A Renter’s Lament

Brian Kuhl
4 min readDec 31, 2022

When people asked why we were moving, I wanted to say it was because our refrigerator farted. Our old fridge died last winter, and the management company replaced it with one that squeezed out electronic whines.

It was helpful to keep a sense of humor to avoid the reality: the Jolly Green Giant who moved in above us (making me less than jolly), yapping dogs in the building (thanks to the pandemic killing off the no-pet policy), and the new pot shop across the street (don’t even get me started). And through the miasma of pot smoke from outside came noise, noise, noise, noise — I was becoming the Grinch. All this was ours for only a $400-per-month increase in rent if we renewed our lease come June 1.

Having decided our apartment in Lenox Hill had become unbearable, my wife and I started scouting out potential new neighborhoods in March. I learned online that we supposedly already lived in the area of Manhattan with among the fewest noise complaints. Wow. So we looked elsewhere.

One Sunday, we walked around Park Slope in Brooklyn. Areas we couldn’t afford were gorgeous. Even those we could afford seemed livable, at least away from the Barclays Center. My wife was lukewarm though. She had commuted on the F train in the past, and that was its own little hell. Thus began what would be a long, tortuous process of finding a place to call home.

The search began in earnest on April Fool’s Day, but from the start it was no joke. Leaving early that morning to see a place in Jersey City, I ran into our building’s super, who told me, “Mark passed away this morning.” He’d had a heart attack. Mark was in his seventies and had lived with his wife on the first floor for close to fifty years. He had welcomed us when we first moved in and always had a friendly hello and time to chat. I walked away dazed and full of gloom.

In Jersey City, I saw apartments in two buildings in the Paulus Hook neighborhood. They were nice — modern and bright — but, with all the fees added up, beyond our budget. The leasing agents were equally nice, but it was clearly transactional. Show me the money.

We had entered the market at a bad time. Many people were returning to the city from their pandemic cocoon in the suburbs; others were forced into the market when their pandemic deals evaporated. And whatever hit real estate had taken from COVID was long since over: rents were higher than ever and climbing fast.

The next day, my wife and I saw another rental in New Jersey, in a towering co-op building. It was impressive — and the views of Manhattan magnificent. But the location wasn’t ideal for people without a car, and there was, to me, a lack of transparency about the work slated for summer. The pool area below the balcony was to be entirely redone. Demolishing the concrete? A large and messy construction zone? No one had any details. “There will be some noise,” was all the broker allowed through her tight smile.

Part of what made the search so hard is that many listings were advertised as “Available NOW!” We couldn’t plan ahead at all, yet had to give thirty days’ notice to our landlord about renewal. Maybe some people could pay double rent for a month or two, but not us.

What’s more, everything was snapped up immediately, so if you were lucky enough to even get a viewing, you couldn’t compare it to anyplace else. No time. You had to make an instant decision not only about a huge outlay of cash — first month, security, odious broker’s fee — but about where you were going to spend all your personal time for the next year.

A case in point was an email I got a few days later from the broker of an apartment I had inquired about. It read, “Given the limited access and applications already received we will be showing this apartment only via Zoom.” The owner would then make a decision right after the Zoom call. Now we needed to commit to something without seeing it in person?

Later in the week, I began looking farther afield on Zillow. I work from home, but my wife needs to be in her Manhattan office a few days a week. My tools were commuter rail maps, Google Maps Street View, and Wikipedia. I spent most of that Thursday researching New Jersey towns that might be suitable: Montclair, Maplewood, Millburn. They all seemed to begin with “M” — for “maybe.” But I feared the commute would always be worse than planned.

The next morning began with an unusual calm in the neighborhood. No honking cars. No sirens. No loud voices below our third-floor window. In that brief respite, I wondered if we should we just stay. Maybe we could use the street-facing room, the lone source of good light, as storage and close the door when the noise inevitably returned. We could live in just two small rooms with almost no natural light, right? Well . . .

I then looked at other neighborhoods I hadn’t considered, mostly because of noise reports, like Turtle Bay and the Upper West Side. I inquired about a one-bedroom on West 70th Street for $2,800 and received a reply that evening. It contained just three questions: “Move-in date? Any pets? Do you make $110,000 a year?” (Answers: June 1, no, and hell no.) Despondent, I returned to my idea of staying put and living in two rooms.

However, later that night I was jolted back to reality — awakened at 3 a.m. by the heavy footfalls of the Jolly Green Giant. Unable to sleep, I got up to look again on Zillow. Maybe something new had been posted in the last few hours. There had to be a way. I would continue heading out to appointments, trying to maintain hope as I left the building and missing Mark’s friendly presence more than ever. ♦

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Brian Kuhl

A writer and editor who lived and taught in China for over seven years. Now based in the United States. See briankuhl.net, brushtalks.com