On Leaving Brooklyn After 18 Years of Rent-Stabilized Bliss

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Moving away from Williamsburg requires a gentrification tag sale. Photo: Judy McGuire

You’ll find genuine artifacts of middle-class life, plus plenty of vitriol at a gentrification tag sale. Photo: Judy McGuire

After 20 years in Brooklyn I was finally priced out of my borough this summer—much like I’d been priced out of Manhattan two decades earlier. It’s a typical NYC story, but unlike the couples profiled in the most recent eye-roller of a NY Times story on the phenom, my man and I weren’t in a position to lick our wounds in a $500k Jersey City loft.

While Williamsburg has been the butt of five bazillion jokes, I was born in New Jersey, so I’m used to being at the ass-end of a funny. Yes, Bedford Avenue has fancy cheeses and boys in too-tight, ill-fitting women’s skinny slacks to mock, but I’d lived there for two decades and I was kind of attached to the four walls I’d painted loud colors, to the ridiculously specific restaurants, to the little community my neighbors and I had become. I mean, how lucky was I to have one of my closest friends in the same building, just one floor away?

Growing up, my family moved around every few years, so until I landed on North 11th Street, I never really had any place that I considered home. But this place was big enough for one person (though it eventually housed two humans, and three felines) and cheap enough that I could afford it on my own, which was key as a freelancer with a rollercoaster-like income. After five or six years, I started to consider it my home and instead of freaking out at the commitment, I liked it.

I loved it, actually.

When I first moved to the neighborhood in 1994, there wasn’t even an ATM. Weekends took preparation because unless you felt like schlepping back into Manhattan for cash, you weren’t getting any. Anyone who cares has probably read by now about the trajectory of Williamsburg from a community ofimmigrants to artists to the extremely rich, but to be living there while this was happening was alternately dizzying, amusing, and a little frightening. I know I also suffered from a certain amount of denial, otherwise I would’ve tried to buy an apartment or even a building back when the getting was good—and cheap.

I hadn’t wanted to move to Brooklyn in the first place. I was forced to leave Manhattan after my lease-holding live-in boyfriend left me for another woman. Climbing out of the Bedford Avenue L train that gray, rainy April day, I felt as though I’d been sentenced to some kind of purgatory; buh-bye giant pre-war palaces of the Upper West Side, hello, rickety wooden houses of Williamsburg.

But the neighborhood’s dumpy charm worked its magic and within a year or two I was smitten. That adoration only increased when a year and a half into my time there, I found my own apartment, just a half-block from McCarren Park—then little more than a desolate running track with a couple handball courts. But still, a park view!

Back then, realtors—especially Brooklyn realtors—didn’t use the internet. So I sat down in a broker named Lenny’s office one Saturday morning and waited for him to show me apartments. We saw some eh places, but nothing stuck. I went back to the house I shared on North 7th Street, slightly discouraged. I should mention that the entire HOUSE I lived in then, rented for $900 and we had a big back yard and we were only 1/2 a block from the Bedford Ave stop on the L.

At about six or seven that evening, Lenny called to say he’d seen a place that met my criteria: in other words, no drop-ceilings, mirrored walls, or wall-to-wall carpeting. He picked me up in his old-man sedan and we drove a few blocks away, to North 11th Street. Unlike the cluttered dumps he’d been showing me all afternoon, this place was pristine. Three decent-sized rooms, white walls, wood floors, top floor—all for $600. I wanted this place. I needed this place.

The next night Millie the landlady called and asked if I could come talk. Instead of quizzing me about my income, which was always a difficult question to answer, because my full-time job entailed following heroin addicts around for an anthropological study, she told me that she knew I was young and that she would be lowering the rent to $550, but it had to be paid promptly. There’d be no lease, and the payment had to be delivered via either cash or money order. These terms weren’t uncommon back then, so I quickly agreed.

