Where Would Seinfeld Live Now? New York’s Middle-Class Housing Crunch

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Hair stylist Sue Palchak-Essenpreis still works in the East Village, but she no longer lives there.

On a recent January evening, the stretch of East Ninth Street visible from the rain-smeared window of the salon Lovemore & Do was bleary and indistinct. In the haze of fog and car exhaust, it was easy to imagine the East Village as the grimy heart of bohemia it once was.

With hair swept up in a red bandana, stylist Sue Palchak-Essenpreis looks like the standard-bearer of that fading neighborhood ethos, but that morning she had selected her vintage outfit from a closet in New Jersey. Last summer, Ms. Palchak-Essenpreis and her husband Greg, a social worker, were evicted from their apartment at 50 East Third Street. After 16 years in the East Village, they finally gave up.

“I try not to think about it too much,” she said, pulling at the tufts on the pale blue pillow in her lap as she spoke. “There’s a medical center at the end of the block, so at least we have some sirens that make us feel at home.”

The Essenpreises’ story, at first glance, might appear to be just another retelling of the tale that every New Yorker knows by heart: that dark parable of gentrification and displacement more familiar to us than Little Red Riding Hood’s ill-fated walk through the woods.

But on closer examination, the facts don’t fit that narrative. The Essenpreises were renting a one-bedroom for $2,300, which they expected to rise when their lease came up for renewal. But they were shocked when they, along with all the other market-rate tenants in a three-building portfolio on East Third Street, were told that they needed to clear out. A few months later, the new owner, GRJ, trumpeted the buildings’ transformation into “the most desirable walk-ups in the East Village.”

Ms. Palchak-Essenpreis snickered at the idea of a luxury walk-up, but she admitted that she still walks by the building on a regular basis “like a jealous ex-girlfriend.”

In many corners of the city, professionals who are paying healthy market-rate rents are losing their unremarkable but decent apartments to glossier, shinier homes and the higher rents that go with them. The inexorable logic of Manhattan’s real estate market no longer dictates a series of modest rent increases for a no-frills apartment—the kind of nice-enough place where Jerry Seinfeld lived on his eponymous show—it dictates a super-luxe spruce-up with the power to double the landlord’s haul. Even when the final result falls short of a luxury building (all the Viking ranges, granite countertops and soaking tubs in the world cannot cancel out a fifth-floor walk-up), landlords are managing to fetch luxury prices for their gilded creations.

“These are not low-rent apartments, by any means,” said Wasim Lone, director of housing services at Good Old Lower East Side. “But apartments like those at 50-58 Third Street are not desirable enough for the landlords to charge the significantly higher rents they want. So the owners empty out contiguous apartments, create duplexes, upgrade the finishes.”