May 15, 2020
The rent crisis that could force a New York City exodus
Katie and Uri started out as roommates in Hell's Kitchen ... Photograph: William Thomas Photography
Cindy Sibilsky is facing a heartbreaking decision. After calling New York her home for 18 years, could it finally be time to leave?
“I’ve never felt so torn,” she says. “New York isn’t just where I live, it’s who I am. It’s in my identity, my blood. Displaced from where my heart resides, who would I be? But is something that’s doomed to fail worth fighting for?”
A live entertainment producer, she’s lost all the income that was contracted or planned for the rest of the year. When the crisis hit, she was in Tennessee producing Drumstruck, a musical theatrical experience that was booked for a six-week run. It was cancelled on the first day.
"When my partner and I returned, NYC had already been shuttered – all Broadway theaters, bars, restaurants, schools and more were closed. With heavy luggage and heavier hearts, we opted to stay with his folks in NJ, where he maintains a studio, to ride it out for a bit. That was March 16. We’ve been there since.”
Cindy paid April’s rent “with great caution and concern, pleading with my landlord for a reduction or delay since I lost not only my job and income but my whole industry.”
The response: “Everyone is struggling. Since the government is helping you out, we expect rent in full and on time.” She points out that, to date, she has received no government aid.
“Then my roommate announced she was leaving. I have less than a month to find someone else in this mess when I’m not even there, or I will have to leave my home, leave New York City. Will I even be able to pay my share when the little I’ve tucked away dries up?
“Perhaps it’s time to take a temporary ‘leave of absence’,” she wonders, “an unpaid sabbatical from the city that’s helped me, hurt me, loved me, disappointed me, given much and taken equally from me for my entire adulthood. The thought of not being in New York is soul-crushing to envision. But I am one of the lucky ones – I have options. And now is the time to be smart and adapt, not cling to a past that no longer exists in the present.
“My only comfort is that, if I must leave, New York will still be there when I – not as a prodigal daughter but one forced into exile – can return home where I belong.”
An urban exodus was already being predicted before the pandemic struck. Now, with working from home the norm, and the major reasons to live in the city all but gone (Broadway! Brunch! Bars!), millennials are part of a massive demographic shift to more affordable, “second-tier” parts of the country.
And, while Governor Cuomo has extended the eviction freeze through August 20, along with a ban on late fees, campaigners – and many renters – say it just isn’t enough.
“Our landlord said to pay what we can,” says Peter Royston. “But what does that mean? Once we go back to work we aren't going to get paid double and will likely have less hours, right?”
“Eviction moratorium is a band-aid on a gaping economic wound,” tweeted State Sen Michael Gianaris, whose Senate Bill S8125A proposes a suspension of rent and mortgage payments for three months for those whose livelihood has been affected by the pandemic. “We need real relief for people fast.”
He also stated: "The need to #CancelRent for 90 days cannot be overstated Over the past ten days I’ve heard countless stories of tenants in distress and one basic fact remains: People CANNOT pay rent if they don’t have a paycheck."
But with our legislators out of session, that process has stalled, explains Marti Gould Cummings, the drag artist and activist who started HK Dems and who is now standing for City Council in 2021. “We need to have the state legislative body get back to Albany … to be able to do the work they need to do,” Marti says.
“On top of putting through Senator Gianaris' bill to suspend or cancel rent, which I strongly support and believe in, we also need to freeze rent for up to two years at the end of the pandemic and not have rent increase. This is a process. It's going to take a long time. There are industries that aren't going to open for … up to a year.
“We also need to prohibit the reporting of nonpayment to credit agencies for missed rent and utility payments. We need to provide tenancy option to extend leases set to expire.
“People are really suffering. So I hope that our legislative body is able to get back to work. People's lives are on the line.”