And so for 18 or so years, we lived in relative peace. Well, except for that time when she tried to double all the tenants’ rents and we got together and hired a lawyer. I wound up getting a massive rent reduction because even at her discounted rent, she was still overcharging me as far as DHCR was concerned. But still, mostly things were okay. We didn’t bug her for repairs, she didn’t hire thugs to crack the building’s foundation.

The apartment and I knew each other’s idiosyncrasies. I knew that the front door wouldn’t stay shut unless you locked it and it knew that unless it swung right open, I probably would’ve left my keys in the door or locked myself out during the hard-drinking, party-girl years. I knew that the water in the shower could go from lukewarm to scalding in a nanosecond, so my reflexes were honed to razor-sharp, waiting to hear the tell-tale “clank” that signified I’d better jump out of the way before boiling water exploded all over my head.

But when Millie started acting weird late last summer, we knew something was up. With condos clattering up to the sky around us, it didn’t take a genius to figure out that she was selling the building. Though we’d all been asking for months, she finally confessed that the building was being sold” to “The Jews,” as she called the new landlords. Other than that, she feigned ignorance of their actual names, to prevent us from researching them. “I think one is called Moishe,” she offered.

She warned us that they had “deep pockets” and that we would not be able to fight them, because they were so all-powerful. We might be able to get them to buy us out of our leases for ten or maybe even fifty-thousand bucks, but she wasn’t certain.

As for Millie—she got at least $3.5 million, and, really, who could blame her? If I were sitting on a ramshackle goldmine that had been paid off in the sixties, I’d probably sell it off too.

The new landlords started calling before the sale even closed, feigning hurt feelings that we’d preemptively organized and hired a lawyer. “Lawyer? I don’t have a lawyer—why do YOU have a lawyer?!” one of them had the balls to say to my neighbor.

In some ways, Millie was correct—none of us had the energy or unlimited funding to fight to stay in our homes. But in other ways, she was dead wrong. A confidentiality clause won’t let me say much about it, but if you’re a rent-stabilized tenant whose landlord wants them out, the first thing you do is hire a lawyer. If you can’t afford a lawyer, enlist a tenant’s group like Good Old Lower East Side or Met Council to help.

Staying was not an option–the shiny new units that would one day replace our homes were not even close to our price range, and we’d have to find somewhere to live while they were built, which would take who know how long. So after our lawyer negotiated a fairish settlement and we agreed to a move date, we had to figure out where to live. It seemed, as fully functional adults, like time to buy, even though we’d really pictured ourselves on N. 11th until we couldn’t scale the stairs to the top floor any longer.

I’d always romanticized the idea of moving to the Hudson Valley, but when we finally had the means to do so, I froze. Moving upstate would mean that not only would I have to drive, I’d have to figure out if I could really exist without a 24-hour bodega down the street. The man was keen on Jersey City, but I vetoed that. I loved Inwood about as much as he loathed it, so that was out. We tried looking in other parts of Brooklyn, but anything with a reasonable commute was either so far out of our budget it was laughable or so tiny we would’ve wound up murdering each other. The Bronx was as far away as Inwood, and Staten Island . . . well, no. That left Queens.

Our friend Dan lived out in Jackson Heights, in a beautiful pre-war apartment overlooking a giant shared garden courtyard. We took the G to the E to go look at his place, and Spyro fell in love. Me, while I loved Dan’s apartment, I had grown accustomed to my yuppie accoutrements. Where would I buy my tallegio? Cheese shortage aside, Jackson Heights seemed to be the most sensible option, so we contacted a local realtor Dan recommended, Chris Georgakopoulos, and started looking around.

The first thing that struck us were the prices. Crappily constructed one bedrooms in Williamsburg were going for three quarters of a million. Here we could get a 1,000-square-foot, beautifully maintained pre-war for less than $300k. I wasn’t completely sold on the neighborhood, but it wasn’t like we could afford even a cardboard box in Williamsburg anyway.

Next was the housing stock. Unlike the shiny, lego-like buildings going up alarmingly fast back in Brooklyn, these buildings were solid, pretty, and surrounded by greenery. True, they didn’t have glass walls overlooking vegan pilates studios, but nor they did have tenants wielding strollers that cost as much as an automobile.

