Rents have dropped in many U.S. cities amid the pandemic. Here’s why mine won’t go back up

Personal finance

Me in my new living room.
Source: Janna McPartland

When I was 25, and knew nothing about pandemics, I made a list in a small notebook of the things I hoped to achieve in my life. One of those goals was, “To live in my own apartment by 37.”

Some people may wonder: Why did I believe it would take me so long to get my own place? The answer: Manhattan’s rents.

Just before the pandemic, the median rent for a one-bedroom across the U.S. was $968, according to The Apartment List. In the heart of The Big Apple, it was $2,703.

As a result, throughout my 20s, my friends and I needed to live with roommates, some of whom have been in their 30s or 40s.

Living with strangers, eating among them, passing them in my bath towel, I longed to have an apartment of my own, but I was also resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t be able to do so for many years.

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When the pandemic hit New York City in March and rents started dropping, I didn’t take it too seriously. Then they kept dropping. By December, I realized I could be living alone for a little more than I was paying to live with three people.

Still, I told myself not to look at the listings. I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I knew these reduced rates were temporary.

And the thought of finally moving into my own place in my late 20s, only to have to move out in 12 months when the rent bounced back up seemed awful. Like many New Yorkers (and Americans), I’ve watched family members and friends forced out of apartments they had lived in for years and loved because they could no longer afford them.

As rents in many U.S. cities have fallen over the last year, I imagine a lot people find themselves confronting the same stressful question: Do you take advantage of the lower costs to move into a place you couldn’t previously afford, but risk that you’ll have to leave it when the pandemic peters out and rents likely swell back up?

Fortunately, my little sister, Janna, wasn’t as bogged down by such questions. She graduated college into the pandemic, and that experience has schooled her in flexibility. She began working as a freelance video editor, and soon found that she was earning enough, with rents falling, to afford a studio in Manhattan. When she asked me if I’d look at places with her, I said yes.

As the broker showed us a number of apartments on a Saturday morning in February, I felt those contradictory feelings, longing and anxiety. Then the broker mentioned that the units were rent-stabilized.

Was I hearing correctly? I asked her to repeat herself.

In all of the roughly 1 million rent-stabilized apartments across the five boroughs of New York, landlords are limited in how much they can raise the rent each year. Every June, the Rent Guidelines Board votes on an allowable increase. Last year, partly because of the pandemic, the board decided landlords couldn’t raise rents at all. Other years, the raises have been 1% or 2%.

As a result, the value of these apartments only grows with time. When someone moves into a rent-stabilized unit in New York, the cost is usually around 7% cheaper than the market-rate rent, according to findings by Stijn G. Van Nieuwerburgh, a finance professor at the Columbia Business School. The same person living in that apartment 20 or so years later will be paying around 45% below the market-rate rent, on average.

And so tenants of rent-stabilized apartments are reluctant to leave them, making the units close to impossible to find.

My sister, Janna, unpacking in her new studio.
Source: Janna McPartland

“A year and a half ago, a broker would have laughed in your face if you asked for a rent-stabilized apartment,” said Mike McKee, the treasurer of TenantsPAC, an advocacy organization in New York.

The pandemic has changed that.

There’s no current data on the vacancy of rent-stabilized apartments across the city, but there are some telling numbers from apartment listing aggregator StreetEasy. They found more than 2,400 rent-stabilized units on the market in New York between January and February of 2020, compared to 780 during those same months in 2019. (You can search for these units on the app by adding the keyword, “stabilized.”)

“Across the board, we continue to see a huge buildup of rental inventory in New York City as the rental market rebounds from last year’s pause in activity amid the pandemic,” said StreetEasy economist Nancy Wu. “This means more options for renters to choose from across all types of apartments throughout the city – including the rare and highlycovete d rent-stabilized unit.”

That Saturday evening, Janna and I applied for two rent-stabilized apartments, a one-bedroom for me and a studio for her. It took 48 hours for us to hear back from the broker, during which I had a healthy amount of wine.

A year and a half ago, a broker would have laughed in your face if you asked for a rent-stabilized apartment.
Mike McKee
he treasurer of TenantsPAC

Most renters in the U.S. aren’t covered by rent regulation laws, and dozens of states effectively ban the policy of controlling rent. That means many tenants can face unlimited hikes from one year to the next.

But there’s a growing movement across the country to regulate rents.

In 2019, Oregon became the first state to impose statewide rent control. Most cities in California now have some form of caps on rent increases, while many other areas, like Minneapolis, are currently moving to institute similar regulations. Rent control was passed this month in Ashbury Park, New Jersey. Albany and Rochester in New York have considered adopting a rent-stabilized policy like the one that exists across the five boroughs.

There have also been temporary rent freezes in response to the pandemic, including in Washington State, Washington, D.C., and a few cities in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“There are tenants in all parts of the country that are organizing for rent control,” McKee said.

Landlord groups and some economists criticize rent control policies, saying that they help some renters stay in their homes but also discourage new construction, which holds down the supply of units and ultimately reduces housing affordability.

Proponents say the policy needs to be one part of a broader strategy to keep rentals affordable, along with incentives for construction, but that regulation is needed with rates climbing at an unsustainable rate.

In 2015, over a third of renter households in the U.S. were “rent burdened,” meaning that more than 30% of their income went to their rent each month, according to Pew. That’s up from 19% in 2001. And nearly half of renter households led by African-Americans are considered rent burdened.

“Rent control, particularly when combined with other tenant protections, is the only policy tool that can provide immediate relief to renters facing unaffordable rent increases,” said Chris Schildt, a senior associate at the research and advocacy institute PolicyLink.

“Rent control particularly benefits people of color, low-income communities, seniors, women and families with children, who compose the majority of the renter and rent-burdened population,” Schildt said.

After another night of restless sleep, I woke up Monday morning to an email from the broker: Janna and I had been approved for the apartments.

Within a week, I met with the super who handed me my keys. For the first time at 27, I had my own apartment.

I arrived here exactly a decade before I planned to, and the best part is knowing I could still be here a decade later.

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