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The Eternal Quest for the Unicorn Apartment

Why we gawk at stories about rent-controlled apartments, and how the basics—a secure, affordable roof over one’s head—became the stuff of fantasy

No matter what kind of self-hypnotized state I’m in when scrolling on social media, I will always pause for a well-designed interior. The other day, I hovered over a video of a young woman giving a tour of her two-bedroom, rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment. The disembodied camera bobbed into the unit’s entryway, and I immediately became the “transparent eyeball” Ralph Waldo Emerson described when he spoke of man absorbing all of what nature (in this case, the New York City real estate market) has to offer.

And what did my transparent eyeball see? Multiple fireplaces, parquet flooring, and handsome pocket doors ushering me through a series of light-filled rooms, each trimmed with enough delicate crown molding to resemble a carefully frosted cake. When my eyeball entered a second sitting room, I wondered for a moment if the video had actually looped, but then it ended. The vast apartment was $1,300–less than a third of the median price for a two-bedroom in the neighborhood, and much, much less than what one with a similar square footage would cost. The woman who lives in it is Hattie Kolp, a 29-year-old special education teacher. The apartment is her childhood home, and she got grandfathered into the rent-control agreement when her parents moved out in 2018.

Stories like Kolp’s are often spoken of like urban legends. In pre-pandemic times, a friend of a friend might have gone to a party or dinner at Kolp’s and hastened to report back: A 1,500-square foot apartment for $1,300! This is the sort of breathless tone one might adopt when learning of any real estate bargain, but especially a rent-control deal. And why wouldn’t we speak of them this way? Not only are they incredibly rare, they’re understandably coveted; rent control is something that is largely incorruptible in a precarious world. Rent-controlled apartments are places that, as long as they are continuously lived in and passed down, can remain affordable forever.

Local outlets often report on them with similar incredulousness, as if describing a way of life in a faraway place. “Never in our lives have we heard of this: a man pays $55.01/month for a one-bedroom at 5 Spring Street in SoHo,” Gothamist reported in 2012, the same year that rent for a one-bedroom in lower Manhattan cost about exactly that much per square foot. (Rent-controlled apartments also make for great gossip: At the time, the Spring Street spot was poised to be passed on one day to the renter’s “much younger wife.”) In a 2018 story, Gothamist wrote of the “mythical life” of an 84-year-old woman who died paying $28 a month in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her apartment was also featured in her obituary: “A friend once dubbed it a ‘dump with character,’ and as primitive as it was, it enabled her to do exactly what she wanted to do.”

In expensive cities, marveling at rent-controlled apartments is a way of imagining the comfort and security that would be available to us if housing were affordable and if costs weren’t artificially inflated by landlords and the whims of the market. If housing were broadly considered a human right, the combination of luck, privilege, and ingenuity often required to secure a reasonably priced apartment—one 58-year-old woman, I read, pulled off a dubious adoption scheme to cop one—would be unnecessary. And rent, while perhaps still stubbornly due every month, would suck a lot less.

For now, this vision remains a mirage for most. In New York, an apartment is only eligible for rent control if its tenant has lived in the unit continuously since July 1, 1971; the unit must also be housed in a building constructed before 1947. As Curbed puts it, finding a rent-controlled apartment is akin to winning a “golden ticket”—absent circumstances like Kolp’s, it’s “basically impossible.” Before 1950, there were roughly two million rent-controlled apartments in the city; as of 2019, there are only 22,000 left, a product of decades of regulations more or less designed to decimate this kind of housing. Few other cities have rent-control policies in place to begin with, and the program is illegal in 27 states. Oregon is the only state with a state-wide rent-control policy in place. (No wonder we can’t believe these places when we see them.)

The quirky stories one sometimes hears about artists, musicians, and eccentrics holding onto their East Village apartments for decades can also obscure the complicated dynamics of who primarily benefits from these arrangements as they exist right now. According to the Urban Institute, the current tenants of rent-controlled units in New York City tend to be relatively wealthy white people. People of color are more likely to occupy rent-stabilized units, which aren’t as hard to come by as their unicorn-like rent-controlled counterparts; about 50 percent of the apartments in New York City are rent stabilized.

