December 4, 2020

Moving to New York During the Pandemic

By bridge and parkway, to country spreads and childhood bedrooms, and for short stays and permanent moves, tens of thousands of residents have streamed out of New York City over the past few months to escape the pandemic.

But some buyers and renters have zigged while others zagged. They spent the spring snapping up apartments — unfazed by apocalyptic headlines and convinced that New York’s problems are temporary,

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘New York? Are you nuts?’” said Leigh Selting, 60, a theater professor from Wyoming who recently bought a two-bedroom co-op in the Hudson Heights neighborhood of Manhattan for his retirement. “But I am kind of a forward-looking person. And I find the resilience of New York to be attractive.”

Mr. Selting isn’t the only arrival with a counterintuitive, rosier-than-might-be-expected view. Nearly 700 buyers — some from as far away as California, China and Brazil — have signed contracts for homes in Manhattan since April, according to market data.

ImageLeigh Selting, a drama professor and actor from Wyoming, on the set of a movie last year. Mr. Selting recently bought a co-op in Manhattan.
Credit…Makala Buszek

And while that is a historically small group of buyers, it may offer a window into next-generation New York. Ballroom-dancing teachers, designers and neurologists — the kind of diverse and dynamic mix the city has always drawn — have arrived to replace those who have fled for good.

In Hell’s Kitchen, a one-bedroom co-op, listed for $2,150 a month when the previous tenant left the city because of the coronavirus, helped fulfill a dream for Paul Swaine.

A ballroom-dance instructor from St. Petersburg, Fla., Mr. Swaine, 56, had long fantasized about performing a waltz or rumba at the Rainbow Room, the glamorous restaurant atop Rockefeller Center. But the real motivational kick came in 2017, when Mr. Swaine took on side work as a flight attendant for New York-based JetBlue Airways, which meant spending some nights at a company crash pad in Queens.

So excited was Mr. Swaine to get here that he sold his Florida condo and leased a Manhattan apartment sight unseen. But since arriving in May amid stay-at-home orders, he hasn’t had many opportunities to sample the city’s nightlife. With gyms and dance studios closed, his plans to offer dance classes will also have to wait.

“It’s sad to see everything closed down, but it is what it is,” Mr. Swaine said. “You have to like New York for its warts and all.”

Also seemingly able to reconcile a romanticized vision of the city with the grittier reality is Rosabel R. Young, 60, a neurologist from Redlands, Calif., who has signed a contract for an all-cash purchase of a one-bedroom condo in Battery Park City.

The apartment, which has a pass-through kitchen and three closets, was most recently listed at $549,000, after originally being listed in September for $575,000.

Dr. Young has fond memories of a trip to the United Nations as a young child in 1964, when her family lived in New Jersey before her father, who was in the Army, moved them to Spain for a more permanent assignment.

Decades later, while attending a medical conference in New York, she found herself waiting in line for 45 minutes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see a Marc Chagall exhibit. “I thought, ‘Boy, I must really like New York,’” she said.

In some ways, art has brought her back. Dr. Young, who works with people with brain injuries, founded a nonprofit group that encourages patients to paint, to aid their recovery. To raise money for the nonprofit, Dr. Young has sold some of those paintings at a gallery she owns in Barcelona, Spain. New York galleries, she hopes, might one day be interested in the pieces, too.

A widow who lives on a five-acre farm in the company of dogs, birds and bees, Dr. Young understands the recent urge to flee New York. Still, like a person who develops new skills after a bad blow to the head, she said, the city will find ways to cope.

“The culture is not going away,” Dr. Young said. “Even if you cut the number of coffee shops and restaurants in half, you will still have the people, and the people are the culture.”

Many alighting in New York for the first time believe the city will rebound just as it did after Sept. 11, 2001, despite forecasts of a doomed metropolis.

But that analogy goes only so far, said Jonathan Jossen, 62, who was working on Wall Street when the Twin Towers fell and is now a salesman with the brokerage Triplemint.

Some buyers are so skittish that they are willing to break a deal even if it means taking a major financial hit, said Mr. Jossen, who had a client walk away from a $125,000 deposit for a two-bedroom condo when coronavirus cases spiked in March. “They were completely spooked,” he said. “A lot of people are walking away.”

But Mr. Jossen, who has stayed in his apartment in Manhattan for most of the lockdown instead of heading to his weekend house in Fire Island, noted that banks haven’t seized up like they did 19 years ago. “They’re still lending,” he said. “There hasn’t been a financial shock yet.”

