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Are NYC gays alright with rent?

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NYC rents continue to skyrocket – making living in gay male-desired neighborhoods too expensive for most of the community  

Sergei Shik found himself taking residence in Hell’s Kitchen, the unofficial gayborhood in New York, in 2017, by coincidence. 

“I was an immigrant coming from Russia, where gays are repressed, harassed, and murdered, so the whole concept of the gays taking over a neighborhood…sounded like a fantasy,” says Shik.

The Glows Ads founder was lucky to receive asylum, but despite growing up in a land laden with homophobia, he quickly grew accustomed to being surrounded by the gay community in Hell’s Kitchen.

“It made me feel proud,” says Shik, “I came knowing no one, and all these people were quick to welcome me in. I never thought being LGBTQ+ would give me a sense of belonging.” 

Shik wasn’t aware this glory was special – and at times – tied to the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. 

At the time, he paid $1,000 for a room in a three-bedroom railroad apartment, a home where each room opens into the next in single file fashion. After living in Hell’s Kitchen for a year, he eventually moved to East Harlem with a friend. He found a two-bedroom with 1,000 square feet for similar rent but stopped seeing the rainbow flags he had grown accustomed to.

“My own superintendent called me a faggot, and even the neighborhood itself made me uncomfortable,” says Shik, who had initially stopped hiding his queerness after living in Hell’s Kitchen. “I couldn’t wear anything flashy or enjoy the food or culture because I felt unsafe.” 

Rent prices continue to inflate

Unfortunately, the claws of inflation have reached every zip code in Manhattan, and the majority of gay men can no longer afford to live in a neighborhood that reflects their identities. Hell’s Kitchen used to be considered the wrong part of town, even deadly, and is now filled with expensive high-rises. Rising costs have begun to drive out the folks who made it one of the city’s most desired places to live.

The average salary in New York hasn’t changed much in recent years, standing at about $51,499, according to ZipRecruiter. However, The Agency’s licensed real estate salesperson, Andy Pickerill, says the median cost of rent for a one-bedroom in Hell’s Kitchen has risen exponentially to about $4,090 a month. 

He says that includes luxury buildings and walkups, and renters might get away with $2,500 for a studio and $3,000 for a one-bedroom on the low-end. He says his clients gravitate to neighborhoods for different reasons, but remote work has placed an emphasis on proximity to their community. In Manhattan, a person must earn 40x the rent to qualify for an apartment, so $2,500 would still demand a salary of $100,000. A $4,090 one-bedroom rent – the average in Hell’s Kitchen – would require an annual income of $163,000.

Some New Yorkers scramble to find guarantors or third-party guarantor services in order to meet the income needs while they splurge a large portion of their income on rent. In fact, 55% of households are considered “rent-burdened,” and one in three city residents spend half their income on rent.

Beyond New York

Two years ago, Shik moved to Los Angeles, where he signed a lease on a one-bedroom for $2,000 in Hollywood, within walking distance to West Hollywood, LA’s unofficial gayborhood. He decided living alone was the ultimate adult luxury he would’ve never experienced had he stayed in the Big Green Apple.

But for the queer community, living in a gayborhood means so much more than real estate. Most LGBTQ+ individuals come of age hiding who they are, feeling alienated from family, friends, and peers. It’s no wonder they refuse to return to heteronormativity once they discover that they don’t need to go to outer space to find a society that celebrates their spirit. 

“I would say, in general, proximity to where people’s friends are and where they’re hanging out and where their community is, is always a factor with any client,” says Pickerill, “And that would hold true for queer people as well. So for some, it is the proximity to Hell’s Kitchen, but many others found that somewhere else.” 

Making Sacrifices

The real estate agent encountered clients willing to sacrifice their lifestyle to be in the gayborhood. Most recently, he showed an apartment in the lower 40s that unexpectedly didn’t have an oven. He was ready to suggest other apartments, but his client wanted to move forward and get the apartment.

Likewise, Brandon* recently downsized from a one-bedroom to a studio apartment to stay in Hell’s Kitchen. He was living in the high-rise Riverbank building when they informed him his rent would be raised from $3,250 to $4,090. 

“It feels illegal that buildings can just do this without justification,” says Brandon, “I’ll eventually move to the gayborhood Wilton Manors in Fort Lauderdale, but I’m not ready to retire from city life.” 

He works as a vice president for the legal department of a security company. Although he  makes a comfortable salary, he refuses to burn it in the fireplace of housing until he buys a property. Approaching older age, he knows he needs to plan for the long haul. 

“I don’t have kids or a family to worry about, and the city still feels ridiculously expensive. I don’t know how so many people are doing it,” says Brandon. 

The fact is that many don’t make it financially. Despite being ranked the greatest city in the world once again by Time Out Magazine, New York has lost 5.3% of its population — about 468,000 people — since the beginning of the pandemic. 

Many gays are holding on to their gayborhoods for dear (social) life, while others don’t even bother to begin with. 

“I don’t poop where I eat,” says John Harper, a government consultant in San Francisco. 

He previously lived in Brooklyn, where he’d venture to Hell’s Kitchen for a good time on the weekends. 

“I never found the allure to be completely surrounded by cruisy horny gay men sufficient to justify the price increase that seems to be aligned with living somewhere like Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, or worst of all, the West Village,” says Harper. 

But he notes that he has always lived in LGBTQ+-friendly cities, so he doesn’t feel like his wallet is chained to a particular neighborhood. 

“It’s also almost too much, like living on a gay cruise. I know this is a bad stereotype; it’s a lot of sexual tension always to be around,” says Harper, “And the Castro here where I live or West Hollywood in Los Angeles, they’re not only ridiculously more expensive, it’s really freaking difficult to find available housing.”

If history has proven anything, it is the resiliency of the gays and their ability to take rundown neighborhoods and make them fabulous. Hopefully, the housing shortage will encourage community leaders to stake the rainbow in new neighborhoods and make more space for queer individuals to safely call home. 

After all, home might be where the heart is, but a gayborhood can take root anywhere in the world. It’s not dictated by zip code but the presence of unabashed queer joy. 

“I’ll probably live in a gayborhood at some point,” adds Harper.

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