‘For a Whole Week, I Was Just Breaking Down': How 3 Renters Are Coping With the Record-Breaking Cost of Rent in New York City

Photo by CNBC Make It

New York City rent is notoriously unreasonable, and this year it hit an all-time high. In June, citywide median asking rent reached $3,500, a 35% increase from last year, according to a report by StreetEasy.

Manhattan has the highest median rent right now at $4,100, but that doesn't mean the other boroughs are ripe with steals. Those who would prefer to rent in the city but don't want to pay astronomical prices set their eyes on Brooklyn and Queens, which is driving up rent prices there, too.

In June, the median asking rent in Brooklyn was $3,200 and in Queens it was $2,600.

In both Brooklyn and Manhattan, renters are putting more than 50% of their paychecks toward rent, and in Queens they are allocating more than 40%. This far exceeds the rule of thumb that says your rent shouldn't be more than 30% of your income.

These rent prices are a shock to New Yorkers who moved here during the pandemic and those who lived here long before.

'For a whole week I was just breaking down'

In the thick of the pandemic, tenants had the bargaining power. Now that many leases signed during the pandemic are up for renewal, the power lies with landlords again.  

Kacie Cleary, 39, and her husband had been living in their Upper East Side one-bedroom apartment since 2015, and received a $450 rent cut during the pandemic, bringing it down to $2,000. Recently, though, her landlord informed them that their rent would go up $700.

Kacie Cleary.
Photo by CNBC Make It
Kacie Cleary.

"When we got a new lease increase, we really wanted to talk to the landlord and discuss an option of can we negotiate a little bit or is there any wiggle room," she says. "And they just wrote back within 15 minutes saying no, that they already gave us a preferred rate of that $700 increase. So they were not willing to budge on negotiations at all."

The two thought about signing a lease elsewhere, but Cleary lost her job so they decided to move into an Airbnb until she finds employment.

Ernestine Siu*, 23, moved to the East Village in January 2021 and scooped up an apartment with a roommate when prices were low.  

"So our rent was actually discounted," she says. "And also our apartment has in-unit washer dryer, which you don't find a lot in New York City unless you're paying a premium."

This year, her rent almost doubled from $2,250 to $4,395.          

Ernestine Siu.
Photo by CNBC Make It
Ernestine Siu.

"So right when we received the lease renewal in the mail, we just knew immediately we're not going to do this," she says.

She and her roommate started their search and were shocked by what was available.

"For a whole week I was just breaking down, looking at the prices," she says. "One day I literally called my mom and I was like, 'Mom, I feel like a failure. I can't even afford living in the city.'"

After touring three or four places, the two landed on a spot in Brooklyn that ended up being $4,400.

"I basically have decided that I'm just going to have to change my lifestyle a little bit and save where I can," she says.

'I'm going to put my stuff in storage'

For some renters, though, the rent increase was enough to make them leave the city.

Thelma Rose Annan, 31, moved into her Manhattan apartment in 2020 when it was priced at $1,882. In 2021 the rent went up to $2,400 and this year it increased to $3,500.

"I actually did refresh my page because I thought this was an error and I looked at the number and I just started laughing because it was so ridiculous," she says. "I started laughing because I was like, '$3,500, $3,500, $3,500.' Like, I had to keep saying it out loud to myself because it was such a ridiculous number that I was like, 'This cannot be possible.'"

While she's grateful that she had two years in the city, she isn't willing to pay the premium anymore.

"I'm going to put my stuff in storage and go to Europe and work remotely there," she says. "And hope that housing calms down in New York."

*Ernestine Siu is an Associate Producer at CNBC Make It

This article has been updated with the correct spelling of Thelma Rose Annan.

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