New Year, New City: Everything You Need to Know About Covid-19 and Rent Before You Move to NYC

December 28, 2020

new york city

This crazy-pants year may finally be coming to a close, but the novel coronavirus is continuing to mutate and spread across the globe.

As a result, the beginning of 2021 (at the very least) will look no different than the wretched year we’re ardently trying to leave behind. So, how are we supposed to chase our dreams and get the fresh starts we all deserve? Like many folks in my generation, I’ve always envisioned myself working and living in New York City. However, as soon as Covid-19 reared its spiky head, my 2020 post-graduation plans were quickly dissolved into a nebulous hunk of confusion wherein New York City was nowhere to be seen.

Sure, I’m restless and disgruntled with my current position of living in the Bay Area, but I’m also incredibly complacent with the feeling that moving to New York is nothing but a futile dream. Yet, even as individuals like myself have chosen to stay put and ride out the pandemic wherever it’s safest for them, the siren song of New York City continues to draw in newcomers. During the first wave of the pandemic, there was a semi-mass exodus of people who fled the crowded streets of New York in order to evade the virus’ insidious spread. Now, despite a steady trend of people filing back into the city some nine months later, the question of whether or not the “Big Apple” will return to its pre-corona glory still remains unanswered.

In the wake of Covid-19, numerous affluent city dwellers (many of whom were living in Manhattan) decided not to renew their leases and instead moved on to more “socially distant” digs outside the city.

Nearly a year later, these Manhattanites may have just turned their pandemic waiting game into a permanent suburban reality. Why not? Working from home has become the (now-proverbial) “new normal” and the necessity of paying a premium for a tiny apartment that’s close to Midtown’s office buildings just isn’t it anymore. As a result, Manhattan rent prices have dropped. And, as the pandemic rages on, this trend of newfound affordability appears to be an indefinite reality.

In September, Manhattan broke a 14-year-record for the number of available living spaces in the city at a given time after nearly 16,000 listings went up for rent over the course of the month. As infection rates increase across the country, these prices may continue to be slashed in order to incentivize new people to move in. And, if you’re keen on playing hardball with landlords, you might be able to negotiate longer-term affordability when signing a new rental agreement.

But, is this too good to be true? In short, probably.

Of course, landlords may try to sweeten their deal by offering concessions such as two or three months of free rent on a one-year lease (rock on!). But, new renters must remain vigilant about where their future selves will be next year and are encouraged to carefully consider whether they can afford the unmitigated rent in 2022. So, if you have a stable remote job, fairly well-lined pockets, and an unwavering confidence that you won’t fall victim to a potential “eviction tsunami” — it might be a great time for you to move to Manhattan.

If Manhattan isn’t your vibe, then surely Brooklyn or Queens is sporting some radically reduced rates— right?

Although general inventory of apartments has climbed in these two boroughs, the rental prices have actually risen in response to the overall scarcity of comparatively affordable options elsewhere in the city. While certain parts of Brooklyn have seen a modest decline in prices (i.e., in expensive neighborhoods such as Williamsburg), rents have held fairly steady and/or increased in less affluent neighborhoods (e.g., East New York). This contrast in rent costs is partially caused by the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 in different boroughs and neighborhoods, wherein life slowed down in richer areas but ultimately revved up in historically lower-income communities.

In lower-income pockets of Brooklyn and Queens, several researchers observed that individuals who were considered to be “essential workers” were more likely to be burdened by the adverse effects of Covid-19. When New York initially shut down, many lower-income individuals inherently had fewer resources or savings to cushion the blow of government-sanctioned quarantine. Consequently, these folks experienced greater food and health insecurity in their families. According to Christina Plerhoples Stacy, an economist at the Urban Institute, “social distancing is a privilege that not everyone can afford. Poverty leads to the inability to distance yourself from others and the inability to keep yourself healthy.”

Hence, lower-income individuals experienced an overall greater risk of contracting Covid-19 simply by working jobs on the frontlines and requiring transportation to and from home. Whereas commutes within wealthier areas had largely halted in response to a stunted corporate job market, subway ridership in lower-income neighborhoods has remained relatively stable since March. When New York slowly began to reopen (ostensibly in favor of stimulating the economy and placing the city back on its feet), safety precautions for essential workers were not consistently prioritized.

In regards to lifestyle, data on pre- and post-pandemic foot traffic shows that lower-income neighborhoods have grown increasingly popular over the last several months.

In particular, much of the mobility between neighborhoods stems from more affluent communities and this shift in consumer behavior may be driven by a greater demand for cheap take-out eateries and other “budget-friendly” businesses. In contrast, restaurants and boutiques that predominantly cater to a higher socioeconomic clientele have seen a substantial decline in public interest. Fortunately, increased foot traffic in lower-income neighborhoods supports small businesses and their surrounding communities. However, even if this restructured consumer behavior is considered a positive byproduct of Covid-19, it must be sustained beyond the pandemic in order to produce lasting effects.

Naturally, Covid-19 has increased my sense of urgency to move beyond my parents’ home and leave a city that I’m not enamored with.

However, in order to ethically justify moving during this pandemic, I would need to ensure that I was supporting the livelihood of those in my new community whilst still moving forward in my own life. For me, getting to know my neighbors and buying from local businesses rather than from rich companies (despite their allure of cheaper prices) is an easy way to actively provide community support. Unfortunately, because the pandemic is continuing to ramp up, right now doesn’t feel like a great time to start making new pals. (The alternative? Isolation.) I also don’t have a job in the city, which I’m aware is a very clear barrier to moving and to spending money in general (please, someone hire me!).

Nonetheless, I do acknowledge that waiting for a pandemic to end is not particularly conducive to achieving one’s dream of moving to New York— especially when cheaper rents are dangling at your fingertips. If you have the means (and willingness) to be an active community participant, I encourage you to seize this opportunity for a fresh start! But, if you’re like me and are currently facing more barriers than bridges to manifesting your goals, now might be a better time to re-evaluate your impetus for moving as well as the impact it might have on the city itself. This doesn’t mean that being a New Yorker isn’t an attainable reality for you—instead, it just might take more patience and intention rather than cheaper rents to get you to where you want to be.