Historical NYC apartment rental prices?
May 12, 2011 9:42 AM   Subscribe

Have Manhattan apartment rental prices always been prohibitively expensive relative to prices in other major US cities?

Would be great to hear from someone who has lived in NYC/Manhattan for a few decades to get their take.
posted by kelechv to Work & Money (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think it depends on the neighborhood. My husband moved into our apartment on the UWS in 1974 (I think), and it was $250, and he was a starving piano player at the time. Of course, that area of the UWS was mostly known for Needle Park back then. A 1BR in our building goes for $3200 now. (Hooray, rent control for us!)
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 9:46 AM on May 12, 2011

It depends what you mean by "prohibitively expensive," but it has been the case for many, many years that Manhattan residents pay more per square foot for their homes than people in less crowded areas. mkultra has the reason. That means that apartments are either more expensive or much smaller, and often both. My mother moved to Manhattan in 1966, and she paid a fairly reasonable $78 per month in rent. But that was to share a 200 sq. ft. studio in a then-unpopular neighborhood with a roommate.
posted by decathecting at 9:55 AM on May 12, 2011

Not in the late 70s and early 80s, when there were 100,000 homeless guys on the Bowery, white flight was in full effect, and crime was at its peak -- the era of "the Bronx is burning" and headlines like "Washington to NYC: 'Drop Dead.'". One of my friends who grew in NYC at the time said the Upper West Side was the only place you could live without fear of being mugged.

It was relatively more expensive to rent on the UWS and UES, and everything else was dirt cheap.
posted by Ashley801 at 9:58 AM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

on a per square foot basis of course. On a per unit basis they've always been more expensive (relative to incomes of course) then in the rest of the country, but the current ratio of home price to income is out of whack with history. I've got the data banging around somewhere going back to the mid 60's, but lord knows if I can find it.
posted by JPD at 9:59 AM on May 12, 2011

I don't think your question, as stated, is answerable. Manhattan, like every other borough or city, is varied and contains vastly different neighborhoods. For example, the Lower East Side, for most of its 400 years, was one of the worst slums in the city. Compare that to, say, the Clayton neighborhood in St. Louis -- a very nice neighborhood in a city that nobody associates with affluence.

Manhattan has always had its expensive neighborhoods and grungy ones. I think the true aberration was the period between approx. 1966 and 1997, which encompassed the worst of white flight and then later the crack epidemic. You hear those stories about people who bought a whole building in the Bowery for $100K and now it's worth 100x as much? Well, they bought during the "trough." Since then, I think most American cities have seen an uptick in real estate value, as many of the trends that drove urban blight (e.g. white flight, high crime, and cheap oil) have reversed themselves. This has been more pronounced in NYC, owing to its cultural and economic desirability, and also its dramatic shift from one of the most dangerous cities in the US to one of the safest. The Lower East Side is now a trendy, expensive neighborhood, with abominable highrises going up on every corner; but you better believe that the LES didn't gentrify until after nearly every other part of Manhattan below 96th St. did.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:09 AM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

thx to all who answered. I had the idea for this question from a recent NYT article on the merits of buying v. renting. It discusses a rent ratio that is the price of a house divided by the annual rent of an equivalent house. They say if the ratio is > 15 in your area of choice, you should rent as opposed to buy. NYC is 29.

Presumably at some point real estate was dirt cheap in NYC, and the NYC ratio would have been lower. Ashley801 points to one example above. The NYT data compares a few US cities, but their NYC data only starts in 2000. The NYC ratio is the highest in the US according to this sample, and it looks like it shot off like a rocket starting in 2000. I'm curious as to what these ratios looked like throughout the 20th century.
posted by kelechv at 10:11 AM on May 12, 2011

yeah, but if you look at the data for the MSA that captures most of the white flight effect. That data -which you can get from census, and compare that with incomes over time, will show that relative to incomes the entire NY area is at a very high level.

The data set I was referring to above was basically just for mid-town to 96th st btw, but I only have it hard copy.
posted by JPD at 10:13 AM on May 12, 2011

to answer your second question - in the late 90's that rent vs buy calculation was reversed.

But really rent vs buy and relative cost of ny housing are two different questions.
posted by JPD at 10:14 AM on May 12, 2011

kelechv: Have Manhattan apartment rental prices always been prohibitively expensive relative to prices in other major US cities?

