Is NYC the only city in America that is off-limits?
June 27, 2013 12:46 PM   Subscribe

I've long considered New York City to be the one place in America that your normal person just can't live in. Generally speaking, is it? Can someone making very little money thrive there? Tips? Advice? Stories?

I recently lived in Los Angeles but am now back home with the parents in Florida. Having been back for 7 weeks now, I am carefully considering my next step. This is not to say that I am actively considering a move to NYC, more just a passing thought with extreme curiosity. Which is why I would like answers to focus more on tackling the general question as opposed to whether NYC is a viable option for me personally.

It seems to me that you need a salaried job in order to live in the city, which is different from other cities where you can get by pretty minimally. I was living in LA on $1,200 / month and while I would have loved more money, it wasn't difficult by any means. This seems like Mission: Impossible in NYC. But is it? Tips, advice, stories, and anything else are all welcome.

Obviously Manhattan is out of the question, but could someone do this by living in a good area in one of the other boroughs with a roommate where rent isn't as expensive? Or what about the neighboring NJ areas, such as Newark or Jersey City? Would living in those areas be comparable to the main areas of any other expensive city in America?

I personally go to NYC multiple times a year, and have a huge social circle there. I guess the fact that I will be there again soon proposes this question, as I never even entertained the idea of living there.

But can it really be that more expensive in these aspects? Are people like me just over-thinking it? Obviously nobody intends to make such little money forever and would have a further plan in place, but as a starting point? Is it do-able?
posted by signondiego to Work & Money (32 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, I have friends that are in rent controlled or shared apartments that live on $50,000 or less in Manhattan, it's totally do-able.
posted by kellyblah at 12:49 PM on June 27, 2013

What? There's (eight) million people living here, many of them are poor, some of them are not. You probably can't live in a nice doormanned building on the Upper Whatever Side, but yes, you can live here. Even in Manhattan (though why would you if you didn't have to, just sayin').
posted by wrok at 12:49 PM on June 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

It is definitely doable- hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people do it all the time.

You will probably need a roommate or find yourself in queens or far brooklyn, but it's totally managable. (I did it myself a decade a go in the eastvillage on 20k a year. painful occasionally, but totally managable. You end up getting very resourceful about your entertainment- and quite frankly, NYC has more free stuff than other cities)
posted by larthegreat at 12:51 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yes, I have friends that are in rent controlled or shared apartments that live on $50,000 or less in Manhattan

Worth noting that the salary the OP mentions living on is closer to 15,000, not 50. NYC on 15K a year will be exceedingly, exceedingly tight financially. You will have roommates AND find yourself in a far-flung borough. But I'm sure it's been done. There are a lot of baristas and busboys and whatnot in NYC, they gotta live somewhere.
posted by like_a_friend at 12:54 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've known several people who started out making less than $25,000 per year. Rent is high, so you have roommates and very little personal space. But you don't need a car, transit is affordable, food can be much cheaper than other cities if you shop smart, and there's an abundance of cheap and free ways to stay entertained.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 12:57 PM on June 27, 2013

Of course normal people live in NYC. Here is a very nice chart that shows the median income in various areas of New York City. As you can see, there's a huge range.
posted by Mender at 12:58 PM on June 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

People do this all the time. They live in Bushwick with roommates. Or they split a studio with someone. Or they convert the living room of a 1-bedroom apartment into a second bedroom. Or they live in Bay Ridge or a distant part of Queens. Or they live in the Bronx or in northern Manhattan.

I personally go to NYC multiple times a year, and have a huge social circle there

You would be better off asking your friends directly about this, because they have direct experience that you can related to.
posted by deanc at 1:05 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Tons and tons of people come to NYC with lower incomes and find ways of making it. There are cities that are just as expensive (San Francisco comes to mind), but getting roommates, living a bit farther out in the city or in New Jersey, staying with friends, and all that makes it doable.

Basically, I'd say have a solid plan, including a budget, before you make the leap. To most people I know who have moved to NYC, the benefits of that crazy city totally outweigh the expenses and difficulties.
posted by xingcat at 1:09 PM on June 27, 2013

Obviously Manhattan is out of the question, but could someone do this by living in a good area in one of the other boroughs with a roommate where rent isn't as expensive? Or what about the neighboring NJ areas, such as Newark or Jersey City?

