a famously challenging city.

On May 1, three strangers moved into their three-bedroom apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. They each pay between $850 and $995 a month for their rooms.

After working his job at the nonprofit GLAAD remotely, Edgar Bonilla figured it was time to take the plunge and move to the city. He found Katie McDonald and Kayla Hakvaag, who are flight attendants, through a mutual friend. When the trio met up on moving day, it was both Edgar’s and Katie’s first day in New York. “I think this is a great starting spot for me,” Edgar says. “Well, I am hoping.”

Kayla had already been living in Manhattan for a year before joining Edgar and Katie in Brooklyn. She shared an apartment with her best friend in NoLIta, paying $980 a month. When her lease was up for renewal, her landlord notified her of a shocking rent increase: She would now be responsible for paying up to $1,600 a month. Privately, she says she’s tired of having roommates and making small talk in her own home. “I’m extremely social, but I like to choose when I can be,” she says.

Katie, who moved from Philadelphia, where her rent was $400 cheaper, wanted to get out of her comfort zone. “I’m actually making my life a million times harder,” she says. “I’m still working in Philly, so I’m going to commute almost two hours, but I’m living a dream that I’ve always had.”

Daniel Yaburov and Alina Yaburova, siblings from Dnipro, Ukraine, fled the war in February and came to New York, where they are being hosted by the Gurevich family in their three-bedroom apartment overlooking Riverside Park on the Upper West Side.

Daniel and Alina’s escape involved a long, perilous journey from their home city, Dnipro, to Poland, across Europe to Belgium and onward to Mexico and the U.S. border. They were exhausted and had nowhere to live until they arrived in New York. Volunteers paired them with the Gurevich family — Anna, Mark and their son Gabriel. “When we found this family, I felt so calm and at peace,” Daniel says.

For Anna and Mark, the decision to open up their home was easy. Both are fluent in Russian, which lets them communicate with the two teenagers, who don’t yet speak English. And with their older son away for college, they had an open bedroom. (The siblings had to decide between themselves who was going to get it. Alina ended up on the couch.)

During their stay so far, the siblings have needed help with logistics — finding lawyers, figuring out paperwork. But the Gureviches have supported them emotionally too. “The first weeks, I missed my parents very much and would cry all night, but Anna was so supportive,” Alina says. “She showed empathy whenever we told her what had happened to us, and she cared for us like a mother.”

Ingrid Sletten, 68, was paired with Stacey Stormo, 37, through a nonprofit that helps older adults find roommates. They share a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx and each pay $750.

Three years ago, Ingrid noticed an advertisement from the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens on the subway. She was 65 and had lived alone for decades. Now she’s on her second pairing through the program. Ingrid is thrilled to be sharing her space, saying that she hopes to have a roommate until she’s “98 — at least.”

At first, having an older roommate was a “90 percent financial” decision for Stacey, who was living in California when she landed a teaching job at the New School and saw Ingrid’s post on Craigslist. She struggled to let go of her house with a garage and a pool to move into the small apartment in New York, but she appreciated Ingrid’s living style. “I would much rather have somebody who’s older than some of the other places I visited,” she says, describing ill-kempt shares with college students who seemed to party and fight constantly.

Quarters are tight — Ingrid gave Stacey the bedroom and uses a curtain divider in the living room to create a space for herself. The narrow kitchen has a desk near the fridge, where Ingrid also works from home. Stacey hesitates to cook while Ingrid is working and is spending all her time in her bedroom. “It’s a little claustrophobic,” she says. But for now, she says, “It’s been cool to live with another really strong woman.”

Halima Muhammad, Sukanya Prasad, Ashleigh Genus and Prisca Hoffstaetter share a spacious four-bedroom apartment together on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn. Two of the roommates pay about $950 a month (and have their own bathrooms), while the other two pay about $890.

The night that the four young women — who call themselves the Myrtle Bees, after their street name, Myrtle Avenue, and their apartment number, 2B — began the search for an apartment, “it turned into us walking to the deli, giggling in the rain, watching movies and building a fort,” Halima says. “It was weird because it felt so natural.”

They moved in during November 2020, while New York was still in lockdown and a vaccine was months away, and quickly became close. “Winter hit, and it was really rough,” Ashleigh says. “We had all these bonding moments because we couldn’t see our other friends. It was just the four of us.” Now their days are busy and varied, but most nights they sit in the kitchen and process everything together. Halima says her fellow Bees are the ones with whom she shares her workday tribulations. Last spring, they even partook in the ultimate New York friend group ritual: a weekend together upstate. “That trip solidified us because we were away from the apartment,” she says. “And it still worked.”