“My landlord at my business says, ‘We want our tenants to stay in business, but not if it means we have to go out of business’,” says Lori Kaplan, who owns Bratenders in the Film Center Building, on 9th Ave - 44th/45th St. “As if any small business in NYC is in the same financial boat as a top-tier real estate conglomerate owned by billionaires!”
She adds: “Since my business depends on Broadway and brides, it’s likely we will not survive. Which means I can’t afford to live in NYC any more, make mortgage payments on my coop, or its exorbitant maintenance fees.”
The coop board, she says, is “not forgiving payments at this time.”
“Never have I ever expected to be impoverished and verging on homelessness and bankruptcy at this point of my life, through no doing of my own,” she says.
Henry Johnson can see things from both sides. A tenant in Hell’s Kitchen, he’s also a landlord of a property in New Paltz – “with a tenant who is just now beginning to be problematic about paying rent.
“I am a ‘pop and pop’ business and cannot afford to not get the rent,” he says. “I am a tenant in NYC – what happens to me if I don’t pay the rent because my Airbnb business died?”
His dilemma: should he stay in his beloved Hell’s Kitchen? Or move back to New Paltz? And anyway – “what will ‘my NY’ be like post COVID-19?” he wonders.
Regardless of the uncertainty, however, some residents are determined to stick it out. Uri and Katie Finzi have lived in Hell’s Kitchen for ten years, and fell in love with the place after falling in love with each other in a room share on W47th St - 9th Ave. And, while their lease is up for renewal in the summer, they consider Hell’s Kitchen their home.
"We are very patriotic when it comes to our neighborhood,” says Uri, who works for Amazon (he is working from home; Katie, who works in sales, has had a 20% cut in salary). “We feel a certain responsibility for Hell's Kitchen. I feel it would be so hard for us to leave when it's kind of wounded.”
“We've had a few friends that have left New York during the pandemic,” agrees Katie. “And they all have said that they have felt or fought the feeling that they're abandoning the city.”
“We're obviously both very lucky to still have our jobs, and to have financial means,” says Uri. “But, with the exception of my home in Tel Aviv, I've never lived in a place as long as this.”
He witnessed the first Gulf War, when many people packed up and left Israel. “And I remember our leaders called them deserters,” says Uri. “As a kid, that always stuck to me. I think a mass exodus from Hell's Kitchen could put it in a certain danger – you need to defend your home.”
The groups Housing Justice for All and Right to Counsel NYC have created a tool kit, encouraging neighbors to unite in non-payment of rent as an act of protest.
And Yadira Jimenez says, if it comes to it, she’ll “absolutely” go on rent strike.
“I lost my job on March 16 due to COVID,” she says. “Thankfully, I'm OK with unemployment, and I can still afford to pay my rent. But it is nice to be informed on my options if it does become a struggle.”
A resident of Silver Towers, W42nd St - 11th/12th Ave, for ten years, she’s part of the West Side Neighborhood Alliance and is on the tenant association leaders committee.
“We can't be evicted if we do go on a rent strike, or if we can't pay,” she says. “And they can't charge us any late fees, so that puts me at ease, because I was stressing … ‘What if?’
“But I do fear retaliation,” she says. “Although it is illegal, we all know it could happen.”
“New York is the greatest city,” says Marti Gould Cummings. “It has been through so much over the years. And what's beautiful about this city is, when push comes to shove, we band together and we work together to help one another. And I know that's going to happen with this. It's really scary and really hard right now, but we just have to keep pushing through and looking out for one another and protecting one another and being there for our neighbors and our community.
“It's great that we can just click a button online and order stuff, but start using your local pet store to get your pet food. Help that business. Don't use Seamless or GrubHub when you're ordering out. Make sure that money is going directly to the restaurant and helping them.
“I don't want to see a city that has boarded-up storefronts, but if there is no rent relief package that helps these businesses, then that is going to happen.
“And stay loud. Put pressure on your electeds. Put pressure on the governor. Working, everyday people are the people who run the city. We need to put pressure on the governor to do the right thing.”