Miércoles 19 de Julio de 2006, Ip nº 162

Out of college, but now living in urban dorms
Por Janny Scott

Kelly Frances Cook is an editorial assistant, Ivy League graduate, aspiring writer — the kind of new arrival who has long been important to the life of New York City. Young, educated and hailing from elsewhere, newcomers like Ms. Cook have historically stoked the city’s intellectual and creative fires. But, these days, how do they afford a place to live?

Ms. Cook, age 24 and from Ohio, at first could afford only a rented room in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., for $650 a month. Then she embarked on the archetypal, hair-raising New York City apartment search: feckless would-be roommates, outlandish financial demands, an offer of a room in a building with a bullet-pocked lobby.

Then she saw an ad on Craigslist for space in a 60-unit building in Harlem described as full of young professionals. The price was right; the woman on the phone was friendly. Back in Ohio, Ms. Cook’s mother had begun to think like a New Yorker: “Yeah, right, Kelly. She’s probably some mass murderer. I don’t trust her. She’s too nice.”

This month, Ms. Cook is moving in. The woman on the phone, Karen Falcon (not a mass murderer), calls the building “a dorm for adults.” It is a community of the overeducated and underpaid.

There is nothing new about having roommates in New York City. What Ms. Falcon has invented is a full-service dorm, full of strangers she has brought together to share big apartments as a way to keep housing costs down. Her approach is a homegrown response to the soaring rents bedeviling desirable cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Ms. Falcon, an informal agent for the building’s owner, says she has placed nearly 150 young people there and in two other buildings in the neighborhood in recent years. A gregarious Californian with rainbow-colored braids, she pieces together roommate groups like puzzles. Each tenant ends up paying $700 to $1,200 a month.

Ms. Falcon says she screens for a combination of good credit ratings and “sweetness,” looking for people who are respectful, considerate and easygoing (and perhaps have a co-signer).

She mixes genders; all-female groups bring too much high drama, all-male groups make too much of a mess. She has matched Ph.D.’s with Ph.D.’s. If the combination is a disaster, she will arrange for a swap. Anyone can leave before the lease is up as long as Ms. Falcon can find a replacement.

She says the tenants she has placed in the three buildings have included chefs, actors, writers, people in publishing, a woman in public relations, a production manager, an accountant, a paralegal, a program officer for a foundation. There have also been plenty of graduate students and students from abroad.

“Our neighborhood is one of the last neighborhoods left in New York where you have these big old Beaux-Arts buildings, built for wealthy families,” Ms. Falcon said, referring to the stretch of Harlem from 145th to 155th Streets near the Hudson River. She said groups of adults, each contributing, pay rents that families cannot or choose not to pay.

New York City has long been a magnet for the young, well educated and ambitious. According to a report published by the Census Bureau in 2003, nearly 132,500 young, single, college-educated people poured into the New York metropolitan area between 1995 and 2000, more than into any other metropolitan area in the United States.

“Sometimes we underestimate how important that is in generating the city’s creativity,” said Frank Braconi, chief economist for the city comptroller’s office. “To the degree that housing costs become a barrier to that group, it can in the long run sap us of that creative potential that we would otherwise have.”

Brad Lander, director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, a nonprofit group, said young professionals get less attention than other financially struggling groups because they are more mobile and have options. Though they, too, are wrestling with the city’s shortage of lower-cost housing, they are seen as harbingers of gentrification.

Mr. Lander said a well-known strategy among landlords of buildings with rents regulated by the city is to seek out tenants who they imagine will not stay long, because they can often increase the rent when a tenant leaves. “Students as well as professionals,” he said. “Plenty of landlords find this group an attractive set of folks to rent to, believing they’ll be out in a couple of years.”

Marieke Bianchi, 23, a junior account executive at a public relations firm in the Flatiron district, moved to New York from St. Louis last year after graduating from college. She started out on a friend’s couch, then sublet for six weeks in Hell’s Kitchen, where she had to move a giant exercise bike to get into bed.

“I can’t believe it, a grown woman in a trundle bed,” she said with humorous disgust.

Ms. Bianchi, earning $25,000 a year at the time, found one of Ms. Falcon’s ads. Now she lives in a large room in a four-bedroom duplex apartment in a brownstone in Harlem. Her roommates are a bartender, a woman in information technology, an art historian, two dogs and two cats. Her rent is $900 a month.

Adult dorm living is not without its complexities.

Ms. Bianchi feels she should check first before inviting friends into the backyard, since they have to pass through another roommate’s space. And when one of her roommates brings anyone home for the night, Ms. Bianchi invariably knows. “It’s that level of intimacy from Day 1,” she said.

Like Ms. Bianchi, others ponder their next move.

Wil Fenn, a 29-year-old program officer for a foundation, has been trying since college to save money to buy a home. He lived in Westchester County for six years, in order to pay less rent. Then, last year, he became bored and decided to move into Manhattan. He, too, happened upon one of Ms. Falcon’s ads.

Now Mr. Fenn pays $850 a month for a large room in a four-bedroom apartment in what he describes as a beautiful building with exposed brick walls, mosaic tiles in the lobby and a garden on the roof. His roommates include a New York City teaching fellow, a chef and a German student studying in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship.

Ms. Falcon first placed Mr. Fenn in a two-bedroom apartment with a woman who he said worked for a large bond firm. One night, Mr. Fenn said, she had a fit after he left his mail on top of the microwave oven. It was downhill from there. So, at his request, Ms. Falcon moved him down to the four-bedroom apartment on the second floor.

“Everyone talks about free-market solutions,” he said, speaking of the city’s shortage of lower-priced housing. “But the solution now is the rich get richer and for everyone else it’s the equivalent of being a sharecropper in the city. I’ve been working five or six years now, trying to save up and buy something. Every time I get closer, the goal moves farther away.”

Asked how adult-dorm life differed from college-dorm life, Mr. Fenn said: “You’re not really at the same place where you were psychologically. Now, for me, I’m kind of wondering: When does this end? When do I get to be able to buy a place and settle down?”


  13/07/2006. The New York Times.