This year, going back to school is anything but cool for city college students who prefer off-campus apartments over living in dorms.
More undergrads than ever are seeking their own homes, brokers said, either for social distancing and COVID safety, or, conversely, to dodge stringent on-campus pandemic protocols such as mask requirements and guest bans.
But as these students flock back to the city, they and their parents who help are butting heads with a crowded rental market.
Currently, thousands of New Yorkers who left the city during lockdown are returning ahead of Labor Day.
These qualified applicants are leasing up buildings like hotcakes — leaving students, who tend not to have established credit and steady income, with a stressful housing search.
“In a city like New York, because you have so many buildings … I would have imagined that it’s easy to rent a furnished flat,” said Ellie Flenga, 51, who lives in Athens, Greece, and — after more than a month of scouring rental listings and receiving multiple rejections — finally has a deal pending for a $6,300 Murray Hill two-bedroom for her 20-year-old daughter, Parsons junior Peggy Zoumboulakis, and her 18-year-old son, NYU freshman Philippos Zoumboulakis. “I didn’t imagine that it was going to be so complicated.”
Issues for the foreign family also included securing an approved local guarantor and finding themselves in a bidding war for a downtown dwelling (“For a rental, it didn’t make sense,” said Flenga). Her request was simple: Keep the kids — allowed in the US on student visas — in relative isolation and in each other’s company should another lockdown occur.
Still, demand provided the biggest obstacle.
“We didn’t really expect that everything would go off the market so quickly,” said Peggy, with the family’s broker, Douglas Elliman’s Alexandra Bellak, adding of the overall experience, “I don’t think they realized, and I don’t think I realized, that it was going to be such an arduous task.”
The current rush on rentals doesn’t solely stem from prodigal city slickers; it’s also locals looking for deals. Median asking rents in Manhattan, where the bulk of students are shopping, rose to $3,000 in July, according to the latest StreetEasy data — while that’s up from the first-quarter tally of $2,700, it’s still below the pre-pandemic $3,500 median.
“Since a lot more people are working from home, they want to upgrade — they are outbidding the college students,” said 28-year-old Samantha Karaisaridis, a Modern Spaces agent and St. John’s University undergrad who’s helping two classmates secure off-campus dwellings.
There is a “lack of availability, because landlords have not been turning over their apartments as fast, and now they’re in a rush to do so,” added Joshua Arcus, an associate broker at Brown Harris Stevens who recently secured a $2,900 Financial District studio for a Pace University undergrad.
“There are five great applications for every one apartment.”
Bina Stange, a 20-year-old rising junior studying graphic design at the School of Visual Arts — who came back to New York this month after spending the pandemic in her native South Africa — saw the craze just before her return. Living off-campus was always the goal, but during the pandemic, it was a must.
“I would rather have my own super-clean apartment than [living in a dorm],” she said. “I don’t know where other people are going, if they’re going without masks.” (SVA requires face masks be worn in its dorms’ common areas. It also has a multi-phase approach for resuming guest visits in dorms, which includes masked residence-hall hangouts among members of the school’s community beginning Sept. 22.)
Reaching that goal wasn’t simple. In the spring, Stange received “hundreds of apartment listings” from a real-estate contact in New York to browse options.
“I think the few I was interested in, we were going to talk about later when I came to New York,” she said. “But then they reached out to me again about a month before I came here, they were like ‘basically 99% of [those] apartments are getting taken and we have to act really fast.’ ”
Stange — working with Corcoran’s Brooke Keys — narrowed the selection down to two units, one of which ended up spoken for an hour before she was supposed to view it on FaceTime. The other, not publicly listed — an alcove studio in a doorman building with floor-to-ceiling windows — was $1,000 above budget. But in less than two days, Stange got it for $4,595 per month before returning stateside — and despite the sprint and more money spent, she says it was worth it.
“It just feels more like home coming into your own apartment instead of going into a dorm,” she said.
For 20-year-old Andreas Tsantilas, an NYU junior studying math and physics, the process of landing a Kips Bay two-bedroom with a roommate, which they snagged for $3,245, took five weeks.
“It was definitely not fun,” he said.
Originally, the pair aimed for a $3,000-per-month two-bedroom, but soon realized they needed to up the price to be within walking distance from Washington Square. One unit, in Tribeca, asked $4,100, simply cost too much. Another, a pad in Chelsea, asked $3,400 per month and had room for a third roommate — and the two “desperately scrambled” to find one and quickly succeeded.
“She was very nice and we were all excited, and then when we went to pull the trigger, [the unit] got snapped up the next day,” he said.
Another apartment, the one the pair ultimately leased, had previously been claimed, but the application fell through. Working with Corcoran’s Barbara Gruson, and despite its over-budget asking price, they pounced on it.
“This was the optimal stopping point,” said Tsantilas. “Any sort of further searching would be strictly worse than this option, so we decided to just go for it.”
More than just a place to crash, Tsantilas looks forward to having guests visit from other colleges — something prohibited in student housing — while keeping a low infection risk.
“It’s less restrictive and ultimately safer for both myself and NYU students,” he said.
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