Rina Sah and her husband, Ajit Kumar Sah, share their two-bedroom apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, with Babita Khanal, whom they found through a Facebook group for the Nepali community in New York. Babita pays them $900 a month, lowering the couple’s share to only $1,200.

Last December, Rina migrated to New York from Janakpur, finally joining her husband, Ajit, who came to the United States in 2016. She works in a beauty parlor, while Ajit is an artist who pays the bills by working as a hotel receptionist. Babita, who works as a nanny on the Upper East Side, moved in with them in January. “Now I’m just waiting for my family to join me,” Babita says. She came to the United States from Kathmandu and hopes to live with the couple for only another year, until her husband and 13-year-old son come to New York. She hasn’t seen either of them in the nine years since she left Nepal.

For both Babita and the Sahs, living with other Nepalis provides a source of comfort. Rina gushes about Babita: “She’s like a sister to me.” The Sahs would live without a roommate if they could, but money is just too tight. “I need to pay rent on time and have other expenses and medical bills,” Ajit says.

The Popova twins found their current roommate, Victoria Sidoti, on TikTok. The group signed the lease for their Upper East Side apartment before even seeing the space in person.

When Ivana and Kalina Popova, who are 22-year-old twins, graduated from college and decided that they wanted to move from Kansas City, Mo., to New York together, they immediately took to social media to find a roommate.

There they found a TikTok by Victoria, 23, who was video-blogging her experience moving from Glens Falls, N.Y., to Manhattan. The three women decided to join forces. Several places fell through as they searched, prompting Victoria to use a more aggressive tactic on StreetEasy. “I contacted the guy, and I was like, ‘Listen, we need the place,’” she says. “The pictures were really dingy.”

Each roommate pays nearly $1,300 in rent each month — “more than my dad’s mortgage,” Victoria says. They mourn the absence of some amenities — namely in-unit laundry and an elevator. “Every week I have to stuff my suitcase with a ton of clothes and my sheets and drag it down four flights of stairs and then, like, fit it into one washer,” she says. “Because it’s like, $4 a load.”

Victoria, who now works at the front desk of a nail salon, has to adhere to a strict budget. “I just wanted to get here so bad that I just settled for the first job that offered me the chance,” she says. She’s trying to live on $10 to $15 a day in spending. “You should see our refrigerator,” she says. “It’s absolutely the most devastating thing you’ll ever see in your life.”

To live in the Metta Sanctuary, an entirely vegan townhouse in Bedford-Stuyvesant — which is fully furnished and pet-friendly, and has in-unit laundry and a garden — each roommate had to agree to consume and use only cruelty-free vegan products at home.

Seven people and three animals currently live in the Metta Sanctuary townhouse. Having so many living things in one house can, of course, create messes.

“The cons are probably it being loud,” Cole Neumann, who moved from Austin, Texas, in October and goes by they/them pronouns, says. “And sometimes the dog (expletive) on the floor, and you have to clean it up.”

But Cole sought this arrangement out. They previously lived in a cooperative-living house called Helios, where at times they had up to 16 roommates. When moving to New York, they decided that they didn’t want to have fewer than five. “Recently I haven’t been doing too well,” Cole says. “Everyone here has been so supportive in terms of, ‘Oh, do you want me to cook for you? I’m going to Trader Joe’s. Do you want me to pick anything up?’”

But they acknowledge how scarce affordable housing is these days. “We know how many people move to the city every year, and for the past 30 years, New York has not been building enough buildings to house all these people,” they say. “They’re building these luxury apartment buildings, but who can afford to live in those?”

Kazi, Amzad, Eliyas and a fourth roommate are all recent Bangladeshi immigrants who share a basement apartment in East New York, Brooklyn. They pay a combined $1,600 and live two to a bedroom.

A flyer hung from the wall of a bodega in Brooklyn, advertising a basement apartment for rent. Kazi, who moved to New York from Dhaka six months ago to get his associate degree, called the number on it, and when the apartment’s owner offered him a rent of only $400 a month, he quickly moved in.

Kazi now shares the cramped underground space with three other men — Amzad, Eliyas and a fourth roommate, who declined to participate in this article. All three are food-delivery workers who came to New York within the past two months from Noakhali, Bangladesh. They work 10-hour shifts each day, making deliveries via bicycle.

