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Would You Pay $1,650/Month for 80 Square Feet and a Hallway Bathroom on the LES?

All utilities (except Wi-Fi) included!

(Hell Gate)

By the time I reached the door of 81 Ludlow Street, the rain had already started soaking through my sneakers. I was damp and irritable, sweating in my raincoat. The apartment I stepped into, on the third floor up a stairwell that smelled faintly of sewage, only intensified my bad mood. "Oh my god," I said to Brian, the broker who'd taken the time to show me the vacant room—truly, just a room—at 6:30 p.m. on his day off. "You saw the video, right?" Brian said. "You know that—" "Yeah," I responded. "I know about the bathroom."

The main unit, which Brian told me was around 80 square feet—the bathroom, he said, rounded the whole thing out to 100—contained a full-sized bed frame, a wooden child's desk with a shadeless table lamp on it, and a skinny, frameless mirror leaning against the wall. At the time of my tour, rent was set at $1,750—as of this writing, the asking price has dropped to $1,650.

(Hell Gate)

To the left of the door, the de facto kitchen wall housed some inexplicably full-sized cabinets, plus a mini-fridge tucked under a gray mock-granite counter. A hot plate was plugged into the wall. "Utilities, except Wi-Fi, are included," Brian said, as I surveyed the scene. "Even the hot plate?" I said. He didn't catch the joke. "Yeah! Fridge too. And I can help you source a microwave if you need it," he added. Between the wall-mounted cabinets and the counter, someone had stuck faux tiling, perhaps to give the future occupant a sense of transition from the corner where they sleep to the corner where they microwave ramen. Above the desk, a rod for hanging clothes attached to a shelf that I'd imagine would have to house most of my wardrobe—the rest would probably have to go in the cabinets next to the mini fridge.

(Hell Gate)

Brian told me the unit was newly renovated—nobody had ever lived in it before, but tenants in the building, he told me, often stick around for four or five years. The bathroom showed signs of a recent upgrade, too—its shower had a frosted glass door, its toilet had a lid still wrapped in plastic, and it housed the kind of steel sink I see most often in a bar bathroom where there's already a Hell Gate sticker stuck to the wall. The bathroom also came with its own key for the lucky tenant who moves in—because it's detached from the main apartment, across the hallway and next to the building's stairwell. "This would be just your bathroom," Brian told me, in a tone that was obviously meant to reassure me. The rest of the people on the floor get to shit and shower in their own apartment.

(Hell Gate)

The unit was the second one Hell Gate has recently toured with a detached bathroom. The first, a Hell's Kitchen studio with a sad loft and bare mattress that Adlan Jackson took for a spin, was cheaper—$200 less per month—but its detached bathroom was shared with other tenants. Both units, in attractive Manhattan neighborhoods and far from affordable for many New Yorkers, are reminiscent of the single-room occupancy units of yore, which gained notoriety in the decades past as dirt cheap and low commitment living spaces for New Yorkers with limited means and limited capacity to care about where they went to sleep at night, with shared bathrooms and shared kitchens.

These kinds of units largely disappeared from the city's housing landscape by the '90s, according to a 2021 Curbed piece on SROs, thanks to "real-estate values and tax incentives that made it attractive to demolish them or convert them to another use." Curbed proposed bringing these kinds of units back as a solution to the affordable housing crisis, particularly for marginalized people without the paperwork to qualify for more permanent living situations. A 2018 study from the NYU Furman Center made a similar argument: that amending zoning legislation to cover efficiency units and building more SROs would help alleviate the city's need for affordable housing for individuals. "Given the demand for housing in New York City from rent-burdened single adults, adults living with roommates, and the single adult shelter population," the report said, "the city should re-evaluate whether its regulations that impede the creation of small units are consistent with its objectives to increase the supply of housing available to a variety of low-income New Yorkers." 

But the unit on Ludlow Street—freshly renovated, sure, but sans closet, stovetop, or sink—isn't for someone living on the city's margins. At a sticker price of $1,650 a month, it's for someone who wants to live alone in the Lower East Side so badly, they're willing to give up a bathroom that you can use without leaving the privacy of your own apartment. (For whatever it's worth, the building has, according to HPD data, been the subject of numerous complaints related to heating and hot water issues—49 since October 2022—although whoever ends up in the vacant unit might not feel the hot water situation quite so keenly.)

After I snapped some pictures of the bathroom, I moved back into the main room and took another look around while Brian ticked off some of the benefits of the apartment from the hallway—it's a minute away from the Delancey-Essex stop where I could hop on the J, M, Z, and F lines. "If you like clubbing, that's right down the street," he said. Visions of stumbling back into this apartment after a dismal night at Hotel Chantelle swirled in my head. "Yeah, totally," I said. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the leaning mirror. My hair was frizzy and I was grimacing. "What are you thinking about?" Brian asked, as I moved into the hallway. "I just don't know where I'd put all my stuff," I said. "How much stuff do you have?" he countered. "An apartment's worth of stuff…" I said, trailing off. "I don't know, some people do the minimalist thing," he shot back. I told him I'd think about it.

"I'd live there," Brian said, as we walked out of the door and onto the rainy street. "What?" I said. "Yeah, I don't know, I would," he said. "Minimalist lifestyle, right? I'm just one person." I laughed, but the sound was humorless. Then we said our goodbyes, he turned one way, I walked straight ahead, and our paths diverged into the dreary evening.

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