It’s a renter’s market out there, and more and more landlords are lowering rents to keep units occupied.
That’s what Abbe Lucas of Inwood, in Upper Manhattan, says she is grateful for after losing her job in March as production director for fashion shows and other big events. A shadow loomed when her partner lost his full-time gig this year, too. So, they decided to ask their landlord to consider lowering their rent. He agreed, signing a new year-long lease over the summer with a 12% reduction.
"The reduction was significant,” Lucas says, adding they had also asked for a month-to-month lease, to allow them flexibility to leave the city, but the landlord wouldn’t agree to that. Still, every month, “The savings we had literally meant one more trip to the grocery store."
She’s not the only one. Rubina Shafi is the general manager of a theater, and also got her rent significantly cut on her Lower Manhattan apartment in August. Shafi has rented from the same landlord for 15 years, and always experienced a rent increase from lease to lease.
"They came back immediately with $285 off the monthly rent,” says Shafi. “I also asked to have it be a month-to-month lease, which they agreed to immediately. So, I was shocked that all it took was asking."
Shafi’s takeaway: it never hurts to ask, even if a pandemic has spread a lot of financial pain all around.
According to the real estate marketplace Street Easy, the reductions are part of a trend that made the third quarter of the year stand out. StreetEasy’s Q3 2020 Market Report found that for the first time since 2011, the median rent for a Manhattan apartment fell to less than $3,000 a month — $2,990, to be exact, a drop of nearly 8%.
Compared to the same quarter last year, the number of discounted rental listings rose 23 percent in Manhattan to a record high of 45 percent.
There were also increases in discounted listings in Brooklyn and Queens, 31 percent and 27 percent respectively. Monthly rent in Brooklyn dropped 2.5% percent to just under $2,600. In Queens, it dropped 2.5% to $2,200.
It's the first time since 2010 that the average price for renting an apartment in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens is below $3,000
Nancy Wu, an economist who crunches the data at StreetEasy, says one big reason for the discounted rent trend is the disappearance of what she calls “the commute premium" that many people moving to the city paid just to be close to work. With remote working becoming more permanent for a lot of city workers, renters are trying to strike deals. And spikes in the vacancy rate across the city, but especially in Manhattan, are forcing landlords to bend.
“A lot of renters were willing to pay the premium of living in Manhattan in order to walk to work or have a quick commute to their offices,” Wu says. “Since the pandemic hit the city, the ‘commute premium’ is no longer a consideration for renters to pay because they don't have to be commuting to the office five times a week."
One landlord in Brooklyn says many building owners are suffering like their tenants. Deferred mortgage payments may have helped earlier in the pandemic, but those amounted to “kicking the can” down the financial road, and allowing debt to pile up.
Garo Yellin is a landlord in Brooklyn. He agreed to give all his commercial and residential tenants a break but laments the lack of assistance for property owners who own one or two units or small buildings. He says many owners are not the commercial realty giants.
"Mortgages, taxes, insurance, maintenance — all with zero, mainly zero, help with any of that,” Yellin says.
It’s a predicament that has an upward and outward ripple effect, according to Stephanie Freed, co-founder of ExtendPUA.org, an advocacy group pushing the federal government to approve a much-needed pandemic relief bill.
"Six million people missed rent payments last month,” says Freed, saying that affects how much they spend in their communities, and she says relying on the generosity of a landlord is not a long-term solution to economic health in communities across the city and country.
“The solution we're asking for is a comprehensive relief bill from the federal government that includes unemployment support and also rent relief, food relief, health coverage relief,” she adds.
She recalls that mortgage for the landlords was built in to the HEROES coronavirus relief bill passed by the House in May. But negotiations with the Trump administration to get something close to that bill approved have been dragging for months. Even if the president signs off on a deal, the Senate could still block it.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the profession of Abbe Lucas. She is a production director, not a lighting technician.