BY MICHAEL STAHL
When my girlfriend Shauna and I decided to move into a new place together, Astoria was the top neighborhood on our short list of strictly Queens settlements. Over the past few years, this Astoria lifer, felt as though I’ve been growing into the neighborhood just as much as it was blossoming into the perfect community I’ve unknowingly always wanted to be a part of. But at 36, I found myself priced-out of the area I’d for so long called my home.
When I was a boy there were birthday parties at Pizza Palace on Ditmars Boulevard. Then while attending William Cullen Bryant High School and, later, commuting to Hunter College, I worked at KFC/Taco Bell and Coconuts music store on Steinway, spending most of my paychecks at Underground Sound Records or the old movie theater on 30th Avenue. The landscape his since changed, all those stores are gone, replaced by Mi Candela Puerto Rican restaurant, Moe’s Sneakers—making claims of “Since 1985”—, a knick-knack store, and a Duane Reade/New York Sports Club fitness center, respectively.
As the energetic creative types recently settled into Astoria—every last one of them seemingly hailing from Ohio—and higher-minded restauranteurs opened Brooklyn-level-hip eateries and nightlife spots, I felt compelled to become truly engulfed in the buzz about town. The writing bug bit me and, after 11 years in the profession, I quit teaching to explore the freelancer world, due in part to meeting so many Astoria artists who were following their dreams, hustling and simply “making it work.” If they could do it, I knew I’d be able to, while finding even more time for alcohol consumption in all those great bars. My newfound favorite partner for such activity, Shauna—a freelance dancer I’d begun dating in October—was eager to move from her Sunnyside residence to A-town too, for all the same reasons I wanted to stick around.
We just had to find an affordable apartment.
The search for a one-bedroom rental at under $2,000 per month began in early August. We were already paying a combined $1,940 a month for our apartments—mine a basement studio on 28th Avenue and hers a shared two-bedroom off Queens Boulevard—and were certain we’d save a few bucks on rent in a single-bed cohabitation.
Craigslist scans at the break of the workday commenced, and it quickly became apparent that Western Queens might no longer be a place where our once-presumed reasonable monetary goal could be realized. There were a ton of one-bedroom abodes in the area for $1,800 to $2,700 a month and a handful of “luxury” apartments cost more than $3,000 in monthly rent. Anytime we spotted an apartment that was cheaper, it was either in near-condemnable condition or we’d receive responses to our inquiries saying that the homes were already spoken for, but, of course, the broker had similar spaces available at higher prices. The apartments that were über-cheap, as low as $1,060 per month, came with a promise that a key would be mailed to us from an oilrig off the coast of South Africa once our check for the first month’s rent had cleared. As much as we wanted to believe the guy who posted that one was a hard-working sub-letter in a tight spot because he took a job that required immediate travel one-third of an Earth away, Shauna and I didn’t want to take that chance.
Apparently we were fortunate to be paying the rents we were, probably because Shauna and I had both been living in our apartments for years, and weren’t as susceptible to huge hikes. We could have lived in Astoria affordably, but for how much longer? We would have been forking over the same amount of cash we already were, only with the expectation rent would increase in 12 months. Then what? Pay for another move deeper into Queens? How would we ever be able to save up money to purchase a home down the road if we’d barely scrape by in my hometown? Sure we would’ve loved living steps away from all those amazing restaurants, 12 minutes from Manhattan, and inside the most burgeoning artistic community outside of Brooklyn. But each of those phenomena fast became symbols of our prospectively exorbitant rent checks.
I found myself saying things to her like: “Maybe we should expand our search a bit,” and “Sunnyside isn’t that far from Astoria,” and “They say Ridgewood is the next cool place to live”—phrases that made me realize I was, in a way, becoming a victim of gentrification.
A completely renovated, pin-drop quiet Woodside apartment with a small backyard-facing balcony on 54th Street off Roosevelt Avenue was posted on Craigslist one morning. The rent: $1,700 a month; heat, hot water and gas included. We called within thirty minutes of the advertisement’s publication, and, after a viewing, credit check and deposit payment, we got the place.
Surprisingly, I was overjoyed and did not feel much melancholy at all over my now-official Astoria abandonment—yeah, it’s that nice of an apartment, at that reasonable a price.
Of course, Woodside isn’t the moon; it’s not even Williamsburg. I can be back in the heart of Astoria in as little as 25 minutes if I choose. But really, I’ve also come to grips with the fact that rising rent prices just cannot be stifled, and if I wanted to stay, I was going to need to find a better-paying, likely more time-consuming gig.
We live in a capitalist society, ensconced in a free market, and as much as we’d like to preserve communities while stabilizing rent costs, that simply can’t occur without suddenly putting caps on some of our most basic rights as Americans. As old-school New Yorkers say, “What are you gonna do?” Lawmakers can’t enact legislation forcing building owners to not seek market value for their property, either in sales or rentals. That’s no different than ordering a supermarket to purposely undercharge for their food, or the electric company to do the same for their service. If government started setting those precedents, where would they end?
Whether we like it or not, land itself is a commodity, most especially in urban areas with dense populations, and inflation is a natural element of our economic system. Fortunately there are scores of renters’ rights helping to ensure people don’t end up destitute due to unforeseen circumstances. Those are great. However, universal rent control is as realistic as it is democratic, and the ballyhooed phrase “affordable housing” is a way for politicians to not make citizens feel as though everyone is out to rip them off—just look at the rents of such labeled apartments and you’ll see they’re mostly placed at about market value, and aren’t as cheap as they sound.