You know, craigslist's mapping feature is good for this. Put in your rent limits, do a search, and then select "map view" and see where things in your price range are located.
posted by deanc at 1:11 PM on June 27, 2013

Or what about the neighboring NJ areas, such as Newark

I want to make my case for Newark. In Newark, for $900/month you can get a huge, spacious, beautiful one-bedroom apartment in a nice building within 5 minutes walking distance of the train station. From the train station you can reach anywhere in lower Manhattan in 20 minutes.

This is compared to people who sit on the subway for an hour and a half each way to get to work because they would rather live in the furthest, least convenient, ugliest parts of Brooklyn and Queens with the fewest amenities rather than step foot in NJ, so that they can still say to themselves that they are Living In NYC.

Newark. It's full of students. In the (very small, walkable) downtown, you have two law schools, a full Rutgers campus, the NJIT campus, and a little further down you have UMDNJ, the medical school. On the other side of the train station, you've also got the Ironbound district, which is a historically Portuguese neighborhood with a lot of good restaurants.

The downtown also has several major corporations, including Prudential, and their office towers are all connected to each other as part of the Gateway Complex. The Gateway complex was constructed at a time when Newark was much more dangerous, so that the people who worked there could get back and forth between these buildings and the train station without having to step foot on the streets. It's not necessary now but it's still interesting.

The downtown also has the Prudential Center, which hosts basketball and hockey events. Remember, all of these things are 5-15 minutes walking distance of each other.

Now the drawbacks:

-None of your friends in NYC will come visit you, you will have to go to them.
-There are a lot of homeless people around the train station, if you are afraid of homeless and/or mentally ill people, that will be scary. However, I have never felt unsafe there, even in the middle of the night. Safety in numbers I guess.
-Newark has occasional random violence in the downtown. It's usually gang-related. During the day, the downtown is very crowded with tons of people around. I, again have never felt unsafe there. I have felt unsafe at night walking when nobody is around, but I feel unsafe walking at night with nobody around in pretty much any big city.

Discount the opinions of people who grew up in the white suburbs around Newark in the 60's and 70's. They are scared of Newark because of the race riots that happened back then. They haven't stepped foot in Newark in 50 years or possibly ever. Seriously ask them the last time they were actually IN Newark.
posted by cairdeas at 1:11 PM on June 27, 2013 [20 favorites]

Another thing about Newark. There is very little uh.... white hipster culture. There are a lot of young people and there is a lot of culture. But if you are looking for a big bar scene full of 25 year old white scene chicks, that's not happening in Newark.
posted by cairdeas at 1:14 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Personally, no, I would not move to NYC to live on $1200/month, if that's the kind of salary you're looking at. But then, it depends on the lifestyle you expect to have, how comfortable you are with roommates, what industry you intend on working in, how much savings you have, how OK your friends are with you mooching on their couches while you find a place...

So yeah to give you, specifically, a good idea of whether it's "off-limits" for you... we need more information. What do you like about the idea of New York? What do you want out of it?
posted by thirdletter at 1:19 PM on June 27, 2013

I was living in LA on $1,200 / month

You don't say how or where or what the circumstances were. "In LA" can mean a ton of different things and price ranges and livability standards. Burbank is "in LA." Santa Monica is "in LA." Compton is "in LA."

Whatever you were doing "in LA" can also be done in NYC -- roommates, far-flung outer areas, living in closets, etc. In fact, with better public transportation in NYC, it's arguably easier to live at the very low end of the spectrum.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:21 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I lived in Prospect Heights with two roommates on $19K/year from 1997-1999. Fifteen years later you'd obviously be looking at living way further out or with many more roommates, but it's not completely impossible. You just have to compromise more than you would in other cities.
posted by MsMolly at 1:26 PM on June 27, 2013

You don't say how or where or what the circumstances were. "In LA" can mean a ton of different things and price ranges and livability standards. Burbank is "in LA." Santa Monica is "in LA." Compton is "in LA."

