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Paying Rent

You Can Find a Rent-Stabilized Apartment in NYC—If You Can Dodge AI Listings, Scammers, and Illegal Fees

How one New Yorker’s harrowing, months-long quest ended with a stabilized, $2,450/month two-bedroom off the Jefferson L stop.

(Craigslist)

We were three hours into eclipse return traffic, and I was texting with an anonymous broker who I suspected was a scammer. The listing on Craigslist, a two-bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment just off of the Myrtle-Wyckoff L/M for $1,100, sounded fake, but my boyfriend's place—a one-bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment in Ridgewood where he paid $1,500 a month—was real, so maybe, somehow, this one was, too. At first, the broker's questions were normal: income, credit score, why are you moving? We set a time for a tour. "See if they ask for money first," my boyfriend told me from behind the wheel. "That's when you know it's a scam."

The broker wasn't looking for money, it turned out, but information: They wanted me to pay $30 and submit all my personal details to a website called check2score.com, which was so sketchy that my phone's browser refused to load it. I told the broker the link seemed suspicious. "12 million people use this," they replied. "They trust it, so you can trust this site. It's a highly reputed website for checking credit and background." I texted back that the link was faulty, and the broker sent me to check2info.com (trusted perhaps by 12 million more people but, once again, not my browser), and then scores365.housingrents.com. 

When I said that one didn't work either, they ghosted me. This was the twentieth broker I'd messaged that week, and only the fourth to reply. 

For the last four years, I have luxuriated in the best housing I will ever have in New York, a three-story Bushwick rowhouse with palatial bedrooms and a backyard. I'd gone in on it with some friends in the depths of lockdown, when panicked owners agreed to almost anything to fill a vacancy. But that power inversion is long over. My landlord, who touts his firm's purchasing of "distressed apartment buildings auctioned off by banks" in "emerging neighborhoods" and describes his company as "a leading actor of urban renewal," has gouged us with every new lease, handing down 15 percent increases since we moved in. When we begrudgingly signed the renewal last June, I vowed to exit the renter's samsara when the lease was up, move in with my boyfriend, and celebrate my upcoming 10-year New York anniversary in a rent-stabilized apartment. I wanted to be done worrying about losing my housing so that real estate investors could realize more portfolio gains. I did not want to change careers so that I could afford to help a finance bro and his wife buy a second home in the Catskills. If I had to leave this city in anything but a coffin, I wanted it to be on my terms. 

My boyfriend was not excited when I informed him of my plan. He would be giving up a too-small-for-two rent-stabilized one-bedroom for us to move in together, and he was doubtful that we would find another one, because his had been a fluke. We had the additional severe and mutually desired constraint of only looking in Ridgewood—hardly an Eden of rent stabilization, but full of friends. "I'm not worried," I told him. "I think you're being way too optimistic," he shot back. 

We set a budget of $2,700/month, and began hunting that unicorn—a one-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment. (We had quickly quashed the impossible dream of having two bedrooms.) We had some factors going for us: a relatively high income thanks to my boyfriend's tech job, good credit thanks to my grinding student loan burden and his paid-off one, and a flexible move-in date thanks to his lease expiration on the distant date of September 1. 

Against us: two cats, which turned out to exclude many more places than we'd expected, and a 1.4 percent vacancy rate in the city, the lowest it's been since the City began tracking it in 1968. Lest that sound insufficiently terrible, 1.4 percent is the average across all units. For apartments under $2,400, the rate varies by price from a scant 0.91 percent to an even scanter 0.39 percent. Insisting on rent stabilization meant we'd be rejecting the large majority of available apartments. My faith against these odds suggests I should stay away from the Mets parking lot casino if Steve Cohen ever manages to build it

But I had what I believed was an ingenious plan: I would avoid the open market by extracting landlord contacts from everyone I knew with a rent-stabilized apartment. I began texting people, some of whom I didn’t know well enough to justify this intrusion, in early January. If they didn't respond, I texted again every three or so weeks until they finally gave up the goods. By late March, I had a promising 20 contacts on my spreadsheet. I kvelled to all my friends about my brilliance.

Despite my confidence, I'd heard about too many heinous housing searches to rely on a single source. Every day we did a round on StreetEasy, Facebook Marketplace, the Listings Project, Craigslist, Zillow, RentHop, and the obscure site where my boyfriend had found his apartment, which I'm not naming because I'm not going to blow it up in public. 

Within two weeks, I admitted to my boyfriend that I had been naive, and I was already scared our search would fail. The landlords on my spreadsheet either didn't answer or had no inventory. The friend whose building I most coveted had to prod his landlord four times to get a response, which ended up being "no." "He gave me a sob story about how no one ever leaves," my friend told me apologetically. "Apparently, my next door neighbor is paying $1,100 after 42 years."

