Renters: Roosevelt Island for the Win


Roosevelt Island for the Win

The East Village was great, but a rent-regulated apartment on Roosevelt Island was home for a family of five, especially when the building went co-op and they bought their place at an insider price.

The Starace family share a two-bedroom on Roosevelt Island that was originally a Mitchell-Lama rental and that they now own. (From left to right) James, Eliana, James, Tanya and Luca Starace.CreditCreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

Roosevelt Island was terra incognita to James and Tanya Starace when they learned eight years ago that they could move into a rent-regulated two-bedroom there.

Ms. Starace had never even set foot on the island before then, and Mr. Starace, who grew up in Staten Island, could only remember going to visit a grandfather in the hospital. But there was no doubt they’d take the apartment because their growing family needed the space and the suburbs were an unappealing alternative.

“I was afraid I would lose my career if we went to the suburbs,” said Mr. Starace, a journeyman actor. “I wouldn’t be able to work as an actor or work at night with little kids in the house in New Jersey. Or if I did, we’d never see each other.”

“And I just love living in the city,” said Ms. Starace. “I always knew I wanted my kids to grow up here.”

For years, the couple had happily shared a series of very small apartments. After they started dating, she moved into his 380-square-foot Greenwich Village one-bedroom, where they frequently hosted dinner parties for up to 30 people. Then, when she was pregnant with their first son, they moved into a 690-square-foot one-bedroom above John’s of 12th Street, the East Village Italian restaurant where they met and where Mr. Starace has worked on and off since 1987.

“I’ve lived in small spaces all my life,” said Ms. Starace, who shared a studio apartment in Elmhurst, Queens with her mother until she was 15, at which point they upgraded to a one-bedroom, dividing the living room to create a bedroom for her.

But by the time the couple’s second son was born, and their bedroom was crowded by a double bed and two cribs, the couple agreed that if one of the affordable housing units they had applied for didn’t come through soon, they would have to leave New York.

When they became home owners, the Staraces made some changes, including new moldings, re-doing the hall closets and renovating the kitchen. CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

Their current 1,200-square-foot two-bedroom is in a Mitchell-Lama building on Roosevelt Island and is almost twice the size of the East Village walk-up they left; and rent was only $25 a month more. The building also has a doorman, elevators and striking views of the Manhattan skyline and the East River. If Ms. Starace at first sometimes pined for the island of Manhattan, she admitted that Roosevelt, quiet and residential, “was a soft landing from the East Village when you have kids.” Their daughter, Eliana, was born in 2013.

$2,000 | Roosevelt Island

Occupation: Mr. Starace is an actor and a waiter at John’s of 12th Street in the East Village. Ms. Starace is a senior manager at a global packaging company in Midtown.
Their children: James, 11, Luca, 9, and Eliana, 5
Mr. Starace first applied for affordable housing in 2004: “We knew we were going to get married and I knew I wanted to stay an actor.”
Restricted sale: Per their purchase agreement, the Staraces are limited in how much they can resell their apartment for, and buyers must also meet certain income limits.
Acting jobs: Last year, Mr. Starace had a small role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film “The Irishman.” “My role was nothing glamorous, but it was like a dream come true — to be on set with three legends I’ve always wanted to work with,” he said, referring to Mr. Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

Like many buildings in the Mitchell-Lama program, the Staraces learned shortly after they moved in that theirs was reaching the end of its affordability agreement with the city, and negotiations to convert the building to a co-op had been underway for some time. If residents voted to go co-op, the Staraces and other tenants would be able to stay in their apartments as rent-stabilized tenants, but they would not be able to move to a different apartment; some units would also go market rate.

The Staraces felt that the conversion presented a tremendous opportunity. The “insider” price for their apartment, set at 35 percent of market rate, was $243,000 — a deal they knew they’d never see again. And if they bought, they’d be able to make improvements — like adding a shower to the half-bathroom — that would help better accommodate a family of five.

But they decided that they’d only buy if they could work out a monthly payment that was similar to their rent. They didn’t know if they could afford the down payment to make that possible — or find a bank to give them a mortgage in the allotted time period.

“It was cheap, but it’s still New York real estate,” Mr. Starace said of the purchase price.

When the math worked out, they were delighted. While their rent had been $1,875 a month, their monthly mortgage and maintenance fees add up to about $2,000 a month.

“We just walked into an opportunity that was long in the making by other people,” said Mr. Starace. “We just went with the momentum. We knew we were in a sweet spot.”

Since purchasing the apartment in 2015, they’ve made a number of changes: putting up molding, renovating the kitchen — Mr. Starace loves to cook — and making the hall closets more functional.


The kids’ bedroom has three loft beds.CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times

They also took out a closet in the second bedroom so they could fit in three lofted twin-size beds with built-in closets, which Ms. Starace found at Ikea after exploring much costlier custom options. The lofted bed setup, in which each child has their own space underneath, has solved the most common dispute between their children, now 5, 9 and 11, she said: fights over someone messing with someone else’s stuff.

And if a two-bedroom apartment may strike some as still rather cramped for a family of five, the Staraces say the layout of their current apartment is more conducive to raising a family than any place they lived before — it feels like a home.

“Only on Sunday mornings do I think it would be great if we had a big house,” said Mr. Starace. “But we do rent big houses sometimes when we go on vacation and they all end up sleeping in the same room anyway.”

“And I like to know where everyone is,” said Ms. Starace. “It keeps us close.”

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Published at Mon, 24 Dec 2018 10:00:06 +0000