The City that Never Sleeps

Moving to New York City presents a series of seemingly Herculean tasks, chief among them finding an affordable place to live and, if you have kids and want to send them to public schools, tracking down good ones.

By | November 22, 2004

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Moving to New York City presents a series of seemingly Herculean tasks, chief among them finding an affordable place to live and, if you have kids and want to send them to public schools, tracking down good ones. Then, once you're settled in, there are the hurdles of daily life: figuring out the intricacies of the bus and subway system; finding a way to feed yourself affordably and nutritiously; getting a little peace and quiet now and then.

But when you've learned to swipe your Metrocard like a native, collected a good take-out menu file, and discovered Central Park, you'll find New York City isn't so tough after all. Relatively affordable housing options are still available, especially for those willing to look in Brooklyn or Queens. And the five boroughs have plenty of good schools for those willing to do the research. "The notion that you have to move to the suburbs or send your kids to private school is just ridiculous – there are many good public school options," says Clara Hemphill, director of insideschools.org.

HOW MUCH FOR THAT CO-OP IN THE WINDOW?

With one-bedroom co-ops going for an average of $469,000 in the first half of 2004 – an 18% increase from 2003 – Manhattan is by anyone's standards a very expensive place to live. But there are still pockets of affordability in the five boroughs, even in Manhattan. For example, relative bargains can be found in the Hudson Heights neighborhood at the northern tip of the island and within Harlem, the famous neighborhood to the north of Central Park. And compared to some other biotech hotspots, New York City even starts to look affordable. In 2003, the average home cost $400,000 in the Boston area; $438,000 around San Jose, Calif.; and a whopping $580,000 in San Francisco. The average home in Queens sold for $355,000 in 2003, and you can buy a two-bedroom co-op in Brooklyn for the $469,000 that will buy you a Manhattan one-bedroom.

Kay Boecker, a broker with the Corcoran Group, notes that on average, a 25% down payment is required for co-ops, which are the predominant form of housing in the city. Co-op buyers must win approval from the co-op board, and many boards want to see anywhere from a year's worth of mortgage and maintenance after closing up to one-half the apartment's purchase price. Monthly costs should not exceed 25% of your gross income, and the same goes for rentals.

Some co-op boards and landlords will be less strict for the right buyer or tenant, Boecker says, and a good broker will be able to track them down for you. Condos usually only require 10% down, and no board approval, but they tend to be more expensive than co-ops and are far fewer in number. "You just have to know the different neighborhoods to look in and think about the options of how far you want to commute, and find a broker who can understand those needs," she says. "It may involve going a little bit further or being a little bit further from the subway – there's definitely options in the city."

GO EAST

The far reaches of Manhattan's east side remain relatively affordable, says Boecker, who helped her best friend, a scientist at Rockefeller, buy a new home on York Avenue, close to the university. "When she needs to go feed her cells in the middle of the night, her commute doesn't add to the task."

And for the adventurous, there's the option of moving into a sketchy neighborhood and hoping it will improve, a gamble Bill DeSalle and his wife took and won. "We ventured into the East Village about 10 years ago and got lucky in a building that we bought into, and now the neighborhood's quite nice, or nicer than it was," says DeSalle, an evolutionary biologist and curator at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Some institutions, including The Rockefeller University and Columbia University, ease the pain of New York City apartment hunting by offering students, postdocs, and faculty below-market rentals. Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College have built staff housing on Roosevelt Island, a quick and scenic tram ride away from Manhattan's East Side.

Renting is another option. In late 2003, renters were reaping the benefits of a soft market, but that has since tightened up. On the bright side, rents remain relatively low and broker's fees have dropped slightly, and now run about 10% to 12% of the first year's rent. Brokers recommend bringing bank statements, a couple of letters of reference and one from your employer, and your checkbook, so you'll be ready to move if you see something you like.

WEIGHING SCHOOL OPTIONS

Public schools add another factor to the New York City equation. If you have kids and want to send them to public school, says Hemphill, it makes the most sense to consider the local schools in your apartment search. It's still possible to apply for a variance to get into a school outside your neighborhood, but "it's not a sure bet by any means, and it's becoming increasingly difficult."

There are good public schools clustered around the city's major teaching hospitals – Public School No. 183 (PS 183) on East 66th Street in Manhattan is "one of the few elementary schools that has a decent science program," Hemphill says. PS 198 on East 96th Street has improved greatly in recent years, thanks to a new principal and perhaps the influx of children of research scientists at Mt. Sinai. The well-regarded PS 108 in the Bronx draws the offspring of scientists at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Jacobi Medical Center. PS 235, near Brooklyn's SUNY Downstate Medical Center, is seriously overcrowded but well respected – kids wear uniforms and follow a curriculum based on the British traditions of the neighborhood's West Indian residents.

With a highly diverse student body and varying degrees of chaos, the New York City public school experience can be exciting for some kids, scary for others, and perhaps a bit of both for many. "If your child is robust and can cope with a big class size and the sort of rough-and-tumble circumstance, you've got a lot of options," says Hemphill. "If your child needs a little more attention and is not so robust, you have to pick very carefully." Your research can begin at Hemphill's http://www.insideschools.org, an independent guide to the New York City public schools that includes reviews of hundreds of schools, parent's comments, information on class size and test scores, survival tips for parents negotiating the system, and more.

"I'm really happy with the schooling that my children are getting," says DeSalle, whose two daughters attend alternative public schools in the family's East Village neighborhood.

GETTING AROUND TOWN

While New Yorkers like to share subway horror tales, many also agree that the subway and bus systems are one of the best things about the city. "I think the public transportation system is really great," says Ronald Breslow, a professor of chemistry and biology at Columbia University who returned to the city in 2004 after several years in New Jersey with his wife Esther, a professor of biochemistry at Cornell University medical school. Getting around on foot is another option. "It's a very interesting city to walk," says Breslow, who has lost six pounds so far making the 2.5-mile trek to his office from his Upper West Side apartment. "It's great fun."

The city is also extremely convenient to the rest of the world, says Ramón Bonfil, who leads the Wildlife Conservation Society's great white shark research project. Bonfil lives in the East Village but spends one-third of the year in the field, mostly in South Africa and the South Pacific. With two major international airports close by, "It's a well-connected place," Bonfil says. "I can easily go to Europe, Asia, Africa, or the South Pacific without too much trouble."

Getting to his office in the Bronx, a trip Bonfil must make by car, is a different story, he admits. Owning a car in the city is notoriously inconvenient and expensive, and many New Yorkers opt out of the car culture entirely.

While parenthood has obviously meant major lifestyle changes for the American Museum of Natural History's DeSalle, one of the best things for him about the city remains being able to wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning and go buy a beer. "I love being here," says DeSalle. "I've found it to be a great place for raising my kids and a great place to be married and a great place to work. I'm not going anywhere."

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