When she moved to Manhattan, Renata chose to live with her grandmother — a woman who, with her stay-in-place fortitude, earned the very low rent she shared with her granddaughter in the last years of her life. But now grandma is dead, and despite Renata’s best efforts, the landlord has found out. Eviction is imminent.
People have been known to do all kinds of things to get affordable housing in Manhattan: the illegal subletting, the squatting, etc. But these days the search for affordability in the East Village is bringing the very old and young together in ways unmatched since the advent of the student/senior discount. As one group holds on, quite literally, for dear life, a few young transplants are finding various ways to benefit from the geriatric set’s most valued perk: low rent. They discover that when grandma’s alive she can be a pain in the ass, but when she’s gone for good, so is the lease.
Andrew Crabbe is like any 24-year-old trader. He moved to Manhattan after college for a job in finance, and after six months of renting at market value like the rest of us, he was presented with a deal, and he took it. He was connected to Catherine Cumberbatch, 85, through an old family friend. She was happy to offer him a room, as it would cut down on her expenses and she would appreciate the company. For $300 a month he shares a large two-bedroom East Village apartment with Mrs. Cumberbatch and, so far, any inconvenience has been worth the cost. “I’m willing to do anything to keep the rent,” says Andrew. “If it wasn’t for the money, I wouldn’t be here.”
I too made the decision to give up a little comfort to save a little money and spent July living with an 89-year-old woman in the East Village. Average roommate issues amount to little when compared to the experience of sharing space with someone on their last leg, and for various reasons, that situation didn’t last. But Crabbe has a certain stoic fortitude and a mind for finance, so it works for him. When Catherine asked him to go with her to the ballet for her birthday, he went, albeit begrudgingly. “I fell asleep as soon as we got there. I woke up for intermission. Then I went back to sleep. Afterward I put her in a cab and went out because I had other plans.”
He may not be all that sweet about it, but Crabbe still puts in the work. He makes up the difference in rent with his presence and his company, and it’s actually kind of heart-warming. The situation is legal and functional, and no one is going to evict him as long as Mrs. Cumberbatch is alive.
A couple of other recent college grads I spoke to tried to take a short cut (bypassing the actual living with grandma) to get their low rent sans cohabitation. However, the landlord paid more attention to his property than they had anticipated. With thousands of dollars a month at stake in these apartments, illegal occupants’ little mistakes can lead quickly to the endgame.
To wit, the case of Paul, who graduated from college in May of this year. Two months prior to graduation, his 87-year-old grandmother left her longtime East Village apartment and moved into a nursing home on Long Island. It might be more appropriate to say she was removed and placed, but either way, the vacancy left the perfect apartment, extremely low rent for Paul and one of his college friends. Without a word to thelandlord, Paul and Gerome moved quietly into the vacated space a day after graduation, still bleary eyed from the party but excited about their new location from which to “pre-game.” Two weeks later Paul was handed an eviction notice, and the guys shuffled away to a market-value apartment in Brooklyn, tails between their legs.
Paul’s mother might have been the one to blame in this instance, with her lack of paranoid caution. When she moved grandma to the nursing home, she also turned off the utilities and the phone in the apartment to save money in the two vacant months, and she had the floor re-carpeted. Big mistake. Changes serve to announce the presence of a freshly abandoned apartment, and landlords want nothing more than to turn old, un-renovated apartments into shiny market-value suites when given the chance. After receiving her eviction notice, Renata mused that “Once somebody hits their 90s, they must run some kind of a five-borough check, just to see if they’re dead.” As soon as old tenants are out, cabinet doors are fixed and affordable housing becomes luxury living suited for a more ideal (read: younger) client than grandma.
A real estate agent at one of the largest and most renowned companies in Manhattan says that with only a three percent vacancy rate in the city, landlords can afford to be choosy. “I mean, you’re working with people. Landlords are people. You can’t expect everyone to like everyone.” That may be true, but they all seem to be in agreement on one issue — age. “None of the landlords like old people in the building. It’s a hassle. So, if you sound old on the phone, mostly we just hang up. If they come in, we say nothing is available. It’s really all about money.”