New York Real Estate Stories: Everybody’s Deal

It must’ve been around a decade ago that Chris invited me to L’s new apartment for a housewarming party.

I was confused. Wasn’t her old apartment incredibly affordable? Why would she ever move out?

“She had a great opportunity, and she jumped on it.”

L. was going to be sharing a place with 2 other people. So Chris and I went over for dinner and drinks.

I was expecting the usual gritty apartment that twenty-somethings have in New York, so I was extremely surprised when I got to the address. There was an enormous, ornate building, complete with gate, and circular driveway. Stationed at the gate was a doorman in full livery – epaulets and everything. He signed me in, and told me how to proceed.

Then, I got into a gorgeous, mirrored, private elevator. And I got out at L’s place.

The place was ginormous. It was old – hadn’t been renovated for 50 years – but it was as fabulous a space as ever I’d seen in New York. Enormous ceilings. Enormous windows. Huge gilt-framed mirrors hung from the walls. Fireplaces. And room after room after room after room…

L. wasn’t the leaseholder — that was her friend David. David seemed normal enough. He had the usual things that geeky dudes in their twenties have — action figures and comic books — and he didn’t have super-expensive furniture. Nevertheless, I found it hard to concentrate as the evening progressed. You see, in nearly 10 years in New York, I had never seen an apartment anywhere near this nice. Not when I installed DSL in the apartments of investment bankers. Not even when I got to see the living space of a famous musician. All of their apartments paled in comparison.

So I sat there, eating salmon and broccoli, thinking, “This guy David must have, like, $50 million dollars! He must be incredibly, incredibly wealthy!…be cool, be cool…”

At the end of the evening, Chris asked me what I thought. I said, “That is the nicest apartment I’ve ever seen. Is his father a multi-millionaire?”

Chris said no, they were paying $1200 a month for the apartment.

What?!?

And here is the story. Long ago, a woman had moved into this apartment as a renter. At that time, all apartments in New York were rent-controlled. So, the longer you stayed in an apartment, the better deal you got.

She stayed for 50 years.

As she grew elderly, her nephew moved into her apartment to help take care of her. In New York, you cannot pass on your rent-controlled apartment to your heirs, but you can add someone new to the lease if they live with you for a certain length of time. David lived with her for a couple years, and then she died. So now the apartment was in his name.

This apartment building was one of the fanciest addresses in all of New York City. Movie stars and scions of industry paid top dollar to compete for a place there. Maybe you’ve heard of The Dakota? This place was just as nice, if not nicer.

When David got the lease for $1200, the management offerred him a deal: If you move out, we’ll pay you $2 million.

He refused.

Instead, since the rent on his gargantuan apartment was a little too high for his taste, he got two roommates. Now they would each pay $400 a month. To live with millionaires and movie stars.

When I heard this story, I started laughing. Perhaps a little maniacally. I was thrilled, gleefully happy.

New York City is brutally hard to live in. Getting through the day and getting out from under take an enormous amount of will. Everything’s paid for; nothing’s free.

But in this whole wide city, I’d finally found it. Somebody, somewhere, had finally gotten something for nothing.

And in a way, he did it for us all.

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