Navigating NYC Housing for Newbies

December 28, 2015

When you’re moving to NYC, finding a place to live can be daunting. For many on the graduate journey, it’ll be their first big test for life in the city. Home hunters need to navigate housing jargon, rent prices, maybe even getting catfished (while highly unlikely, no one wants to be the plot of a Lifetime movie).

Have no fear. A lot of people can’t afford to live in NYC alone, so there will be plenty of other people searching, just like you. Handling the logistics from out of state or country can be especially stressful, but we all seem to make it through OK.

My apartment search started with being wait-listed for on-campus housing. Moving from Texas to NYC, miles away from my family, I needed a guaranteed place to live before I arrived, so I decided to search for an apartment online.

I concentrated my efforts on the Columbia University Off-Campus Housing Assistance (OCHA), a portal for Columbia students to find apartment and roommate listings from other students or alumni across the city. I had a budget of about $800/month and I wanted to live within walking distance of CUMC in Washington Heights. With an open mind, I cast a wide net and sent numerous emails and asked a lot of questions, but kept my search specific to the Washington Heights area.

There was one listing for a room in an apartment in a prime location only a few blocks away from campus, but no details were listed and there was only one photo available.

I emailed anyway. I had nothing to lose. Soon, Molly, a Mailman alumna (class of 2012), emailed back with a friendly reply filled with details. We set up a Skype call with the other roommates, but the time and day we scheduled slipped my mind. When she called back, I was at a concert in Austin. Panicked, I ran out to conduct the Skype interview in my car. I must have looked incredibly suspicious, sitting in near darkness as I used my cell phone and spotty service to Skype with Molly, Grace, and Jennifer who were vetting me as a potential roommate.

I was sure they would write me off, but the next day, I received an email inviting me to be their roommate. It was perfect timing since I was moving to New York in two months. They emailed me the paperwork and I signed the lease when I arrived in August, with just two suitcases in tow.

It took me about a month to settle in and get to know the area and my roommates well, and I’m really happy living there today.

Connecting through Facebook

Months before school begins newly admitted Mailman students will meet online through the class Facebook group, organized by the Office of Student Affairs.

To aid the future roommates in finding each other, the Class of 2016 Facebook group posted a database for students to list their name, roommate, and apartment preferences, as a place to connect with other likeminded incoming students.

For Aleah Wattenberg in Biostatistics, Zara Zaidi in Sociomedical Sciences, and Liz Wartella in Epidemiology, it was the starting point for their roommate search.

“I messaged different people largely based on the comedies listed in their TV preferences,” said Aleah, who completed her undergraduate studies at the University of California, San Diego. She eventually found Zara who also lived in California. After a get-to-know you dinner, the two clicked. They added Liz who lived in Florida to their apartment search to open up their housing options.

Next came the search for an apartment. Zara and Liz combined online and in-person meetings. They found that it was better to have the help of a broker because many listings required immediate move-in.

“Scouring Craigslist for apartments became really time consuming—it was like a full-time job, Zara said. “I realized that I needed to just get out to Manhattan and see the places for myself and use a broker as a tour guide.”

Liz and Zara were able to fly out to New York City in July and spend a weekend looking at apartments with a broker Zara connected with on Craigslist. After touring the city, they eventually found a newly renovated apartment right against the Hudson River.

At first, Liz was skeptical about living in New York City, but then she felt that the pros of attending a top epidemiology program would outweigh the costs. “Going into it acknowledging and understanding all of these shortcomings, I was super excited to move to the city with Aleah and Zara,” she said.

The three roommates advise NYC newcomers to chat with people about roommates and living preferences and to prioritize apartment must-haves. You need to discuss the issues you're not willing to compromise and balance your options with an open mind.

“I’ve wanted to live here ever since I visited NYC with my parents at age 14,” said Aleah. “I was nervous to be across the country from my parents in Northern California, and it was surreal the day I was leaving, but worth it.”

Temporary Housing

While extremely rare, if the clock is ticking before the start of school and you still haven’t signed a lease, there are other options. You don’t need to lock yourself into an apartment if it is out of your budget.

If you don’t know anyone in New York City, temporary housing can give you the opportunity to be in the city and find roommates along with a place to live that’s a good fit for your preferences.

Gypsy Housing is a popular NYC-based Facebook group for apartment and roommate listings, and is another way to connect online with people outside the CUMC or Mailman community. With over 95,000 members, there is a large variety of lease and roommate options available.

Airbnb offers short-term apartment and room rentals from about $30/night in New York City. Depending on availability of listings and your budget, this could be a good chance to explore different neighborhoods in New York City before committing to a lease.

Moving to New York City shouldn’t be an obstacle to your public health education. For me, actually, living in a cosmopolitan city was the biggest draw. I consider it a part of my graduate education. I can travel between worlds in a single subway ride, and easily experience a diversity of cultures in many forms: art museums, concerts, talks on any topic, and all sorts of cuisine. It is an expensive city, but you can balance the costs and benefits to fit your budget.

I’m happy with my current living situation and renewed my lease another year. With social media and online resources, it is possible to connect with others and explore all your options before making the move. New York City is abundant with options so you don’t have to feel stuck. As we learn in public health, good housing is a determinant for good health.

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