When You Hit a Wall

ONCE she arrived in New York last summer to start a new job, Hallie Stephens, who planned to share an apartment with a roommate or two, kept encountering references to something unfamiliar: building a wall.

“I had never heard of building a wall in an apartment,” she said. “I was, like, ‘Do I do this myself?’ I am not that handy, so I am not sure a wall I build will even stay up.”

No, of course she wouldn’t do it herself. She would hire a company to install a temporary pressurized wall, thereby turning one room into two, as so many of her friends had already done. She could then squeeze in an extra person. It was the only way she could afford to rent in Manhattan. (Some buildings allow temporary walls and others don’t.)

Ms. Stephens, who is from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, graduated last spring from the University of Michigan. When she began to hunt for an apartment, she stayed with three guys she knew from college, who were sharing a two-bedroom in Stuyvesant Town, the 60-year-old complex built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to house war veterans and recently sold to an investment group led by Tishman Speyer Properties.

A wall divided the living room, creating a third bedroom. The guys were investment bankers, “and were making way more money” than she and the friends she was planning to live with earned, Ms. Stephens said. (Two-bedrooms in Stuyvesant Town start at $4,025.) The wall was so nicely installed it looked like “part of the original structure,” she said.

She and her two friends raised their target rent to $1,300 each, from $1,000. Ms. Stephens, 23, spent hours online hunting for an affordable two-bedroom rental that could be converted to three by adding a wall. That $1,300 figure was pushing it for her roommates, though. “One of the girls was unemployed,” Ms. Stephens said.

They spent a day in Manhattan’s East Village and Upper East Side. Everything seemed dirty or small. “At the end of the day, I was sobbing on the phone to my parents,” Ms. Stephens said.

It was on to Brooklyn. “Every place I looked, I looked because people had told me about it,” Ms. Stephens said. “It was all hearsay: So-and-so is living in this neighborhood; you should look there. I guess we were looking in Park Slope. We didn’t know much about Brooklyn.”

But it felt far away, and nothing there seemed worth the price. Next came Hoboken, N.J., where a friend of a friend lived. Ms. Stephens’s two would-be roommates liked it so much they decided to rent a tiny two-bedroom there, for $1,225 each.

But Ms. Stephens wanted to live in Manhattan. Besides, Hoboken would mean a tough commute to her office in East Midtown, where she is an assistant at a television production company.

Now she was on her own, though there was the slim possibility of yet another friend joining her as a roommate in the fall. So she decided to hunt for a one-bedroom, with the idea of staying there alone until the roommate situation was solidified.

Other friends lived in Murray Hill. So Ms. Stephens stopped into a rental building, the Laurence Towers on East 33rd Street, where a one-bedroom was available for nearly $2,800. But the rent would rise if she acquired a roommate. (The building charges $500 more a month if someone erects a temporary wall.)

Maybe the financial district, where yet another friend lived, would be more affordable. At the Crest on Wall Street, Ms. Stephens could rent a one-bedroom for less than $2,900. There was no extra charge to add a wall.

But the area seemed deserted at night. “You can’t even go to a Duane Reade because it is closed,” she said, “and I thought I might be miserable living down there, especially without a roommate.”

Meanwhile, she decided to take a short-term place for most of the summer, so she could assess her next move. On the Upper East Side, she paid $1,225 for her share of a one-bedroom turned two with the by-now-familiar temporary wall.

She became fast friends with a colleague, Holly Pakfar, who was sharing a ground-floor apartment in a brownstone on East 18th Street with two roommates. Ms. Pakfar’s bedroom, for which she paid $1,125, was once part of a very large kitchen, but it had been transformed into a bedroom with the addition of a wall. (This one was permanent.)

She was eager to move. The shower stall was “so small I couldn’t bend down to shave my legs — I had to open the door,” said Ms. Pakfar, 24, who graduated from the University of Southern California and is from the San Fernando Valley.

When mice arrived, Ms. Pakfar fled to a friend’s place for more than a week. Upon her return, she found mouse droppings under her pillow. “I wanted something that felt clean,” she said. So she was eager to join Ms. Stephens on her hunt.

Ms. Stephens had Stuyvesant Town in the back of her mind. Now that she was certain she had a roommate, they could afford a one-bedroom. With a wall, of course.

Ms. Pakfar wasn’t sure what Stuyvesant Town was. “I had seen it in a cab going down the F.D.R., and I always thought it was projects,” she said.

The two chose a one-bedroom that was newly renovated, close to Avenue A, for $3,075. They moved in the early fall, splitting the $1,000 cost of their temporary wall.

Ms. Stephens pays $1,675 for the real bedroom. Ms. Pakfar pays $1,400 for her room, which was created from the living room. It is more than either intended to pay, but their parents help on occasion.

Both are happy in their new home. “It feels very grown up and clean,” Ms. Stephens said. Some of her colleagues and former sorority sisters also live in Stuyvesant Town, so “I have neighbors I know, which is nice when you are moving away from home.”

And in comparison with friends’ places, it seems big. Despite living in half a room, Ms. Pakfar actually has space to walk around.

“It is strange that that seems special,” Ms. Stephens said. “I have seen places where you have to turn sideways and squeeze along the wall to get out of the bedroom. But it is something you have to do to afford to live in the city, until you reach a certain age and have a certain income.”



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