Life After Tenements

THE arrival of a renewal lease kicked Maggie Weber and Joey Arak into gear. After three years, the monthly rent on their East Village tenement one-bedroom was set to surpass $2,000. “If we are going to start putting down some serious money,” Mr. Arak said, “let’s at least go somewhere we can enjoy coming home every day. ”

The couple had no intention of leaving their neighborhood, however. The East Village was home. Besides, Ms. Weber, who teaches third grade in the Bronx, was reluctant to give up the excellent and familiar street parking. After enduring a subway trip of up to 90 minutes each way, she leased a car last year. She had her commuting routine down to a science, parking in one of three locations, depending on when she arrived home.

Ms. Weber, 27, is from Wantagh in Nassau County, while Mr. Arak, 26, is from Miami. The two met as students at Boston University. After their graduation in 2003, they rented a cheap one-bedroom on Orchard Street, and then a more expensive one on East 13th Street. The rent increase last spring would add $200 to their $1,900 rent. “How much time can you spend in the same junky apartment?” Mr. Arak asked.

There were roaches and mice. In the lobby, the landlord posted a sheet so that tenants could sign up for an exterminator, but no exterminator ever came. The heat, stove and toilet all worked improperly. To flush, they had to pull the rubber stopper by hand.

Mr. Arak, an editor at Curbed.com, a real estate blog, loves hunting for apartments online. His job “made me want a nice apartment because I am brainwashed by staring at multimillion-dollar properties all day,” he said.

Their starting price of $2,500 a month for a one-bedroom “bumped us up to a level above the kind of apartment we had,” he said.

Ideally, that meant new construction, but the East Village had few new rental buildings. One was on East 12th Street near Avenue B. Living there would fit into Ms. Weber’s after-school routine: If she came home early, she would park her Ford Focus on East 12th or 13th. If she returned around 6 p.m., she would head for the Stuyvesant Town loading zone, and if that was full, she would pay the $1.50-an-hour meter fee on 14th Street, in effect until 7 p.m. In the morning, she left before the start of alternate-side parking restrictions.

But the one-bedrooms, at around $3,000, were pricey and they had no bedroom closets. “Now that I am a little bit older, things are important to me that I never cared about before,” including closets and light, Mr. Arak said.

Ms. Weber also disliked the block. The community garden opposite the building functioned more as a raucous gathering place than a vegetable plot.

It was on to a new building on 10th Street near First Avenue, where they could rent a one-bedroom for $2,750 a month. This also seemed pricey, and parking was scarce on the boutique-filled streets.

If they couldn’t afford a new building, perhaps they could afford a two-bedroom in an older building. They saw one in a tenement building on East 10th Street near Avenue B. A dead mouse lay on the sidewalk. But even though the apartment seemed fine, at $2,600 a month, “we just couldn’t do the run-down tenement vibe again,” Mr. Arak said.

Meanwhile, nearby Stuyvesant Town, the vast housing complex bought in 2006 by Tishman Speyer Properties, was now allowing pets. That eliminated worries about their Boston terrier, Frank. No harm in looking.

“We both had a problem originally with the idea of Stuy Town, because it looks so blech,” Ms. Weber said. “It is just some brick buildings with a lawn in the middle and a fountain.”

Its 80 grassy acres were wasted on her. “I am not a person to go out in nature or wilderness,” she said.

There was also plenty of tension surrounding the change to market-rate rents after decades of rent regulation. “You walk around, and it is all older people and families with kids,” Mr. Arak said. But in the leasing office, “it is all 20-somethings.”

They loved the one-bedrooms they saw, which were big and pristine. Everything worked. Stuy Town might be decent, they figured, as long as they could find a desirable urban location, on the First Avenue or 14th Street sides.

The apartment that they chose was on 14th Street near Avenue B. At $2,850 a month, it was above their budget, but it came with utilities included and a month’s free rent. (Prorated over a year, that’s $2,613 a month.) They paid a one-time pet fee of $250 for Frank.

The couple arrived just as there was a dip in prices. Currently, one-bedrooms start at $3,050, according to Tishman Speyer.

The two arrived in April to find a gift basket in the kitchen, with assorted snacks, cleaning products and scented toiletries. Their second night there, two downstairs neighbors informed them that Frank barked nonstop when left alone. Then came a Stuyvesant Town security guard.

For a week, Mr. Arak worked from home, afraid to leave the dog alone. They were sure they would be evicted. Petland Discounts came to the rescue, with an anti-bark collar that sprays an unpleasant citronella scent when the dog barks.

Arriving home, Mr. Arak said, “we would smell Frank’s face and it smelled citrusy, and we never got another complaint.”

Now, with a working kitchen, the two are cooking dinner for the first time in years, and watching a new 46-inch television set that actually fits in the living room. Despite their protestations about nature, they have sunbathed at the oval, Stuyvesant Town’s central green.

Mr. Arak is a devout reader of the Stuyvesant Town tenants’ message board (www.stpcvta.org).

“I am amazed at the anger against market raters and Tishman Speyer,” he said. Noise, landscaping, pets — all are divisive topics.

“If I didn’t live here, I would assume it is a living hell,” he said. “But I love living here. Now we have this big apartment that is nicer than anything I thought I would be able to afford. I never thought I would have a dishwasher in my whole life.”

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