Because they are less rare, rent-stabilized units are usually not as storied. And up until two years ago, there were no real controls in place to make sure they were actually affordable. Before New York State passed a package of rent reform laws in 2019, landlords were able to hike up rent prices if the maximum legal rent for the apartment reached a certain threshold and a tenant broke their lease. Rent stabilization also isn’t synonymous with affordability: Some stabilized apartments can cost quite a lot, or at least resemble market prices for the neighborhood.

Still, for some, rent-stabilization can offer a quiet form of security, and a good deal often means tenants can stay in one place longer. In a different corner of Instagram, a woman named Susan Schiffman photographs the interiors of rent-stabilized homes in New York, capturing worn floorboards, piles of books, and the odds and ends one often finds lying around a lived-in home. “They came, most of them, as young people and grew up here; some of them had families, marriages, children, different relationships, different jobs, and they’re all still living here,” said Schiffman, who described each rent-stabilized apartment she shoots as having an “aura.”

“I feel like when housing is unaffordable people are unable to put those kinds of roots down,” she continued. “What I think rent stabilization does is it allows people to build a community.”

Chelsea G. Summers, a New York writer in the process of moving abroad, told me giving up her rent-stabilized apartment means she may never return to the city, her home of 32 years. She has lived in a two-bedroom apartment in Chelsea since 1994. “I wouldn’t have been able to stay in New York without this apartment,” Summers said. “I’d not have been able to finish college, go to grad school, write my novel, or support myself by my writing without a rent-stabilized apartment.”

At a certain point, seductive viral stories and juicy morsels of gossip can trick us into thinking we can game the system as it is and distract us from transforming it into something that works for everyone. Because indeed, even expanding rent-control may not be the panacea to our “rent too damn high” woes it appears to be on the surface. As Sarah Jones wrote for The New Republic in 2018, some economists believe universal rent-control policies could actually reduce the housing supply and make it more difficult for the people who need it most to find affordable housing. More progressive housing policy experts say that rent control must be accompanied by other measures, like public housing and the abolition of land speculation, the latter of which allows investors to buy up vacant land and hold onto it, betting that big commercial builders will one day want to build it up. In short, it isn’t about just one policy—the problem requires a more holistic remaking of how we live and an end to the profit models that currently define our neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, universal rent control, a proposal that has gained more traction in recent years, is an important tool for addressing housing inequality: “I think it’s the best way to protect tenants from a certain kind of gentrification, and that’s the gentrification that results from something happening to your neighbor,” Samuel Stein, author of Capital City: Urban Planners in the Real Estate State, told The New Republic in 2018. “If a big luxury building goes up right next to you, in theory it should have no impact on your rent.… You shouldn’t suffer as a tenant because your land values are higher and the landlord has been able to pass that benefit to the public onto tenants as an extra cost.”

Looking back at Kolp’s restored pre-war apartment, I thought about the aspects of her story that made it sensational enough to appear in the pages of the New York Post. The apartment is so large and the price is so low compared to what the viewer perceives to be the “true cost” of the unit. And since Kolp is a teacher, there’s an immediate recognition that most teachers don’t get to live in spacious apartments, both because they are tragically underpaid and because our current housing policies make it impossible.

But when you stripped down the aspects of Kolp’s living situation that make it newsworthy (as well as highly Instagrammable), what did she have? A few rooms to spread out, host friends when it is safe to do so, and perhaps one day raise a family of her own, if she wants. Above all, she had what should be the most normal thing of all—a sense of security, and the strength of the law on her side to keep her in her home for as long as she wants to live there. There’s a future where these things are allowed to become as mundane as they sound. Until we fully realize it, though, I’ll continue to hear stories like Kolp’s with a mixture of envy and awe.