I am a native New Yorker and lived in NYC until 1992. The city I lived in no longer exists. I will never be able to afford to live there again, ever.

Into the 1980s, you could afford to rent in Manhattan with a family if you were lower middle class and even (depending on the neighbourhood) poor. My mother supported me as a single parent on a assistant editor publishing salary in the 1970s in a UWS rent controlled apartment without it being a huge issue. Rent for a 3B pre-war with 12 foot ceilings and a river view was $600 when we moved out 15 years later. My uncle lived in a 3rd floor, two-story brownstone in the village that he could pay rent on as a freelance film editor of no repute. All of my teachers lived in Manhattan. You could be an artist or a musician or basically anything but rich and find a place in the city that was workable.

The only artists I know now who are still in Manhattan either made it big and bought, or are still in the rent-controlled studios they landed in 1976 and will leave in a coffin.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:18 AM on May 12, 2011 [6 favorites]

Considering that NYC is a city of immigrants, I'd say no, it hasn't always been prohibitively expensive.

As an example... I just read the memoir of Suze Rotolo (Dylan's girlfriend in the early 60s). She grew up in Queens in a working class Italian family. Moved to the Village at only 17, and lived in several different apartments there and on the LES, sometimes alone and sometimes with roommates, covering costs with jobs like waitressing and making theater props. She says living in the city was quite cheap at that time.

It's kinda confusing though to ask if housing has historically been "prohibitively" expensive "relative" to other cities. Prohibitive, no; otherwise so many immigrants couldn't have settled here. Relative--maybe yes. And of course living conditions have always been cramped (compared to other cities) and sometimes dangerous (see the Tenement Museum for more info).
posted by torticat at 11:50 AM on May 12, 2011

I lived in NYC until 1989. Depending on where you wanted to live, you could find an apartment in Manhattan. I lived in NYU faculty housing, my studio apartment near Washington Square was $600 per month. That was 1/2 market rate. On the open market the apartment would have been $1200. So I think it was pretty expensive, but it was the norm for the neighborhood.

In the 1980s, I had a friend that lived in a one room horror across from the men's shelter. Her rent was $350. Another friend lived in Washington Heights (northern Manhattan), with a lot of crime. Her rent was about $400. My father is a sculptor, he could never find a place he could afford in lower Manhattan. That is why all the artists moved to Brooklyn.
posted by fifilaru at 1:25 PM on May 12, 2011

No, of course Manhattan apartment rentals haven't always been prohibitively expensive; that trend is a result of the imposition of rent control in 1943. From here:
Hardly a man is now alive who remembers what New York City was like before rent control. Who can recall the traditional "moving days" of April 1 and Oct. 1, when old leases expired and New Yorkers went hop-skipping across the city in pursuit of better apartments? Who remembers the "fall renting season," when landlords spent the month of August redecorating in order to attract prospective tenants returning from summer vacation? Housing was so cheap and plentiful that people routinely put their furniture in summer storage and rented a new apartment when they returned in the fall. New York was often called the "City of Nomads."
Yes, that's the Wall Street Journal (from 1993). No, that doesn't make it invalid.
posted by languagehat at 4:10 PM on May 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the inflation calculator may be helpful in understanding the answers to this thread.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:50 PM on May 12, 2011

It may be true about rent control... I had a friend who worked for the city, and I remember one time we were standing on my roof in alphabet city, and he was saying how the average rent in my neighborhood was somewhere in the neighborhood of $900 a month -- which I refused to believe, because I was paying $1200 a month as my half of a "two bedroom" that I'm willing to bet was a studio at one point in time. He said the reason for the disparity is Manhattan's low vacancy rate combined with the effects of rent control : basically, so few apartments are ever actually on the market at any given time that demand drives prices through the roof.
posted by Afroblanco at 4:53 PM on May 12, 2011

(although if you think about it, were they to get rid of rent control tomorrow, would MH be any more affordable? I kinda doubt it. Lots of people want to live there, if for no other reason than to be closer to work)
posted by Afroblanco at 4:55 PM on May 12, 2011

slight derail, but there are other metrics to compare cities, some of which take NYC out of the overpriced category entirely.

