A Good Apartment is Hard to Find

Especially on a budget in NYC

Jul 11 · 5 min read
Manhattanhenge seen from Brooklyn

I took an Amtrak heading east from Indiana in January 2001 during a record snowstorm. This was it. I was moving to NYC. I had $1100 to my name. No job prospects. Nor friends to hang with. Just a couple phone numbers of friends of friends who could offer me a couch to crash on while I got situated. Over the next few years, I shuffled between almost twenty different sublets paying an average rent of $750 (considered cheap back then). This left me with just enough to cover food, bills, my student loans, and subway fare — most of the time.

After rent, I was left with just enough to cover food, bills, my student loans, and subway fare — most of the time.

At that price, of course all my apartments were shares with a multitude of roommates, each with their own special set of idiosyncrasies.

Williamsburg Bridge at dusk

There was the woman who liked to clip her toenails onto the bare living-room floor, letting the keratinous castings fly where they may. The high-strung fashionista who cast witchy spells to attract boyfriends. Or the the grown-ass man-child who liked to stack his half-washed still greasy wet dishes over the dry ones.

The whole point of moving to NY was to find my tribe among the artists and creators who lived there, which meant paying the price either in rent or roommates. Studios back then were going for $1500—too rich for my blood—so I stuck it out with the roommate option. And despaired of ever affording my own place.

Until one fateful day, scrolling through Craigslist, an ad caught my eye. My heart raced. I looked at the posting’s time stamp. It wasn’t even an hour old and early enough in the day for most people to still be at work. I whipped out my phone and excavated my checkbook. At that price, I didn’t care what it looked like. I would rent it, sight unseen. I just needed to get there before anyone else did.

My heart raced. I looked at the posting’s time stamp. It wasn’t even an hour old.

Because the listing was for a studio apartment. In Williamsburg. For FOUR HUNDRED DOLLARS. $400. Almost half what I was paying at my current place. With the money left over, I’d be a lot less broke, and maybe even splurge occasionally. Movies, a fancy $20 meal, a weekly subway pass and laundry in the same week? I already felt twice as rich. I just needed to be the first one there.

I sped over on my ten-speed bike to a two-story house next to the BQE (that’s Robert Moses’s thoughtful overpass that slices through scores of tiny residential Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods). Fine, give me car fumes. The landlord came out to greet me; he looked like he could be Albert Einstein’s second cousin by his wild head of hair. He lived in the basement. He spoke with a Greek accent. He was real.

Along the property’s fence, I noticed his wood barrel tomato plants and immediately felt a soft spot for him, but also kind of sad that he was growing them right under a rain of heavy metals.

He led me upstairs to the second floor. The door opened onto a surprisingly sunny, if tiny, kitchen. Showed me the bathroom. Eight feet away, opened the door to the adjoining room — a generous twelve by fourteen space with wood floors and windows that looked out onto the McDonald’s across the street (not directly onto the highway at least). Yes, yes, yes, I cheered on the inside. This was even better than I’d imagined.

There was no doubt. I was definitely going to take it.

Of course, at that price, how could there not be quirks? Let’s rewind. Remember the bathroom? It was actually a tiled shower stall in a corner of the kitchen to the left when you entered. Whatever, this is New York City right? Sometimes bathrooms are quirky. But the toilet itself was actually nested inside the shower. That meant, you had to step into the shower to get to the toilet. Like if the kitchen was a nesting doll, the toilet would be inside the shower, which was inside the kitchen. And it was all separated by a flimsy shower curtain, not even a real door. No, I couldn’t pee and shower and cook at the same time. But then again, I never invested in a telescopic spatula either.

Fine. I accepted this quirk. It was four hundred dollars(!) And the off-putting, slightly sewage-y smell that emanated from the shower drain? Still not fazed.

To live alone? By myself. No roommate greasy dishes, no walking on roommate toenail clippings, no weird personality clashes. For a measly four hundred dollars? YES. TAKE MY MONEY. Because the first, last, and security was still less than market-rate for a studio in 2007.

I lived in that apartment for a year and a half in bliss, until one day, a housing inspector inspected the building and deemed there were too many units to meet code.

So I settled into solitary bliss. Free to cook in my underwear or leave my socks wherever. Until one day a mere one and a half years later, a housing inspector inspected the building. It turned out my apartment was illegal. The building was only coded for two units not five. They had to fix it. So they tore down the wall that separated me from my neighbor. This opened a portal to an overpowering, sour, unbathed smell that took me weeks to acclimate to. They also shut off the gas and water to my nesting kitchen bathroom combo, so I had to cook and bathe at my neighbor’s — who at least had a proper bathroom and kitchen.

My neighbor was now officially unofficially my roommate. This random truck driver guy with a Brooklyn accent. He was nice enough and never failed to offer me fried chicken wings whenever we ran into each other. But not necessarily someone I might have chosen to live with on purpose. And my cheap little dream come true all alone by myself apartment? Poof. Gone.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to follow or subscribe or whatever it is they’re having you do these days, because I’ll probably write something again in the next few weeks or months, and you don’t wanna miss it!

Héloïse Chung

Written by

Writer. Director. Creative Director.

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