This is a big thing to keep in mind. With NYC, there's Manhattan, there's the other boroughs, and then there's fuck you that's not New York. Yes, New York is more expensive than other cities; yes, you'll have to compromise more to live there than elsewhere. But it also has arguably the most extreme form of the attitude of many old Northeastern cities that there's the city and then there's the suburbs, and those lines matter. The way all of Los Angeles County and the whole sprawl of the LA Metro blends together into "LA" is basically alien to the "In or out" attitude of NYC. An awful lot of people in the NYC area live in places like Newark or Jersey City that New Yorkers emphatically agree are not part of New York, while lots of people in the LA Metro live in places like Santa Monica that are generally considered part of LA.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:35 PM on June 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I first graduated college I moved to Jersey City Heights. I lived alone and only made about 25k (but this was 1999). I was working 2 jobs in Manhattan and the commute was about 35 minutes by bus to PATH to Subway. But yeah, seconding that your friends are unlikely to come see you in Jersey. Maaaaybe meet you in Hoboken, but it's an arm twister.
posted by MayNicholas at 2:00 PM on June 27, 2013

Wow! A wealth of information here, thank you all. For the record, I was living on the West Side of Los Angeles, which is pretty much the Manhattan of LA.

Glad to know it's possible, even with certain sacrifices. Thanks.
posted by signondiego at 2:08 PM on June 27, 2013

I don't think West LA is cheaper than NYC in general.

If you can live in LA on that little money each month - it's not easy - then I think you'll figure it out.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:13 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've been looking for places to live in NYC/Brooklyn for the last two weeks, and my budgetary cup does not runneth over.

The low end of the rental spectrum in northern Manhattan (some of which is nice!) and Brooklyn, mostly North of Prospect Park (in the nice parts, but not the high-end more fabled yuppie parts) ranges from about $750 to $1200, with utilities running between $40-60. (They are included about half the time, as is furniture.)

What you get for that amount of money runs the gamut from railroads, to parts of small houses, to ordinary apartments, to lofts, to former maid's quarters in a classic six. Very occasionally, you'll get two rooms for the price of one, depending on the apartment's set up. And very, very occasionally, there will be a yard of some sort, too. The number of roommates can vary, from one (in a two-bedroom) to six (in a huge loft). Washers/dryers, dishwashers, and disposals all seem relatively rare in these parts.

In nearly all cases, these places are near the subway, with a supermarket/pharmacy, and other retail nearby. Most of the rooms are small (by any standard), but large enough for a Queen-size bed, a desk, and a built-in closet; apartment renovations seem widespread as does pet ownership—and even multiple pet ownership!

Personally, I don't think these prices are crazy, the biggest downside is you will likely be a bit more on top of your roommate here than elsewhere: Just like there's very little space between buildings outside, there tends to be very little space between rooms inside.

The subway *is* cheap, and groceries don't seem to be too expensive either. The only costs that have surprised me are the price of cigarettes, which is high enough to make you quit immediately and the cost of express buses, which seems designed to make you take the subway. Oh, okay, and restaurant prices anywhere where the leases are apt to be insanely high.

So, as long as you're in a frame of mind to live with roommates (which seems to span the age range here, rather than be limited to 20-somethings), and rent rather than own, it seems to me you can live pretty cheaply here on a relatively modest salary. But just by virtue of rental costs that salary will have to be nearly double the $15,000 figure cited above.*

*Note that I have heard of rentals for $500 or $600/month. These seem to be in houses way at the perimeters of Manhattan or more at the edges of Brooklyn, in houses split among four or five roommates.
posted by Violet Blue at 2:17 PM on June 27, 2013

Just to point out something I don't think has been mentioned yet. I lived in NY (Manhattan) for many years on very, very little money. (Though admittedly that was 7-8 years ago and the city seems to get richer every year.) However, the really difficult part about that was not actually living on that little, but convincing landlords/rental agencies that you could. My parents co-signed for all my NY apartment leases, but sometimes even that wasn't enough. Though if your parents are very wealthy, it might be. But even so, back then they only wanted tri-state co-signers. Which I had; I mean they wanted both rich and tri-state co-signers. My parents were able to pay my rent in an emergency, but they were hardly rich.

That's why many cities are off-limits, in my experience. It's not living there, it's the price of getting to live there.

Of course if you're illegally subletting or staying on your friend's floor, that doesn't apply.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:37 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I recently left New York because I felt that it was becoming more and more impossible to live there as a creative person. What I mean is that I felt a need to completely devote myself to my rat-race day job (a day job that is NOT waiting tables or pulling lattes, but, like at a desk in an office with regular hours) in order to get by. I found, more and more, that I had no time to work on creative projects, or even participate in interesting things going on around the city, because if I wanted to get by, I had to put all my energy into working. Furthermore, I found myself getting priced out of more and more of those creative/interesting things, so that even if I had the time, I didn't have the money to do the things I wanted to do, DESPITE working my ass off. It just started to feel like this toxic hamster wheel situation that was not meeting any of my needs as a human being.

