Joanne Russo felt a sense of panic when she awoke on October 29 to a rain-soaked, wind-battered city and reports that the worst was yet to come. It wasn’t the storm anxiety causing hearts to race around the city—Ms. Russo and her roommate were scheduled to move that morning. Their lease was up on October 31st and their landlord had been unpleasantly insistent that they clear out early. The couple who were moving into their apartment had left their place the week before and were living in a temporary unit downstairs. Ms. Russo felt that she couldn’t stay until after the hurricane, but she wasn’t sure if she could leave either.
“The last thing we wanted was to get stuck,” said Ms. Russo. “We were afraid the movers would bail on us and then we wouldn’t be able to leave for days.”
She was relieved when Imperial Moving called at 8 a.m. to say that they would be there in an hour. As businesses shut down and traffic vanished, the movers emptied the women’s two-bedroom on East 31st Street and carted their belongings to their new sixth-floor apartment at 20th Street and First Avenue. They finished shortly before the electricity went out and the elevator shuddered to a stop. Ms. Russo knows she was lucky, even if she and her roommate can only unpack in the daylight, hauling the empty boxes down the darkened stairwell.
“When my phone service finally came back I had a text message from my landlord asking, ‘Did you vacate yet?’” Ms. Russo said. “I’m so glad we’re not still in the old apartment. I’d be filled with anxiety about when we’d be able to move.”
Calling it a rough week barely begins to describe New York after Hurricane Sandy. People’s homes are flooded, burned down, blown away, gone. That some people were inconvenienced in their moving plans seems minor in the grand scheme of things, but it is also a reminder of how a disaster like this effects us all in so many ways. It is also a reminder that life will return to normal at some point, maybe even some point soon. This is is a town of renters, millions of them, with many thousands of leases coming due the same day a hurricane was bearing down on the city.
It would have been bad enough to be one of the unlucky renters who would be missing Halloween because their leases expired on October 31, but not any more. Relocation plans have been delayed as renters wait for electricity to return, elevators to run and similarly-stuck tenants to clear out of the apartments that they inked a November 1 lease for.
Downtown, buildings and stairwells remain dark and keys difficult to retrieve from shuttered management companies. Movers have postponed countless appointments because of gas shortages and workers stranded in the outer boroughs. Many landlords have been understanding, but even the most accommodating are anxious to see tenants who stopped paying rent on Halloween depart.
“The logistics are a nightmare,” said Citi Habitats president Gary Malin, whose firm oversees more rental listings than any other brokerage in the city. “We have people who signed leases and can’t move out, people who signed leases and can’t move in, people whose movers have rescheduled, people who are in hotels. We’ve been getting calls from clients who want to know if their rent will be pro-rated. Everyone’s in limbo. It’s a stalled system.”
Citi Habitats broker Shannon Aalai has spent the last few days trying to negotiate between owners, management companies and stranded tenants.
“It’s very frustrating,” Ms. Aalai told The Observer. “People were calling me in the middle of the storm asking what would happen with their leases and move-in dates. People need to move, they need to get out, their leases are up.”
Ms. Aalai said that she’d recently received a call from the owner of a luxury condo at the Gramercy Stark asking if his tenant was going to move in on November 1st. And if not, would she still be paying rent starting on the first?
“The apartment has no heat, no hot water and no elevator,” said Ms. Aalai. “It’s only the fifth floor and it’s furnished, but the renter still has stuff, and she’d need to carry it up five flights of stairs.”
As for the would-be tenant, she was staying in a hotel uptown, with her belongings in a friend’s Gold Street apartment, very much disinclined to shuttle her possessions from one cold, dark apartment to the next.
Nor has the storm slackened New Yorkers’ appetite for apartment hunting. In the midst of all the craziness, Ms. Aalai has been trying to set-up showings for a woman who is relocating to city and wants to see downtown apartments on Friday and Saturday, undeterred by the fact that management companies are closed, keys are unavailable and none of the buildings have power.
