The Rents Remain the Same

Upper West Side one-bedrooms in non-doorman buildings rent for an average of $2,480 a month now. Upper East Side studios, also in non-doorman buildings, average $1,890 a month. Both rents represent small increases over the averages roughly a year before.

Manhattan remains the same. Like a large ship turning in open sea, the apartment market—that great equalizer and barometer of the borough’s real estate (and, by extension, of the borough itself)—is slow to change. It remains prohibitively expensive for many, and reduces others to charming living situations and illegal sublets.

A new report from the Real Estate Group New York, which analyzes rents below 155th Street monthly, shows a remarkable steadiness in renting even the most basic of Manhattan apartments. And the steadiness is remarkable only in the sense that everything was supposed to have changed a bit by now, right?

Perhaps everything still will. The Wall Street Journal last week reported that financial-services executives expect to lay off as much as 20 percent of the Wall Street workforce. That’s a sturdy amount (and an estimate made before the Bear Stearns debacle), measured easily in the tens of thousands, enough to ripple through the borough like a boulder dropped in a still pond. We will all soon know someone who knows someone who lost a six-figure job.

But that sort of bad news has been expected for a while now. And expected. And expected.

Look at the apartment market and one sees maybe a case of the sniffles; this isn’t a full-blown flu—yet. It is still, despite any wider uncertainties, the Manhattan of roommates, high-stress hunts and landlords’ big swingin’ keys.

Again, on the Upper West Side: The average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in a doorman building increased 5.7 percent from April 2007 through March to a Tribeca-like $5,122. Tribeca rents have jumped the past 12 months—doorman rents, especially—but that’s what rents do in more expensive neighborhoods in good economic times.

And, generally, since early 2007 (really, since 2002), Manhattan rents have stayed exactly how you’d expect: uptown neighborhoods cheaper, places toward downtown pricier. No cataclysmic downturn; no opening of the market to the masses. More of the same.

What’s surprising about the apartment market is not that it’s so expensive in so many places; it’s that it’s still so expensive in so many places, despite nearly a year now of nasty economic foreboding.

In a collection of essays released last fall, New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg (Reaktion Books), the nonfiction writer Philip Dray writes about his emigration to Manhattan in the dead of winter in 1977—and of his eventual forced exodus from the far East Village to Williamsburg 11 years later.

“The new girlfriend and I are getting a bit claustrophobic in the studio apartment,” he writes. “So I look at larger places in the neighborhood, only to find the $200 apartments of just five years ago are now $1,100.”

Those were rent changes. Manhattan doesn’t have those anymore. Rents jumped; and they’ve stayed, so far, pretty much where they landed.

The Rents Remain the Same