Things weren't going well on the sites, either. Craigslist was all spam and scam: AI-generated posts with identical photos overwhelmed the real ones, their titles festooned with plus signs and asterisks and promising three-bedroom palaces for $1,300. The Listings Project's careful curation rarely included Ridgewood, and the site that shall remain unnamed had at most three relevant posts a week. Facebook Marketplace, with its miserable design, bordered on unnavigable. The big sites belched out two or three listings daily, concentrated in hideous new buildings, or older ones with photos of walls bisecting windows, the tragic mark of a one-bedroom carved into a cramped two. Our daily page refreshing increased to twice a day, then three, then four. I posted every week on Instagram imploring my friends to tell me if units opened in their buildings. My boyfriend developed his own obsessive research practice, akin to my spreadsheet, poring over a map of city lots to ferret out likely rent-stabilized buildings and setting up StreetEasy alerts for the addresses. We queried everything we found remotely acceptable. The brokers deigned to respond just 30 percent of the time. 

Looming over our search was the post-2019 innovation of obscene broker fees for rent-stabilized apartments. This nasty extortion racket appeared immediately, in the first response we got to any of our messages. The one-bedroom on Zillow for $1,850 included a $3,330 fee (moderately exploitative) to be paid directly to the building owner (illegal), a money grab so sketchy we could not bring ourselves to schedule a tour. A second, from Craigslist, demanded an $8,000 fee (amazingly, not illegal) on a $1,094 one-bedroom with nice light and period details. After the broker confirmed we had decent income and no chihuahuas or Pomeranians, he emailed us a spreadsheet that spun his fleecing as additional rent that would decrease with every year of tenancy, a bargain if we squinted far enough into the future.

A screenshot of the broker's spreadsheet. (Zoë Beery / Hell Gate)

At the bottom of the sheet was a menacing warning: "Increases beyond the initial lease term is [sic] set by New York State"—it's actually the City's Rent Guidelines Board, but whatever—"and the above calculations do not take that into consideration and therefore will likely be higher. Laws are also subject to change so please factor that into your decisionmaking." We still looked at the place, which turned out to be a glorified studio with chipped walls and scant light. We sent it to a friend desperate to move out of the one-bedroom he shared with his recently ex-girlfriend. (He applied the next morning and didn't get it.)

Our second viewing was scheduled during what turned out to be a deluge, but my boyfriend still went, without me. (Drenching is temporary; rent stabilization is forever.) He called after 10 minutes. "Everything about this place is perfect," he said. His tone suggested a catch. "You can see the M tracks from the bedroom. The broker says the previous tenant found it surprisingly quiet, though!" Surely someone who stood to make $2,700 from convincing us train tracks could be quiet wouldn't lie. "No way," I told him. 

Next was a third-floor railroad apartment, more generously and tastefully renovated than every rent-stabilized unit I'd seen since moving to New York. The floors gleamed with fresh lacquer, reflecting slices of sunlight where our cats could nap. Everything about it was perfect, except it was in the wilds of Glendale, a ten-minute power walk to the train (we timed it); another no. At lunch afterwards, which was supposed to cheer us up, I nearly cried into my rice bowl. May sped toward us like a meteor, threatening to crater any hope of an easy move. We hadn't put in any applications and began to accept we might not find anything, that we’d have to sign a one-year unregulated lease and try again in a year. 

And then, in the last days of April, scrolling dejectedly, I clicked on a Facebook Marketplace post from a broker. The post had a single, crooked shot of an empty bedroom with drab laminate flooring and rental-beige walls—two bedrooms, $2,450, rent-stabilized. 

I remembered the rule I had learned my first year in New York, when a coworker told me she paid $1,000 for a beautiful railroad apartment in Bushwick. "Go for the Craigslist listings without photos," she told me when my jaw dropped at the price. (The listing for my boyfriend's current place also had no pictures.) It was such a badly executed listing that it just might be a miracle. 

(Facebook Marketplace)

My message went unanswered, so I clicked around on Facebook until I found the broker's phone number. She told me with some irritation to call back later, because the landlord was on vacation. Someone thoughtful and courteous would feel ashamed to harass a stranger every day, but I was a reporter who had convinced myself that New York City owed me a rent-stabilized apartment, as it does every New Yorker. My job is quite literally to harass people on the phone until they give me what I want. On the third try in two days, the broker picked up again, this time in a chipper mood, and agreed to a 6 p.m. tour. 

It turned out the sole photo in the listing was for a different place. The apartment we stepped into that afternoon had soothing light gray walls and original parquet floors. Afternoon sun glowed gently through big windows. It was a box layout with two actual bedrooms and a kitchen that could fit a dining table. Sure, all the tiling was sloppily redone in the brown-forward style of the mid-2000s. Sure, the toilet was a commercial model with a seat-level lever and no tank, a novel landlord special. Sure, it was a few blocks outside Ridgewood's imperial core, and off a subway stop whose sloppy weekend crowds I loathe for their poor taste in nightclubs. But such is the price of housing security. 

In one of the bedrooms, with the broker out of view, my eyes welled up and I whispered to my boyfriend, "What if we actually get this place?" He mouthed back, "I know." We were, according to the broker, the only ones to view it; she'd mistakenly thought the move-in date was July 1. We asked none of the questions we should have, like why the current tenant was moving out, how long he'd been living there, or if the landlord would get us a replacement for the bizarre toilet. We put down a deposit the next morning and paid a normal broker fee of one month's rent. We told our desperate friend he could take my boyfriend's old place. We get keys for ours on May 28 and move in on June 1.

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