So, in that case, I would say that if you're a creative person who wants to find a city you can live in and have some kind of cute side job while you pursue your craft -- or even just have plenty of free time to take up hobbies, enjoy the city you live in, etc -- don't move to New York. Because, yeah, more and more you really need a professional salaried job to make it more than a miserable grind.

Even in Brooklyn or other outer borough areas and the close parts of New Jersey. Even if you have a roommate. When I left I was sharing a three bedroom apartment with two other women on the outer fringes of the safe/fun/interesting part of the city, and in order to do that I was slaving away and forgoing a lot of other things so that I could keep a roof over my head. And I had a professional desk job that payed pretty well.

In contrast, Los Angeles seems like an amazing wonderland of cheap rent and free stuff to do and exciting creative opportunities I can actually afford to participate in.

So I would say that if Los Angeles seemed like an impossible rat-race nightmare city, no, sweetie, please stay far from New York.
posted by Sara C. at 2:41 PM on June 27, 2013 [8 favorites]

Just to point out something I don't think has been mentioned yet. I lived in NY (Manhattan) for many years on very, very little money. (Though admittedly that was 7-8 years ago and the city seems to get richer every year.) However, the really difficult part about that was not actually living on that little, but convincing landlords/rental agencies that you could.

This is true. If you don't have a steady salary and a good credit history, you should start by subletting a room. Not all sublets are illegal. Many are long-term. Sometimes it's possible to take over the lease at the end of the sublet. This will be ONE MILLION TIMES EASIER than trying to rent your own apartment.
posted by Mender at 2:43 PM on June 27, 2013

And to add in case it wasn't clear, it's not that you have to prove you make enough to pay the rent. It's that you have to prove you make enough to pay your rent X some ridiculous amount. Even back when I got my first apartment alone at 19 or so, they wouldn't accept a guarantor putting a year's rent in escrow. You literally had to be making that money every month.

I'm not going to try to dissuade anyone from moving to NY because I did it despite many people trying to dissuade me, and lived there happily for over 10 years. (In like 5 different apartments.) But I don't disagree with Sara C. about the crazy hamster wheel aspect of it at all. If you don't NEED to move to New York, there are so many amazing cities in the US that most people don't even consider.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 2:56 PM on June 27, 2013

I have several friends living there on not very much money right now.

All of them live in brooklyn, and most of them are living in shitholes. Like rats, roaches, fucked up leaking walls/roofs and broken appliances kinda stuff. At least one person i can think of has a kinda decent place, but it's tiny as hell and off in the outer reaches of brooklyn in a slightly "ehhh..." area.

All of them are having a pretty good time though, and some of them are paying less rent than i've ever paid in seattle.

Expect to have roommates, as in plural, or a tiny closet of a place. You might also have to accept a really meh place and find a better place through networking that you'd never find on craigslist or something(almost everyone i know there has done this).

Pretty much, i wouldn't be too concerned about doing this. Food is cheap if you know where to shop, cheaper than a lot of other places. There's also tons of cheap/free art/music/etc things going on constantly. Dealing with getting an actual place is the main issue. If you can accept a drop in your standard of living it can be doable. There's people i know over there renting rooms for $300 a month. The room itself might give you pause though.

Whether or not this is doable mostly depends on your expectations and what you'll put up with. It's possible, but you're probably going to have to give up some stuff you've been taking for granted to do it.
posted by emptythought at 3:04 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your greatest resource is your friend group. NY has a new people tax in the sense that it is harder to get into the cheapest roommate situation - those people have been here since forever and stayed in the same place as rents rose. You can do a lot better with jobs and apts if you use your network.
posted by decathexis at 3:38 PM on June 27, 2013

NYC has a lower median income and a fairly significantly higher poverty rate than the United States. It's not a question of whether people can live here on the cheap--they do. Half of New Yorkers live on "wow, not that much" and a good 20% live on very little.