I don't know I believe the never again in NYC thing. The city could decline again, esp. as financial stuff is done more and more in other places and the Wall Street tax base shrinks again. Forget not that there used to be a lot of money made in manufacturing and shipping that is now gone. How many pillars does the city's economy really have to stand on? Then too, there is that rent control/stabilization thing - it could disappear. Not saying it will, not saying any time soon, but, you know....

(A fun ain't it awful article on that subject here)

One of my friends who grew in NYC at the time said the Upper West Side was the only place you could live without fear of being mugged.

Huh. Of people I knew living on the UWS in the late seventies and early eighties, exactly one had never been mugged.
posted by IndigoJones at 4:59 PM on May 12, 2011

although if you think about it, were they to get rid of rent control tomorrow, would MH be any more affordable? I kinda doubt it. Lots of people want to live there, if for no other reason than to be closer to work

Hard to say without knowing the variables and just how much the RCers are skewing the market and what kinds of new construction might occur if the old buildings could be gotten hold of. Stuff like that. Right now there is also the factor of the cheap dollar bringing in the out of towners looking for a nice pied a terre. Myself, I suspect a lot of space across 110th street would be toast pretty quickly if it were to go.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:09 PM on May 12, 2011

It was relatively more expensive to rent on the UWS and UES

Someone I know claims to have moved into her two-bedroom 1000sf+ place in a doorman building in the West 90's in 1960-something at the quaint rental price of $80 per month. I have no idea how that compares to a comparably sized rental home in the rest of the country at that time, though.

And the West 90's wasn't exactly Movin' On Up turf back in the day - I remember being sketched out by Morningside Heights when I first visited in the late 90's.
posted by Sara C. at 5:24 PM on May 12, 2011

Also, for comparison's sake, one of my best friends moved to Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, in the mid 90's, before it was a hot neighborhood, and had a two bedroom place to himself for $800 or so. Which isn't pennies, but it's a lot more comparable to what you'd find for the same space in other US cities.

Basically, it just gets crazier and crazier.
posted by Sara C. at 5:27 PM on May 12, 2011

Rent control definitely has one effect on this debate, which is that it skews the perceptions of everybody who moved to the city after the 1940s. Everybody has their own weird rent trajectory, depending on the rent stabilization status of the building they lived in (or even rent control, if they're old or descended from someone both lucky and old).

Because of this, everybody has their own mythology about rental prices, complete with one insane low example from the 70s and one insanely high example from their Wall Street friend who pays $3500/month with roommates in Newark or whatever.

Hard data!

Here's some rental prices from Park Slope in 1942 (not quite Manhattan, but not so different in 1942):

333 1st Street, junior 1BR: $32/mo
197 Garfield Pl, 3 BR: $32/mo
437 1st St, 3 BR: $38/mo

Meanwhile, in Seattle 1942, the want ads have things like:

"Unfurnished 4-room home, 4801 Beacon Ave, $31/month"
"Young couple desire two-three-room furnished apartment or small house. $30-$40."

So it's safe to say that in 1942, at least, Park Slope and inner-suburban Seattle were comparable -- as compared to now, when Park Slope costs about 3x Beacon Hill.
posted by zvs at 5:39 PM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

For what it's worth, my father lived in the West 70s back in the early-mid 1970s, and his description of what he could afford on an entry-level salary then (sharing a basement one-bedroom apartment with another guy) was pretty comparable to what you'd expect today.

I recently came across this New York magazine article from 1968, which I think is instructive about the perpetual nature of this problem. (I would copy and paste a couple of money quotes, but it's PDF page images so I can't; basically, the gist of it is that rising rents are squeezing the middle class, forcing people to go to absurd lengths to find affordable places, making everyone feel lucky to live in cheap shitholes, etc.)

There is a tendency to view the past with rose-colored glasses, but if the attitudes expressed in that contemporaneous article is at all representative, it seems like just we're dealing with the same old news today, though my understanding is that it runs in cycles and the last ten years have put us at the top of one of them. A caveat, though, is that many neighborhoods, particularly in Brooklyn and probably uptown, have qualitatively improved and the prices have thus come closer to parity with prime Manhattan neighborhoods; I'd wager the relationship in prices between say, Park Slope and the Village will remain constant even if they both get cheaper in the future.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:16 PM on May 12, 2011

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