By Elizabeth A. Harris
NO one in New York has any privacy. But would you be willing to share a bathroom with that guy down the hall to save
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times Kaya Williams and Davin Sweeney in one of the two common kitchens in their rooming house, also in Brooklyn.
A number of young New Yorkers who want to live alone but cannot afford it have settled on just that sort of compromise: renting a room and sharing facilities like kitchens and bathrooms with neighbors.Jessica Duffett, 25, an assistant and archivist at an art gallery, shares the top ﬂoor of a brownstone in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, with a woman who she estimates is about 10 years her senior. They have separate apartments, each with a kitchenette, but the bathroom is in the hallway beyond the locks on their front doors. “I tell everyone, when they say, ‘Oh, you live in a dorm,’ no, I prefer pension,” Ms. Duffett says with a grin and a self-mocking ﬂick of a wrist. “You know, those European hotels where you have your bar of soap and your towel and you shufﬂe down the hallway.” Call it what you will, but put on your pants before you grab your towel. “There’s always been a tradition of this, especially for the lower end of the housing market,” said Alex Schwartz, the chairman of the department of urban policy analysis and management at the New School. “What you may see now is it’s extended up to portions of the housing market — people who previously wouldn’t live in this sort of unit.”
Many apartment buildings that require this kind of intimate cooperation have rough reputations that make them unappealing beyond the practical inconvenience of sharing a shower with half a dozen strangers — not an insigniﬁcant compromise in its own right. Single-room-occupancy buildings (rooming houses with six or more units) are often used as supportive housing for people coming out of homelessness or rehabilitation programs. Others are a landing pad for new immigrants. Some are quite grim, poorly run and badly maintained.
“It is easy to lump together good S.R.O.’s and bad ones,” says Dov Treiman, a lawyer and the editor of The Housing Court Reporter. “The most visible ones are those ﬁlling the almost last-ditch needs of the most needy in society.” In recent years, as rental prices have gone up and up, students and young professionals have become more willing to live in rooming houses or other dorm-like arrangements, said Howard Feingold, the president of Best Apartments, a real estate company that specializes in affordable rentals. Mr. Feingold, who handles about a dozen dorm-style apartments a year, said young people have been willingly choosing to live insuch places for several years.
“They want to live in the city,” Mr. Feingold said. “They want a less expensive option, and if they can get over the fact that they’re sharing a bathroom, and if they’re not home a lot, they’ll take them.”
He points out, however, that some of these buildings are much nicer than others.
Ms. Duffett’s apartment, for example, is on South Portland Street, which was named the best block in all of New York City by Time Out New York in 2006, based on criteria like aesthetics, amenities and train access. She has wide-beam hardwood ﬂoors, a decorative ﬁreplace and a separate bedroom with a tin ceiling. Ms. Duffett also has a small built-in community: the tenants who live in similar setups on the two ﬂoors below her. (The landlords live on the ﬁrst ﬂoor.)
“Everybody looks out for each other,” Ms. Duffett said. “It’s sweet.”A recent Craigslist search showed studios and one-bedrooms near Ms. Duffett’s apartment for $1,600 to $2,100. Ms. Duffett pays $1,450.
Friends of hers who used to live in the area have all been priced out. Because of her willingness to be seen in the hall in a bathrobe, she has been able to stay in the neighborhood she loves.Kaya Williams and Davin Sweeney in
one of the two common kitchens in their rooming house, also in Brooklyn.“I went to boarding school, I went to college and lived in dorms — I’ve never experienced the truly private apartment, private bathroom,” Ms. Duffett added. “This is more of the same.”
Sharing facilities with ﬁve others allows Davin Sweeney, a 28-year-old graduate student at Wagner School of Public Service of New York University, to cover his $750-a-month rent by bartending just a few nights a week. He has
a bright, private room in an old mansion in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, as well as access to kitchens, bathrooms (there are three rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom on each of the ﬁrst two ﬂoors) and a lush backyard. His landlords live in an apartment on the top ﬂoor.
“Sometimes, like everywhere else, the dishes pile up,” Mr. Sweeney said. “Everyone just has to pull their own weight, take the garbage out. We don’t have any rules about that, so the best thing is to be respectful and just do it. And for the most part, people are.”
