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HomeUSAHunting for a NY Apartment? Renters Might Need $10,000 on Hand

Hunting for a NY Apartment? Renters Might Need $10,000 on Hand

Hannah Brooks needed a new apartment and she was running out of time.

It was last July — peak moving season — and Ms. Brooks, 29, had to move to New York City from Austin, Texas, before her boyfriend started a new job. Two applications were rejected. So when she found a promising place one morning, a broker told her to make a payment — fast — to get it off the market.

Ms. Brooks panicked when the broker explained how much she would have to come up with. “She said, ‘It’s first month, security deposit and broker’s fee, which comes out to $14,441,’” she recalled.

Living in New York City is notoriously expensive, a consequence of there being too few homes for the number of people seeking them. That has allowed landlords to continue raising rents. But the crisis has another dimension: The amount of money prospective tenants pay upfront before moving into an apartment has increased so much it is hard to move at all.

An analysis of data by the online renting platform StreetEasy, which was provided to The New York Times, found that the average upfront cost of moving — a month’s rent, broker’s fee and security deposit — was more than $10,400 last year. That was the largest sum in more than a decade and nearly 30 percent above the prepandemic figure in 2019.

In the survey, which was conducted for StreetEasy by the market research firm the Harris Poll, nearly a quarter of the more than 500 New York City area renters who responded said that upfront costs had prevented them from moving.

“A lot of people forget that it’s not just soaring rent keeping New York City renters in a really tight spot,” said Kenny Lee, a StreetEasy economist who helped conduct the analysis.

Ms. Brooks managed to gather the money she needed, but only by borrowing from others, including her parents, her boyfriend’s parents and her aunt and uncle.

“It’s so much money upfront, and we’re still working on getting on our feet now,” she said this month.

Ms. Brooks, whose work involves doing market research, and her boyfriend, an assistant professor, said she wondered how anyone with a limited income could manage.

The dynamic “gums up the market,” said Ingrid Gould Ellen, the faculty director at New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. A lack of money to cover upfront costs could force a couple with a new child to stay in a smaller place, or prevent a family whose grown children have moved out from downsizing.

“When a housing market is functioning well, there’s mobility,” Professor Ellen added.

The escalation in upfront costs for renters has increased scrutiny on brokers’ fees in particular, which Mr. Lee said typically accounted for the biggest slice of those costs.

The fees are, in part, a vestige of an earlier, pre-internet era, when it was harder for renters to find apartments by themselves. The fees were eliminated briefly in 2020, until the Real Estate Board of New York City, an influential trade group, sued successfully to undo the change.

Mr. Lee said that renters in most other U.S. cities do not have to pay similar fees. New York’s system, he said, should be improved for the benefit of renters, including by ensuring that tenants only pay a broker’s fee when they hire the broker.

The real estate board, whose members include brokers, argues that if a tenant did not pay an upfront fee, the cost of a broker would simply go into a higher monthly rent.

Douglas Wagner, director of brokerage services for the real estate agency Bond New York, said there were other ways to lower the upfront costs. He said tenants should take advantage of a program offered by the city government that allows them to pay a portion of a security deposit, instead of the full amount.

But the biggest cost for tenants — rent — will remain high until officials addressed the city’s housing shortage.

“There’s still more demand than there is supply,” Mr. Wagner said.

He also noted that about half of the current listings in New York City do not require payment of a broker’s fee.

Such an apartment was what Sterling Ortiz, 23, was looking for after he graduated from college and moved to New York from Florida. He eventually found one — a $1,050-a-month room in Bushwick. He still had to pay about $2,100 upfront.

“It’s tough for somebody like me who’s just out of college,” he said.

Mr. Ortiz is now spending 40 percent of what he earns doing administrative work at a nonprofit organization on rent. (Below 30 percent is generally considered reasonable.)

“I knew what I was getting into,” he said. “While I’m not thrilled to have that high rent to income ratio, its sadly something that I’ve gotten used to.”

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