After we'd been dating for almost two years, my girlfriend and I decided to move in together—not into one or the other's apartment, but into a new space clear of our exes' echoes. A real estate buff, I was in charge of finding available apartments so that Lisa and I could look at them later. We knew we'd never make the kind of "big money" where we could afford large rent increases every year or two, so we set a course to find a rent-stabilized apartment to stay in for a very long time—possibly forever.
She lived in Bushwick, and I lived in Flatbush; we wanted to stay in one of our neighborhoods, and to move in December or January, so we began looking in July. We were in this search for the long haul. And without the pressure of a soon-to-expire lease, we could take our time and find exactly what we wanted. Sometimes landlords or brokers hide the fact that apartments are rent-stabilized, so they can charge higher rent, and tenants tend to hold onto them, so there aren't many available.
Cracking the (Zip) code
To execute our plan, first, we put the word out to our respective networks that we were looking for a stabilized two-bedroom for $1,200 or under. We told friends, posted on Facebook, and asked people we knew who had stabilized apartments we liked if there were other such units in their buildings. This was in 2010, just before Bushwick blew up, so while our budget was a might low, it wasn't out of the question. For each of us, it would be a little over half of what we were currently paying: $950 for my own studio in a co-op building and Lisa for her two-bedroom railroad, complete with roommate, at about $1,000.
I began by checking the NYC Rent Guidelines Board's list of stabilized buildings in Brooklyn in the following zip codes: 11237 (Bushwick off the Jefferson L train stop) and 11225 (the Prospect Lefferts Gardens section of Flatbush). I scoured the list for stabilized buildings on blocks near the L and Q trains because we wanted to be close to the subway. Wyckoff, Irving, and Knickerbocker in Bushwick; and Parkside, Bedford and Rogers in PLG fit the bill. I also searched listings on Craigslist with the keyword "stabilized."
Doorbells and dead ends
Aside from my online research, I hit the pavement because we knew there were a lot of vacant places that weren't listed. In fact, the first place I saw was in a building two doors down from Lisa's then-apartment after I spied the landlord showing the place—a railroad-style one-bedroom in a four-floor walkup—and convinced him to let me take a look. I knew which buildings on her block were stabilized from scouring the rent board's list, and this was one of them. But, while he extolled the virtues of the "extra" bedroom (a windowless connector space), I was distracted by the mice running rampant around the kitchen.
Next up were a couple of places on Irving that I'd called about after seeing a sign on a lamppost in the area and diligently checking the stabilized building list. The first landlord regaled me with tales of gut renovations, but while there was a mod new vessel sink and shiny bathroom fixtures, the two bedrooms were so tiny I was sure only a twin mattress would fit. Plus, there was no common space, just a tiny Pullman kitchen smack in the center of the apartment. The punch in the gut came when I learned of the rent: $1,650 a month.
I went up and down Troutman and Jefferson Streets between Knickerbocker and Irving Avenues ringing doorbells, asking supers for leads and inquiring about vacancies to anyone who would answer their bell. Mostly, there weren't any empty units, but one nice Bushwick tenant referred me to their management company, which managed a number of local stabilized buildings. But it was a dead end: The woman who answered the phone apologized and said they only rented to current tenants who wanted to change buildings.
We saw a funky apartment in Boro Park that I found on Craigslist; the kosher kitchen was the largest room in the place and I thought we might put our office there, but the neighborhood didn't seem queer-friendly. We got the hairy eyeball from several folks while we were walking around the neighborhood, and felt unsafe in a way our queer-sense told us was about us being lesbians.
I wanted to see spaces in my own neighborhood, but Flatbush was near impossible to find any stabilized two bedrooms at, or under, $1,200. There were some very nice, relatively inexpensive vacancies, but few that were stabilized.
Finally, a hot tip
After about two months, I had seen several dozen renovated box apartments cut into tiny units, large vintage railroads, and micro two-bedroom basements. I was getting exasperated, but I knew I could find a great place in our price range if I kept looking. Real estate rentals are a long-term proposition; you almost never find your perfect place instantly. Persistence is key!
One weekend I was visiting my girlfriend and spied a shred of paper with a phone number and address scribbled on it lying on her kitchen table. "What's that?" I asked. "Oh, a hot tip about an apartment on Starr Street from someone in the neighborhood who also dabbles in real estate," she replied. "Where's Starr?" "The next one over," she told me. I called the number and the landlord's office said the place was being vacated in two months, but wasn't yet listed. I could call the current tenant to arrange to see it if I wanted. Of course I wanted!
We both went this time. And walked into a renovated beauty of a space. It was a two-bedroom on the fourth floor of a typical Brooklyn walk-up with eight railroad apartments. The current tenant, Angela, took us on a tour and told us she was moving to Queens with her boyfriend. There was good energy flowing through the space–beautiful archways, and subtly curved walls that ran perfectly into the next room and then the next, and a lot of light. A cozy breakfast nook was tucked between the kitchen and living room. There were windows in every room as well as ceiling fans, wood floors, and like-new appliances. And the apartment overlooked the local park. Angela was paying $1,300 a month and the landlord wasn't raising the rent. "We'll take it," I exclaimed without consulting Lisa. "Please don't show it to anyone else, we'll call the landlord right away and put down a security deposit."
We just signed our third two-year lease. Our rent is $1,375 a month.
*Update: Stephanie is still living in the apartment, and plans to renew her lease for the fourth time this coming September. She's hoping the rent is only raised $25 again this time. She says she loves the apartment more than ever, especially now that she sees similar places on her block go for two to three times as much (and with broker fees, to boot). She still has no plans to move.