The Hunt: Learning to Play the New York Rental Game

The Hunt

Learning to Play the New York Rental Game

With little experience in the city, a single father sets out to find a comfortable Manhattan home for himself and his 4-year-old roommate.

Momodou Leigh and his daughter, Ya-Amie, in their new Upper West Side apartment.CreditCreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

As a young man, Momodou Leigh left his native Gambia to play semiprofessional soccer in the Netherlands. When his athletic career ended with an injured Achilles' tendon, a friend urged Mr. Leigh to get a job related to his love for coffee. A decade later, after Mr. Leigh had become an expert in coffee roasting, his employer sent him to New York on a two-year assignment.

Mr. Leigh, who is now 38, wasn’t a complete stranger to the city. One of his six older sisters lives with her family in Kingsbridge, in the Bronx, and he had visited her several times when he was living in Amsterdam. Still, he knew the transition would be unsettling, particularly as a single father moving with his 4-year-old daughter, Ya-Amie. And he had no idea how to rent an apartment in New York.

The apartment was bigger than the others he had seen, with two sizable bedrooms and a kitchen extension off the living room.CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

His impression of the United States was that everything was big — cars, appliances, homes. In the Bronx, his sister’s family occupied a four-bedroom unit on the ground floor of a two-family detached house. So he assumed large places were fairly typical.

After he arrived last summer, his employer set him up in temporary furnished quarters in the financial district, while Ya-Amie stayed with her aunt’s family in the Bronx. Mr. Leigh was connected with a relocation company to help him find a two-bedroom.

He wanted a sunny space, ideally with a dishwasher and a washer-dryer, and he was interested in the Upper West Side, which was equidistant from his workplace in Chelsea and his sister’s home. His budget started at $2,700 a month.

After seeing a few places, he quickly discarded his ideas about size. Every apartment he saw was small and cramped, with similar bare-bones fixtures. “To me, they all looked the same,” he said.

But neighborhoods — even adjacent blocks — varied widely, he noticed: “One street looks great, and you cross to the other street and it was a different world.”

His co-workers gave him another reality check. “When I said I wanted an apartment with a washer-dryer, they all laughed,” he said. “It gave me a lot of stress when I was looking for this apartment. It was really difficult.”


An apartment on West 107th Street was advertised as a two-bedroom, but “basically, they converted the living room into a bedroom.”CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

Mr. Leigh soon connected with Leisa Aras, a licensed agent who was then at Keller Williams TriBeCa and is now at Compass. Staying within his budget was tough, she said: “He really wanted that second bedroom for his daughter, so we were restricted to true two-bedrooms. We couldn’t have a dining room to convert to a bedroom.”

At that point, the Upper West Side was crowded with college students ready to begin the school year. “We were competing with Columbia students,” Ms. Aras said. “The apartments were typical Columbia student housing.”

A $2,700 apartment on West 107th Street in Manhattan Valley was advertised as a two-bedroom. “Basically, they converted the living room into a bedroom,” Ms. Aras said, leaving “a tiny area with a sofa in front of the kitchen.” And the kitchen was a row of appliances against a wall.

On West 109th Street, for $2,300, another converted one-bedroom had an odd layout, with the front door opening into the kitchen. “It is different from what they show on the internet,” Mr. Leigh said. “Leisa said, ‘I am not putting you here.’”

“The biggest challenge,” Ms. Aras said, “was trying to keep his expectations in check.”


On West 109th Street, a converted one-bedroom had an odd layout, with the front door opening into the kitchen. “It is different from what they show on the internet,” Mr. Leigh said.CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

Coming from Amsterdam, Mr. Leigh thought it would be interesting to live on Amsterdam Avenue, but the very small apartment he saw there, near 104th Street, overlooked an air shaft. “You see a wall from the other side of the house,” he said. “I didn’t want to see this wall every day.”

Another option arose in the West 90s. Mr. Leigh emerged from the 96th Street subway to find an appealing neighborhood not far from Riverside Park. This apartment was bigger and better than the others, with two sizable bedrooms and an extension off the living room that nearly qualified as a separate kitchen. There was even a dishwasher.

“He liked the fact that his daughter had a door to her own room,” said Zachary Scott, a colleague of Ms. Aras’s who accompanied Mr. Leigh to the apartment. The rent was $3,100.

By this time, Mr. Leigh had figured out that many buildings in the city — including this one — don’t have a laundry room. “It is hard for me to understand that a city like New York doesn’t have laundry in the apartment,” he said. “On my day off, I don’t want to spend three hours on my laundry. Leisa explained how that works. You can drop off your laundry, and the next day you can pick it up.”

When he returned to show his sister and Ya-Amie, he said, “My daughter went into the bedroom and said, ‘Wow! Papa, this is my room. I like it.’”

Ms. Aras then worked diligently to get Mr. Leigh approved as a renter.

“Here, they have what you call credit history, which in my case is zero,” Mr. Leigh said. “I never lived here. I couldn’t imagine without a professional how to find an apartment here.”


The Leighs’ new building is close to the subway and to Riverside Park.CreditAndrea Mohin/The New York Times

His company paid the broker’s fee of 15 percent of a year’s rent, or nearly $5,600, plus the cost of furniture rental. Mr. Leigh arrived in the fall, happy to finally be settled.

Between the apartment hunting and his job, he has been able to learn about New York. “When I came, I would do a lot to see the coffee culture in New York, and that took me hours because I had to find places,” he said. “I had to look at the map all the time.”

Now he gets around easily. But he is still figuring out the quirks of city living — including how apartments are often overheated in the winter.

“I open the windows,” Mr. Leigh said. “If I tell people, they say, ‘This is New York.’”


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Published at Thu, 28 Feb 2019 10:00:10 +0000