Although leaving my home was sad, tense and difficult, we’re now homeowners in Queens. Sure, there’s no gluten-free focaccia within walking distance, but I have a little patio and you couldn’t even rent a studio in Williamsburg for the combined cost of my mortgage and maintenance. I miss having a seven-minute commute into the East Village, but I’ll just start reading more books on my ride.

One recent morning I logged into Facebook to find that some vile woman had posted a screed against the “underage slums” who played too loudly in the skateboard park across from her fabulous condo. It was on the “Friends of McCarren Park” Facebook page, which I had belonged to. I started to get upset and write back, but then I remembered I moved and I don’t need to be friends with that park, or the type of person who would write such hateful words. I happily hit the “leave group” button.

And oddly enough—through no design of our own—much like the irritating couple in The Times, we also live just down the street from the only hipster coffee shop in the neighborhood. You can take the girl out of Williamsburg…

8 Responses

  1. moxie -

    How is she getting priced out of Brooklyn? Apparently, she was transitioning from renting to buying an apartment. These are 2 different things entirely.

    Reply
  2. Steven Jenkins -

    It’s hard reading this. On one hand, I fully recognize the ridiculousness of NYC housing prices, and I struggle mightly to stay above water, barely. And there is no bigger champion than affordable housing initiatives for the masses, but I am at a loss in finding any connection to the writer. The individual got to live considerably below market rate for 18 years, and then was given a ‘fair settlement’?

    I’m just one of the many that pay exhorbinant rates to stay in the neighborhood I love and have been in for over 10 years, and quietly await the rent increase I have no recourse or mechanism to fight or negiotiate. $550 rent that was reduced even FURTHER, I want to be happy for her own luck, but find it impossible w/ the misery of so many others.

    Reply
  3. HenryHansen -

    Cry me a river. This woman had it far better for far longer than many. Near-free rides never last.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth -

      While I sympathize with your resentment at whining white yuppies (middle-aged edition), I am also negotiating my own way out of an 18-year rent-stabilized situation. The feelings are real, and the change is incredibly hard to contemplate sometimes. The flip side of being lucky is feeling downright stupid for leaving such serendipity behind. It’s a whole way of life; I don’t even need to own a car. More square footage will never bring back the fiends and community I may have to leave behind. . . . I have a choice, but then, well, I don’t really, as New York Methodist Hospital is expanding literally all around me. Walk a mile in my shoes, make those difficult phone calls to your landlords, doubt yourself and even your sanity, and you can perhaps only then judge or mock this lucky woman for her bittersweet journey. Change and loss go hand-in-hand. Creative destruction. No . . . an only-in-New-York kind of madness you have to experience yourself to even begin to understand. Let’s vote to create the kind of city that is convivial, affordable and even quirky — for everyone.

      Reply
  4. Zofee Halam -

    Real estate developers have another name for hipsters who glorify life in Williamsburg. The word is “suckers.” Who else would want to live in that glorified dump of a neighborhood??

    Reply
  5. Ana -

    I have zero sympathy for you, Judy, and I resent you, Brooklyn Based for publishing this piece. Somebody else is doing to you what you did 18 years ago to the then-residents of Williamsburg and what you are now doing to the good people of Jackson Heights. With ever new bougie former resident of W-burg that moves out to Queens, and I hear they are coming in droves, a less fortunate person, without a platform to air their sob story will be displaced form their neighborhood.

    I find your indignation toward the NYT-profiled couple is so misplaced – can’t you see you are them? Can’t you see you are doing the exact same thing?

    Don’t worry, the overpriced stinky cheese will come soon.

    Reply
  6. Sandman -

    What a bunch of sissy-ass, sour grapes bitches every one commenting on this is. Someone gets a break for once and you all still whine. You make a neighborhood your home it’s shitty to leave no matter what. Especially when you went there when no one else wanted to. So rather than see this as a situation where someone actually played the system that is so damned gamed against us the haters gotta hate. Ya’ll sad.

    Reply

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