Looking for an Apartment through COVID-Goggles

Amid a pandemic, finding a New York apartment suitable to quarantine life isn’t easy.

22 Aug 2020 | 01:25

When my boyfriend and I made the great trek from Denver to New York in August of 2019, there was a lot we were unprepared for: insects the size of small mice, humidity that can make a person want to tear off their own skin, an overwhelming selection of places to get great food, the difficulty of finding a public restroom in the city, the view of lower Manhattan from Brooklyn, and a global pandemic.

With exception of the latter, none of these surprises prevented us from renting a relatively spacious one-bedroom in a run-down building along the edge of Crown Heights, even though there were very few restaurants or coffee shops nearby. At the time it didn’t matter; the rent was relatively cheap, and it was near the 4 train. We didn’t mind the 40-minute commute into the city because our daily lives would be so full of work, school and New York activities, that we wouldn’t be spending much time at home anyway. But then — seven months in — we did nothing but stay at home.

Once in quarantine, and spending every day inside, a few things about our home became suddenly very evident: We were over a 30-minute walk away from the nearest park. We had far more encounters with pests than usual. We had maybe three food spots within delivery range.

Prior to the stay-at-home order, it was much easier to avoid the blaring loud drums or piano from downstairs, where our super rented out his apartment as a music studio from 7 a.m. onward. We learned that there was, in fact, no one in the basement separating our recycling from the trash like we had been told. On top of all this, the management company was raising the rent as the end of our lease approached. We decided we could not pay a higher rent for 12 more months of rooming with the roaches.

Complicated Search
We started the apartment hunt in June in order to find a place to move into in August. StreetEasy was our best friend. I spent hours browsing apartments. Rent prices were dropping, and there were more options than we had seen the previous year. Our apartment goals were two-fold: cleaner and closer (to the city, to parks, and to food).

The first step was reaching out to brokers to request viewings. Last year, when we made a special trip to New York prior to moving, things moved very quickly, and often we set up same-day apartment viewings. This time it was difficult to get responses from brokers within a week. Those who did respond offered to set up “virtual” viewings, which is really just a video of the broker walking through the apartment. These videos are a frustrating three-and-a-half minutes of listening to bad background music, or to just the sound of the broker’s breathing, as they walk either too slowly or too quickly through the apartment. We’d be lucky if the broker actually showed us the closets and bathroom.

Despite the effort put into these film masterpieces, we knew we could not choose an apartment based solely on a video. As my boyfriend, Andre, put it: “I want to see the holes in the floorboards, the cockroach carcasses in the closets.”

Most brokers were still able and willing to set up safe and socially distanced in-person viewings. Though not everyone was wearing a mask in public yet, we covered our faces and boarded the subway, sanitizing our hands compulsively. We tried to stay standing without touching any of the poles or seats. To avoid the subway as much as we could, we also rode bikes from viewing to viewing around Brooklyn whenever possible. We kept our distance when we met up with brokers. We all tried, ridiculously so, to hold doors open for each other while still maintaining six feet of distance. Coronavirus does not kill good manners.

Inside, we stood on opposite sides of tiny apartments and tried to picture ourselves being trapped indoors for another several months in each room. Would we be on top of each other all the time? Could we survive with one closet? Was this kitchen big enough for the amount of cooking at home we had gotten used to? Was there enough direct sunlight to keep our quarantine-gardens alive? Was there any room for desks? We ruled out studios of any size and bedrooms that did not have windows. A year ago, our vision of the future prioritized our life outside, now we were choosing a home with COVID-goggles, based primarily on where we were safest.

After a month of searching, we found a small one-bedroom in Cobble Hill, with no pests, a dishwasher, and a pizza place downstairs.

Through our experience, brokers tried to rush us, as they do, pandemic or no pandemic. They implied that the apartment was a rare find, and that they had a few other applicants waiting, but they were letting us decide first. Some might have been telling us the truth, but some of the apartments we saw stayed on StreetEasy for many weeks after our viewing, waiting for someone else to find it comfortable enough for their new quarantine-inspired vegetable garden, their foster dog, and their bread baking.

“A year ago, our vision of the future prioritized our life outside, now we were choosing a home with COVID-goggles, based primarily on where we were safest.”