It can be difficult to tell if the sales market is being weighed down by artificial forces — namely, a state mandate that banned in-person showings for several months — or if buyers simply aren’t game.

But a sharp drop-off is clear. Between Apr. 1 and June 30, buyers signed 696 contracts for condos, co-ops and townhouses in Manhattan, according to GS Data Services, a research company. That represents a 78 percent drop from the same period in 2019, when there were 3,229 signings. Prices appear softer, too. Apartments in contract went for an average of $1.83 million, down from $2.1 million in 2019, according to GS Data — a 13 percent drop.

Of course, not all the recent buyers are new blood. Dozens of those who signed contracts in the last quarter appear to hail from the same buildings in which they bought, brokers say, or just around the corner, meaning they knew their targets well.

Credit…Katherine Marks for The New York Times

When the lockdown began, Haldun Mutlu, 29, who works in finance, suddenly had a lot of free time on his hands. So he began researching apartments that were bigger than the studio rental in Greenwich Village where he has lived for two years.

A one-bedroom condop with a breakfast bar and western exposure listed at $850,000, just down the street, caught his eye. The ban on showings made it impossible to see. But Mr. Mutlu remembered visiting the building years ago, as a student at New York University, and that was enough.

Like London and Amsterdam, New York may not continue be as dominant as it once was. But “cities are always going to exist, because people will always want to feel part of something bigger,” Mr. Mutlu said. “And when New York comes back, all those people who went to the suburbs will have a fear of missing out and want to move back.”

The multiday demonstrations against the death of George Floyd in early June gave Mr. Mutlu some pause, as he watched looters smash the windows of the banks that line his new building’s ground floor. “It was scary enough that the thought did cross my mind that it might be time to get out,” he said. Nonetheless, he hopes to finalize his purchase in August.

Mr. Selting, the theater professor, took the protests in stride as he watched them on television from Laramie, Wyo., where he has taught for more than three decades. As a child, he grew up in a Nebraska town with fewer than 1,000 residents, although he has lived in New York as well, including a stretch in the 1980s as an actor.

“Protests are part of living in a city,” said Mr. Selting, who signed his contract this winter, pre-pandemic, and after several delays closed in June.

The city will have time to settle down before he and his wife, Marsha Fay Knight, a ballet professor, retire here in a few years. Until then, the $765,000 unit with its Hudson River views will be home to their son Nicholas, formerly of Astoria, Queens.

Other parent-child arrangements also buoyed the spring market. Erin Lichter, 24, an architect, joined with her San Diego family to buy a one-bedroom penthouse with a terrace in a Midtown East condop. Most recently listed for $885,000, the unit has yet to close. “We saw this as an investment opportunity,” Ms. Lichter said.

Ms. Lichter, who has rented a studio for three years, has been tempted to move to Boston, where many friends live. But a Covid-related job keeps her here: She is working with corporate clients like JPMorgan Chase and Savanna to figure out how to create more social distance between desks.

Because she is “a little grandma at heart” and not much of a night owl, Ms. Lichter isn’t worried that New York’s bar scene and nightlife may be altered forever. Still, “this will be a major cultural shift for New York,” she said. “This used to be the city that never sleeps.”

Some of the newest New Yorkers are eagerly awaiting a time when that is true again, the city is fully reopened and they are able to head back to their offices.

Mallory Gagliano, 22, who does digital marketing for brands like AT&T, recently moved into an apartment with a friend so she could be closer to her job in Murray Hill, although she has been working from home.

After graduating from college last year, Ms. Gagliano had been living at home with her parents in Suffolk County, and her commute involved a Long Island Rail Road train and two subways. The thought of crowding in with passengers again made her uneasy, so she and Briana Sierp, 24, a sorority sister from SUNY Oneonta who works for a medical device company, ramped up an existing plan to find a place in the city together.

In May, the friends moved into a two-bedroom in a walk-up on East 49th Street that cost $2,595 a month, with a bonus free month of rent, although they had seen it only in a video. The dining table has been serving as Ms. Gagliano’s office, and probably will throughout the summer. But she hopes that her job, and the city, will soon regain a semblance of its usual self.

“I realize I am living in a pivotal time in the world,” she said. “Things are going to change, and we are on the forefront of it. And that’s interesting to think about. But I think New York will always be worth it.”

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