Kazi commutes to Manhattan, where he is studying health information technology at ASA College. His bedroom contains the apartment’s only window; the ventilation is poor, and the apartment is often frigid. But Kazi feels lucky to have a home at such an affordable price: “It doesn’t matter that it’s tiny and messy,” he says. The roommates pay $350 to $500 a month apiece. “Compared to other apartments, here is cheap,” Kazi says. “New York is expensive, but we manage.”

David Rivas, Joshuah Dominique Simpson and Ian Ritter share a five-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights and each pay $600 to $700 a month. Because the apartment has no living room, they use one of the bedrooms as a living room and another as an office.

Joshuah Dominique moved to New York in March 2018, after a friend offered them half a room in East Harlem. “I have a space for you here in my apartment, in my very tiny room for us to split, and it will be the New York dream,” Joshuah Dominique, who goes by JD and uses they/she pronouns, recalls their friend saying. After two years there, they set out to find a more spacious place.

“I, essentially, was trying to somehow scam my way into staying in Manhattan while paying what I would call Philly prices,” JD says. First, they offered David, who moved in this April, a spot in the apartment after the two of them worked on a play together. “They said, ‘I’m trying to pay it forward,’” David recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, yeah, this is how the queer community gets by.’”

JD made a similar offer to Ian, whom they met at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, in mid-May. Though David didn’t know Ian before they began living together — “I don’t talk to that many straight people; I try not to,” David says with a laugh — they’ve been getting along so far. After living with three sets of roommates during college, Ian says his rules are simple: If there’s an issue, let me know, he says. “Another big thing is the toilet-paper roll,” he adds. “Don’t set me up for failure.”

Ayomide Enitan, Carlton Bruce and Alex Palacios live in a four-bedroom apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They have a fourth roommate who they say hasn’t lived in the apartment for the last six months beyond occasionally stopping by to pick up his mail.

After Ayomide, who goes by Ayo, moved to New York from Lagos, Nigeria, in January to get his master’s degree in public health from New York University, he checked into a hotel in Hell’s Kitchen and began looking for an apartment. Several weeks and about 10 apartment visits later, he settled on one that he found on Craigslist. “I was a bit desperate,” Ayo says.

He ended up moving in with CJ — as Carlton, who has lived in the apartment since January 2019, is known — and the two roommates were soon joined by Alex, a 21-year-old N.Y.U. student. Housing has always been a worry for Alex. Growing up in East Boston, he says that his rough relationship with his mother pushed him to run away from home when he was 16. Though he attended a private school on scholarship, he still had to find places to stay during school breaks. Moving to New York, he bounced from his dorm to rooms in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Midtown and Harlem before landing in Bed-Stuy.

“That just really put into my mind how unstable housing can be,” he says, “and how housing is used as a weapon to both keep people in abusive relationships, but then also to keep them working.” He adds, “This is not a space issue; this is not a lack of resources; this is an issue of power.”

Alexandra Marzella has lived with more than 90 people over the last decade in a six-bedroom loft in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Her five current roommates also share the space with her 2-year-old daughter, Earth, who was born in the apartment’s bathtub in 2020. Each roommate pays between $1,000 and $1,300 in rent each month, including utilities.

The newest arrivals to Alexandra’s loft are Isis Lecaro, who moved from Los Angeles, and Constance Hutton, who moved from Wellington, New Zealand. Each of them arrived in early May.

After moving in last summer, Madhulika Pesala says that she anticipated some of the downsides of being in New York more generally — “Whenever it rains, my street turns into a trash river” — but that living with so many people was an easy adjustment. Rose Curley, who met Alexandra during their time at the Rhode Island School of Design, is nearing the end of her six-month stay at the loft. She says that as an autistic person, she usually wears noise-canceling headphones in the loft to help with her sensory issues. But she loves living with Earth. “Helping to raise her, I feel like it’s just the biggest compliment,” Rose says. “It’s the biggest gesture of like, ‘I have faith in you.’” Another resident, Alexandra Violet, who goes by Xan, agrees, saying that Earth “can be a real relief because she’s not a roommate that’s going to have problems to dump on you or something. She just wants to hang out.”

Having so many people in one loft also offers a sense of safety for each resident. “Some tragic things have happened while I’ve been here, in Brooklyn and the larger city,” Rose says. “I like having a sense that there are people who will notice that I haven’t come home.”

Alexander Samaha is an editorial assistant at the magazine. Shaun Pierson is a photographer based in New Haven, Conn. He is currently an M.F.A. candidate at the Yale School of Art.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here