For $1200 a month, you wouldn't be living like the average New Yorker, but if you're enterprising you won't starve or be on the streets. I don't think a yearly salary matters much, either. Plenty of people here motor along pretty well on hourly wages or tips (things cost more here, tips are higher too).

there's the city and then there's the suburbs, and those lines matter.

Eh, I mean, sort of. People do chit-chat about neighborhoods constantly here, and if the question is "want to drop by for a beer this weekend?" it matters. But if you have an in-person job that's within city limits, you're here. People don't really hang out at each others' homes here anyway. Biggest way this comes into play is if you live somewhere that you have to catch scheduled trains at certain times, especially if there is a last train. This makes your social life less spontaneous, of course.

Needing to prove you can pay rent? Depends on the landlord.
posted by lampoil at 4:33 PM on June 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

People do live on that kind of money, but in much worse conditions. Someone I know had an "apartment" the size of my living room, and I think she had three roommates. And I think the place was about $3500 a month. (Unfortunately, the Barclay's Center sprung up almost literally in her backyard, so rents skyrocketed. But even at its cheapest, it wasn't much under $2500.)

If you know a bunch of people in the area, then you are better off. You can treat your tiny corner of an apartment as just a place to crash and spend the rest of your time working and socializing. That seems to be the way people work it. If you and the rest of your roommates are out constantly, then it doesn't matter much.

I sure as hell wouldn't do it on that kind of money.
posted by gjc at 4:52 PM on June 27, 2013

Where in NYC is your social circle? You will want to be close to them in mass-transit distance (not necessarily as the crow flies). Try using TripTrop together with Padmapper.

FWIW, I lived in Jersey City on $30K; my rent was $750 (I think?) and I actually spent an extra ~$300/mo and 2h/day commuting deeper into Jersey. It was totally do-able, though only the west side of Manhattan is directly accessible by PATH which means, e.g., the East Village and (esp.) Brooklyn are a bit of a schlep. Hence my previous advice.
posted by en forme de poire at 5:49 PM on June 27, 2013

I moved here just a few years ago and made like 12 an hour for a long time. I'm fine. I've lived all over Brooklyn, including park slope, south slope, bed-sty, Williamsburg and most reciently ensonhurst. You Absolutly can live here on a lower income, but you should think about how hard you want to become successful and for how long. It's a hard city to be totally broke in.

The good thing is if you are an ambitious person with good people skills, you can make a lot more than 15 a year- A lot
quicker than say in marrieta ga.

Also to consider, a good middle class life here looks a lot different than elsewhere. You don't have a house and prob not a yard. You don't have a car and your friend rarely have big house parties. People are always, forever, totally busy.

This place is wonderful for people who dig it and can work it. It's not pleasant foreveryone.
posted by Blisterlips at 6:05 PM on June 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

It's going to be far less pleasant than living in LA on that money. Sara C. is absolutely right about the difference in effort required to have a similar lifestyle. West side of LA is expensive for LA, but would be considered really cheap by most people moving from Manhattan. I moved from NYC to an apartment in Santa Monica on the beach and it was $1200 a month which I considered an insane bargain. (it also was a tiny studio with no kitchen, but coming from NYC that doesn't seem that bad). There is literally nowhere in LA that costs what a NYC apt costs.

If you are young, don't care about living somewhere nice, are tolerant of things like roach infestations and mice (you can get rid of them, but they appeared in every place I lived in NYC except my current luxury high rise apt), and your friends are in a similar financial situation you can do it and probably have a good time. I lived here in my early 20s on twice what you are contemplating and found it a constant struggle to survive and have fun - the worst was going to dinner with a bunch of friends and inadvertently spending your food budget for the week. But most of my entertainment was going to loft parties in Brooklyn, and that's cheap. Why don't you get a summer sublet and try it out? If you like it in August you will probably love living here.
posted by rainydayfilms at 6:21 AM on June 28, 2013

Be flexible about your neighborhood and you'll be fine. I could chop my rent in half by moving to a (perfectly safe and convenient) neighborhood a mile north of me, but I don't because I want to be in my cool neighborhood with its record stores and coffee shops and my friends.
posted by benbenson at 10:25 AM on June 28, 2013

Also, to answer the question in your title, I'm under the impression that it's now harder to live cheaply in most of San Francisco than we're talking about here...
posted by acm at 11:24 AM on June 28, 2013

« Older What are some actor-friendly jobs?   |   Movies/television shows: Ordering food or drinks... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.