Rent

In Brooklyn, the children ask if you rent or own: An essay

In order to live in NYC, like many families, we pay good money to rent. So why does that fact cause me to feel a twinge of shame?

Frank Sinks/Flickr

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We rent. Even though I am a fully grown, fully fledged adult living in New York City with the responsibilities and the bills to prove it, those two little words can sting sometimes.

Why do those words put me on the defensive? I usually only say them at weddings or reunions to distant relatives or old friends from my suburban hometown who I’m not going to see for another 10 or 15 years (when we still will be renters). I say them when I feel compelled to explain how we can afford to live in such an expensive city.

Immediately, the embarrassment bubbles up as I imagine their silent judgement. To non-New Yorkers, renting is something you do when you’re young and carefree. I’m neither.

My pride conjures a balm: A reminder from my inner accountant that we likely pay more in rent each month than a suburban owner pays for a mortgage on their Colonial—but saying so would only make me look more pitiful in their eyes.

What I can’t convey without being insulting is that New York City is the only place I ever want to live and every other place feels stultifying. Nice to visit, sure. But putting down roots again in a place where I have to get in a car to go anywhere, where I don’t have my choice of 10 superb, ethnic restaurants in a two-block radius, and where our kids can’t walk to dance class and swim team practice and religious instruction (and that’s just for starters)? No, thank you. I don’t even remember how to drive anymore.  

The next question is (I can see it in their eyes): So why don't we buy a place of our own in NYC? At this point, my inner accountant is screaming—and when I explain that a three-bedroom apartment in my Park Slope neighborhood easily costs $1.3 million—it sounds ridiculous to me too. But that’s how it is.

Sure, we could buy something smaller, or move to a less buzzy neighborhood and pay probably a third less. But to get the space we need in a neighborhood that we feel is a wonderful place to raise a family—we rent, paying about the same as a trip to Disney each month.

A city of renters

That’s the tradeoff millions of New Yorkers make—minus the trip to Disney. This is a city of renters—nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers rent, according to the U.S. Census, more than any other city and twice as many as Los Angeles.

The NYC rent-vs.-own debate is an old one—and it is usually discussed in broad strokes, namely weighing the cost of rent versus whether you have enough for a down payment and can afford your monthlies—as if that’s all you have to pay when you own. There’s so much more—like closing costs—with their myriad taxes and fees, and (surprise!) assessments and repairs.

No wonder so many people here rent. Still, New Yorkers are also obsessed with knowing whether you rent or own. Meet a New Yorker for the first time and their ears will prick up for clues to your housing status—because you can know someone here and never visit them at home to see for yourself. It’s not as much of a secret as how much you earn—but close. It’s definitely not something you lead with when meeting someone for the first time.

I know this is an obsession with New Yorkers in an unscientific way: The children. NYC kids will ask if you rent or own usually right after they ask if the snack you are serving is gluten free. Because they’re hearing their parents at home discuss who rents and who owns.

How others live in NYC

The first time it happened was on a playdate at our apartment with a child from our preschool who asked the question in order to make it clear that her family owned. Then my child visited her house—a mansion built by a robber baron—and was outraged to find out her friend lived in a place "with an upstairs." We told our daughter that we had an upstairs too, only that another family lived there.

Still, I was completely startled the first time this small person questioned our housing status. Children have a way of dive-bombing the truth and the truth was I had internalized the American myth about home ownership as being the goal of adulthood.

I was completely on board with that myth when I was younger. I bought a studio in a Manhattan co-op building when I was 30 and single—and I was very proud of buying something by myself. Then I got married, and the sale of the studio gave us the down payment to buy a very small, two-bedroom condo in Park Slope. Then we had children and ran out of space. The sale of the condo—we set a record price for our building—netted us enough to pay off the mortgage and not much else. 

And so the myth was busted for me. The pursuit of ownership was off—there was no way for us to trade up through buying and selling. Now I am Team Renter, no matter what the kids say.

We moved to another NYC rental 

The pandemic has not changed how I feel about renting in New York City, either—in fact we were in a better position as renters, because we were free to move when our lease was up (and even if it wasn’t, there are ways renters can get out of a lease if necessary)—so we moved to larger place in Brooklyn to get a little more space for working and learning at home.

Lots of New Yorkers are taking this moment to trade up, but sellers have had a rough time, until just recently, when sales finally perked up. There were other headaches for owners in the pandemic—rules against subletting, for example, that make renting a more flexible lifestyle.

NYC dead? Not where I live

You may be thinking—but what does it matter whether you rent or own if NYC is over anyway?

The whole is-NYC-dead-or-not has been batted about a lot, so I’ll just make my case by saying If you think NYC is dead, you don’t know Brooklyn.

Take the day the election was finally called for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—there were spontaneous outbursts of joy all over—but Brooklyn partied all afternoon and into the night.

My family went out for tacos that evening. The restaurant, if you could call it that, is a food truck in a parking lot across the street from Gothic arches of Green-Wood Cemetery, with picnic tables spread apart from each other.

At dinner, every few minutes, people passing on the sidewalk offered a spontaneous whoop or cheer—and the entire parking lot of diners would join in, raising a glass and banging on tables, in joy and relief, over and over.

This is where I want to live, in a place that celebrates loud and long when we take back our country from the hands of a cult leader and where we march in the streets to proclaim Black Lives Matter. Brooklyn dead? Hardly.

Now it is winter, and we’re shut up in our apartments and tired of being cooped up in small spaces. I know my family could leave and go somewhere else where living is a little easier and cheaper. It’s not going to happen. We’re NYC renters and we’re hanging on. There’s nowhere else we would rather live.