Renters: The Perfect Rent-Controlled Apartment


The Perfect Rent-Controlled Apartment

A retired actor found what he thought was an ideal place to live in Greenwich Village in 1955, for $90 a month. He never left.

Albert S. Bennett is 93 and has had multiple careers, but he has lived in the same Greenwich Village townhouse for 63 years.CreditCreditKatherine Marks for The New York Times

It was 1955 when Albert S. Bennett moved into the building on Morton Street.

“I came around the corner and saw all these trees and the Morton Street Pier. There was a Norwegian American liner docked there,” Mr. Bennett said. “The apartment was this tiny space downstairs. It was absolutely perfect.”

Sixty-three years and six landlords later, he still thinks so.

Over the decades, many things have changed, of course: His rent, which was $90 a month when he moved in, is now nearly $900; the Morton Street Pier and Norwegian America line no longer exist; and he has lived on the second floor since the early 1960s.

But his affection for his building, an 1854 townhouse, has never waned. And in the 1980s, after he inherited some money from the estate of his mother, he offered to pay significantly more than the $200 a month the landlord was charging for his rent-controlled apartment.

“Hardly anyone had taken any automatic rent increases, and I felt bad paying so little,” said Mr. Bennett, now 93. “I had this beautiful apartment. She was a good landlord and never asked for automatic increases. And I liked the house so much. So I made a generous offer.”

Does he regret it?

“Oh yes! I’ve said many times that was the worst decision of my life,” Mr. Bennett said. “I got what looked like a huge amount of money to me in 1984, but it turned out it wasn’t.”

Mr. Bennett had two loft beds built for the apartment in the 1980s, but at 93, he no longer climbs the ladder to what was once his master bedroom.CreditKatherine Marks for The New York Times

$896 | Greenwich Village

Occupation: Retired reference-book writer, editor and actor, among many other careers; currently the community liaison for the Morton Street Block Association and a member of his community board’s landmarks committee.
What if he had bought the townhouse for $65,000 in the 1960s: “Thank God I didn’t have the money. I would have had to deal with all the tenants and a house that was falling apart. I even asked mother for a loan, and her lawyer advised against it.”
The building’s problems: The staircase wasn’t attached to the wall (although it has now been repaired), and the roof over his bedroom is plywood, not concrete, which could explain the many leaks he has had over the years.
On living without a closet: “Do you know the line ‘Old men never buy anything, just underwear and socks?’” Mr. Bennett said. “It’s true. So I don’t need a closet.”
On being a nonagenarian in Manhattan: “One of my neighbors is going to shop at Gristedes for me tomorrow because it’s too cold. I have a wonderful support network.”
One of the apartment’s best features: The terrace, which overlooks the gardens of St. Luke’s Place and allows him to grow potted geraniums.

When he moved into the Greenwich Village townhouse in September 1955, it was a nine-unit S.R.O. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama with a degree in production — directing, essentially — Mr. Bennett had returned from the “obligatory two years in Hollywood: not very successful” and was desperate to find a place of his own after staying for too long with a friend in a tiny Upper West Side apartment. A colleague at J. Walter Thompson, the advertising agency where he worked, told him about a room on Morton Street occupied by someone who needed to get out of her lease.

After moving into the room, he got an inkling of why she might have wanted to leave. For a number of years, the house had been a bordello, and not everyone, it seemed, was aware of its changed status. “The last of the ladies had lived in my apartment,” Mr. Bennett said. “I had some rappings on my window at night asking for her.”

He moved upstairs in 1961, when new owners took over the building. After learning that they were turning the first and ground floors into a duplex and adding two small bedrooms at the back of the house, Mr. Bennett made a suggestion: “I said, ‘As long as you’re extending the house, why not give me a bedroom and a terrace?’”

The landlord, realizing she could legally raise his rent to $125 a month for the larger space, agreed.

In his new bedroom, he installed floor-to-ceiling bookshelves for the collection he inherited from his great-aunt Harriet Lane Levy. A copy of her portrait — sketched by Matisse — hangs above the nonworking fireplace.

Later, in the 1980s, he had two loft beds built: “the master bedroom and the guest room.” Unfortunately, while he is in remarkably good health for a nonagenarian, he said, a balance problem has prevented him from climbing up to his double loft bed.

“I hated giving that up,” said Mr. Bennett, who now sleeps on the sofa in the living room. “It was very cozy, and I could spread out.”

His piano also sits unused these days because of arthritis in his hands, although he once played frequently.

“My first career was as a church organist; I was paid $5 a service,” said Mr. Bennett, who grew up in Piedmont, Calif. At 17, during World War II, he joined the enlisted reserves and, thanks to his skill at the piano, became a chaplain’s assistant. He was sent to Okinawa, Japan and to Korea, serving for a total of 27 months on active duty before enrolling at the University of California, Berkeley.

Since then, he has had many other careers: Besides advertising, he was an assistant to the literary and theatrical agent Audrey Wood and worked for many years on reference books, including the American Heritage Dictionary and the Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia Yearbook, which he edited. At 55, he retired to become an actor.

“A dear friend talked me into an acting class, and I really worked at it,” Mr. Bennett said. “My daybooks from that time were filled with audition after audition. Finally, I got an Off Broadway equity contract.”

In the mid-1990s, memory problems forced him to give acting up, and he moved on to community work. He was involved in the unsuccessful effort to create a Maritime Mile historic district along the waterfront, became president of the Morton Street Block Association (he is currently the community liaison) and has served on the Landmarks Committee of Manhattan Community Board 2 for 22 years.

“I used to visit every applicant,” Mr. Bennett said, adding that while he no longer does, he still manages to exasperate his walking companions by stopping to exclaim over cornices he somehow has never noticed before.

“People who aren’t into it get bored very fast, but it amazes me,” he said. “It’s one of the many things I love about New York. Living here, I’ve only got to love it more and more, and to know that I belong here. The only thing I miss is the ocean, but I have the river, and I go there every chance I get.”

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Published at Mon, 04 Feb 2019 19:52:13 +0000