New York City has long been the gateway to adulthood for college graduates, the backdrop of 20-somethings' memories of first apartments, first jobs, and first heartaches. With this has come a glamorization of life in shoebox-sized walkups and struggle to both eat and pay rent; as one Thought Catalog writer mused, "you can't be a 20-something with any degree of professional, social, or creative ambition and not boldly, decisively declare your intentions to move to NYC, like, every 3-6 months." But with rent soaring across the five boroughs, unemployment high, and loan repayment a reality for 37 million young adults, does starting out in the Big Apple still make sense for recent college graduates?
There's no other way to dice it; for too many young adults, New York numbers for rent, cost of living, and loan repayment just don't add up. If the City doesn't want to lose its 20-somethings to more affordable pastures, it needs to address its serious housing shortage, a problem that has been squeezing out the City's middle-class for decades.
Young City renters are conditioned to think it's normal to pay north of $1,000 for a Craigslist apartment they'll be sharing with strangers, to cope with bunkbeds, futons, and air mattresses just to squeak by. Swapping first New York apartment stories is a competitive sport, the most deplorable crash pads worn as badges of honor. One New York Times' blog post even encouraged readers to "capture [their] cramped space" and share stories about their worst living conditions.
I, too, was reassured that in New York, a month-long real estate hunt and the utilization of fake walls to divide one bedroom into three was routine. When I first moved to Manhattan in 2010, I became the proud renter of a two bedroom converted into a four-bedroom apartment. I felt as though I had struck real estate gold to pay half my salary for an 8 by 9 bedroom that also had space for a dresser; a friend in Greenpoint lived in an apartment building without a front door. Another had a sixth-floor walkup in East Williamsburg that had been exterminated more than a handful of times. Both paid prices that would guarantee upscale amenities if renting in Dallas or San Diego. Perhaps the most egregious story was having a friend seriously consider signing a West Village bedroom at $1050 without utilities and without walls. The Craigslist listing included a picture of a 10 by 12 room separated from the kitchen by two bed sheets, fort-style.
The outer boroughs used to be the solution to this madness, but gentrification of once working-class neighborhoods has forced out many longtime residents and kept college grads on a shoestring budget from moving in. This winter, DNAInfo.com ran the story "Brooklyn Rents So High They're Forcing Residents To Manhattan." In a strange twist, Williamsburg and DUMBO have become so expensive that Manhattan often offers a cheaper alternative. Queens isn't much better; Long Island City lofts have been called "chic and rusty" and Astoria boasts luxury rentals with Manhattan skyline views. This pushes renters deeper into the borough in search of deals.
Not long after moving to New York, a road trip to Baltimore to visit college friends highlighted the "bang for your buck" differences between cities. For $700 a month, one lived in a townhouse that, by New York standards, would best be described as palatial. Four floors, an eat-in-kitchen, a living room with windows. This perspective forever altered my frame of reference; if I were starting a business, or was planning on pursuing a graduate degree, would I opt for a more affordable city? Really, could I afford not to? Even on my paralegal budget, paying rent and saving much of anything seemed to always be mutually exclusive.
What many young adults who see New York as a post-college playground don't realize is that by living here, they are really acting as unintentional urban revivalists. Young college graduates settling en masse ensures an educated workforce, a consistent base of renters, and often-indiscriminate spenders for the City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recognized this, and subsequently launched a pilot program to build micro apartments on the East Side of Manhattan catering to small households and solo living. These apartments, between 275 and 300 square feet, only scratch the surface of the shortage of 800,000 studios and one-bedrooms throughout the City. Said Mayor Bloomberg on this dearth of smaller apartments; "this is going to be a big problem for cities with young people."
So before too many artists get "burned out on Brooklyn" and migrate to Philadelphia, or rising tech superstars leave Silicon Alley for Portland, New York must address its affordable housing needs, for the sake of its future and for the futures of recent college graduates.