The six tenants spend some time together, especially in the summertime when they bump into one another in the garden. But for the most part, they keep to themselves.
I don’t think anyone’s opposed to hanging out,” says Kaya Williams, a 23-year-old research assistant at the Vera Institute of Justice, who pays $850 for a very spacious bedroom in the same building. “Everyone’s just got different schedules.”
Mr. Sweeney agrees. “We’re often just ships passing in the night,” he said.In some larger buildings, sharing does not always lead to caring. Clayton Harley, 25, has about 30 neighbors, but knows only a handful of them. His space is small and his ﬂoors are linoleum, but he pays only $900 for a place in Chelsea. To him, the important part is being able to live by himself in Manhattan — even though he shares one and a half bathrooms with ﬁve people.
“I have no problem with the shared bathroom except for the shower,” Mr. Harley said in an e-mail message. “As clean as it gets, it’s still a shared shower and the shower for me is a hallowed place of clean, which just isn’t possible in this situation.”
Chris Wisniewski pays $700 a month for a classic loft in Williamsburg with high ceilings, skylights and sweeping views of the East River. He has a roommate and a shower. But he also has a climb — a hike up seven ﬂights of stairs — and he and his roommate share a toilet with the rotating occupants of two other apartments.SHARERS Jessica Duffett, 25, above, lives in a Brooklyn brownstone, below, sharing the top ﬂoor, and a bath, with another woman.“I don’t leave my razor here anymore,” said Mr. Wisniewski, 29, standing in a large bathroom full of natural light and potted plants. “I found gray stubble on it. So anything that requires high levels of sanitation, I keep in my own space.”
Mr. Wisniewski, a philosophy student and bartender, has a brown beard.
“The idea of sharing a toilet is very, very common until some time in the mid-20th century,” said Prof. Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia.
Mr. Dolkart said that in the ﬁrst half of the 20th century, a lot of single-family homes were converted into rooming houses. Many of those places, he pointed out, were illegal. (Many still are.)
“Putting kitchens and bathrooms into studio apartments was a considerable investment,” Mr. Dolkart said. “Just using bathrooms and kitchens that were already there, it wasn’t.” Many building owners decided to forgo conversions to apartments, especially in poorer neighborhoods where the return on the investment would be lower.
Today, landlords are eager to reconﬁgure rooming houses and single-room-occupancy dwellings into fully equipped private apartments.
“S.R.O. landlords are always trying to convert their building into something more lucrative,” says Marti Weithman, the director of the West Side S.R.O. Law Project of Goddard Riverside Community Center. Converting is not, however, an easy process and requires undergoing some inspections by the city.
“The S.R.O. housing stock has been a staple for at least the last half century,” she added. “It’s one of
the last remaining permanent affordable housing stocks that exist in New York City.”
Since many rooming houses are illegal, accurate counts are hard to come by. But according to the most recent numbers available from the Housing and Vacancy Survey in 2005, conducted by the Census Bureau, of New York City’s two million total rental units, nearly 10,000 had no private toilet.About 9,300 had a shared kitchen.
There are some landlords, however, who see dorm-style apartments as a worthwhile business venture with real virtues for certain tenants.
“You don’t have to worry about roommates not paying rent or chasing down utility companies,” said one young landlord who rents dorm-style rooms on three ﬂoors of an old factory building in WilliamsChester Higgins Jr./The New York Timesburg. He charges $750 to $1,300 per month. The other ﬂoors are made up of private lofts, art studios or rehearsal space for musicians. He asked that his name not be used because the building is not approved for all of its uses.
“People who come live in this building are very much: ‘I just moved to New York, I want to go out and do everything all the time. I didn’t come here to cook dinner.’ ” he said. “They come in here,” he added, standing in the kitchen, “to reheat Chinese food.”
But the arrangement is not for everyone, and plenty of people who look at his apartments leave quickly.
“Even when you’re really explicit when you’re advertising it, people think, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s like a three bedroom apartment,’ ” he says. When they arrive, however, they ﬁnd a very different animal. “It’s always kind of awkward because they don’t want to insult us. But you can tell right away.”
Many of the people who do decide to move in, he says, ﬁnd more than just a good economic solution to a pricey town.
“They come here and meet other young, creative people doing their things,” he says. “They end up hanging out together, maybe forming lasting friendships. And then they move on.”