Even moves in relatively unaffected corners of the boroughs were complicated by Sandy. Mike Mishkin, a broker with the Oxford Property Group said that while all of his clients this month were moving from one Upper West Side apartment to another, one was stuck in the Catskills without MetroNorth service and couldn’t make it back by the first.
Landlords and management companies have been understanding for the most part, brokers say, but some have insisted on timely departures in spite of the trying circumstances (to be fair, many are under intense pressure from new tenants who need to move in).
“I had a client with no power, a less-than-thoughtful landlord and a lease that ended November one who needed to move into a townhouse in the West Village,” Town Residential senior vice president Bo Poulsen said in an email. “I got the keys for her from my place in pitch-black Tribeca last night and rode my bike up to inspect the townhouse this morning to make sure it had not suffered any storm damage. Was able to get her the keys this afternoon. I have quite a few clients who are displaced and am doing my best to find them temporary or permanent housing as quickly as I can.”
Even those willing to move in such a disordered city have been at the mercy of moving companies operating at greatly diminished capacity—a huge problem in a city where most residents don’t own vehicles.
“I can’t even open the office,” said Alex Sardon, the owner of Chelsea Moving. “I’m doing my best and people are understanding, but it’s very tough.” The only silver lining was that water hadn’t seeped into any of his storage units, he said, before excusing himself , as he was driving around in search of gas and needed to get off the phone.
UHaul also had to close its Chelsea location, which is partially underwater. “We’re trying to get other trucks in, but gas is an issue and all of our surrounding states that normally would have helped are having the same problems,” said a spokesperson for the company.
Daniel Norber, the president of Imperial Moving, told The Observer that his company has been handling all its scheduled jobs and even picking up last-minute ones for people whose companies cancelled on them. But the moves have been more difficult than normal with traffic jams and a lack of lights (one job required a flashlight). At the moment, he sees gas shortages as the biggest challenge.
“That’s the most difficult situation,” sighed Mr. Norber. “The places we usually work with can’t supply it, but we’ll go to New Jersey or Long Island if we have to. Or drive the trucks until they run out of gas.”
Some renters narrowly missed a miserable moving experience. Bloomberg News food critic Ryan Sutton said that he’d requested a one-month lease extension on his Kips Bay apartment a week before Sandy hit.
“Didn’t know about the storm, just got lucky. Very very lucky,” Mr. Sutton wrote in an email. “Trying to figure out whether this whole situation will create a short term price spike because now more people will be looking in November than otherwise because of the extensions.” Still, even carrying his bike up and down eleven flights of stairs didn’t seem so bad in light of the alternative.
Some out-of-town residents decided to proceed with their scheduled moves into Manhattan regardless of Sandy. New York is not, after all, a city that attracts the weak-willed. Samantha Hoover and her boyfriend, both writers, had already signed a November 1st lease for a fourth-floor apartment in Kips Bay, rented a car and started the drive from New Orleans when Sandy whacked New York.
“It was either find a place to stay outside the city or move in,” said Ms. Hoover. “We just decided to move in, although the whole trip was a lot more stressful than we’d expected.”
Fortunately for the couple, the George Washington Bridge was the only crossing into Manhattan not restricted to vehicles with at least three people, so their loaded car with only two was waved through. But the excitement did not end there. The person who had the key to their apartment had spent the storm in Rockaway Beach and lost it, though another copy was located. They had at least counted on having lights in the stairwell for moving, but as with so many other routine tasks undertaken these past few days, they manged to schlep everything upstairs thanks to candlelight.
“This summer we had to evacuate New Orleans for Hurricane Isaac,” Ms. Hoover said. “You don’t really budget for two hurricanes a year.” But at least they knew what to do in a power outage; they’d lost electricity for a week during Isaac. And it made for a unique introduction to the city.
“Driving through Manhattan with the streetlights out was kind of a once in a lifetime experience,” she said.