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Manhattan: City of Sky-High Rent

Gary L. Malin, the president of Citi Habitats, New York City’s largest rental brokerage firm, has seen the real estate market at its giddiest heights and its deepest despair. There should be little that surprises him. But when Mr. Malin’s company was preparing its latest analysis of the rental market, he was taken aback.

In March, the firm found, the average rent in Manhattan — now $3,418 a month — surpassed the all-time high set in the real estate frenzy of 2007. “Right now, landlords can go for pie in the sky — why not?” he said. “But when are people going to say enough is enough and look at other options?”

The last time rents shot up in a similar fashion, they were tied to a strong economy, low unemployment and booming business on Wall Street.

But this spring, Manhattan rental prices seem to be divorced from the larger economic picture. While the city has added jobs in recent months and growth in businesses like technology has helped make up for losses in the financial sector, much of country is still struggling.

That disconnect has only increased resentment levels among many tenants, already reeling from a year or more of rent increases.

“I felt trapped,” said Jaclyn Barrocas, who was recently hit with a big rent increase on her East Side apartment. “It was too expensive to move and too expensive to stay. And it feels like I am not even a person to the landlord.”

There is evidence that rising rents are driving prospective renters into the sales market. But for those who find buying a home in New York City is not an option — whether because of bad credit, tougher lending standards or lack of a down payment — the choices are limited and often unappealing.

Landlords and brokers say more and more young people are sharing, even if it means sacrificing a living room to add a bedroom or two. There has also been a surge of interest in the other boroughs, with many neighborhoods reporting record rents of their own.

Some tenants may be able to negotiate with their landlords, especially if they are long-term renters with good track records. But property owners have little reason to cut deals, because the vacancy rate in Manhattan is hovering around 1 percent.

And just 2,229 rental apartments are scheduled to be added to the market this year in Manhattan, a 30 percent drop from the average number over the last seven years.

The uncoupling of the national economy from New York rents is not typical, said Jonathan J. Miller, the president of the appraisal firm Miller Samuel. “When you see rents rising, it is usually reflective of a strong economy,” he said. “That is not the case now.”

Instead, he said, prices are being driven up by a tight credit market that forces people to stay in the rental market and limits new construction.

Some renters feeling the squeeze have resigned themselves to paying more for less.

When Ms. Barrocas, 26, first found her one-bedroom apartment with views of the East River on the 19th floor of a Murray Hill apartment building in 2010, it cost $2,550 a month. She and her boyfriend quickly signed up for a two-year lease.

With the lease set to expire in June, she recently received word that her landlord wanted to raise the rent by more than $500 a month. “I started freaking out,” Ms. Barrocas said. “It is a huge increase.”

She was not ready to buy, but she could not afford to stay in her current apartment. The landlord would not negotiate. But moving, even if she found a cheaper place, would most likely force her to shell out around $5,000 for broker fees, security deposit and moving costs.

Fortunately, a cheaper apartment was available in her building. It was smaller, had little natural light and lacked river views. But at $2,745 a month it was in her price range, and there was no broker’s fee. She made the move.

Ms. Barrocas says many of her neighbors feel similarly trapped. “People just want to leave,” she said. “I would have preferred to leave.”

Landlords like to have leases signed in the spring, when they can command the highest rent because so many people are moving for work or school. So across the city, thousands of renters are facing a similar dilemma.

Rental averages are up in every category, with one-bedrooms rising the most, by 6.5 percent over the past year, to $2,747, according to the Citi Habitats report. Studios rose 3.6 percent, to $1,953; two-bedrooms climbed by 6.1 percent, to $3,865; and three-bedrooms rose 4 percent, to $5,107.

Surveys by the other major brokerage firms show similar leaps in pricing.

Mario Gaztambide, the vice president for residential asset management of the LeFrak Organization, said interest in lower-priced neighborhoods had surged. In Queens neighborhoods like Rego Park and Forest Hills, rents are surpassing peak prices from 2007, Mr. Gaztambide said, adding that newly renovated one-bedrooms are commanding around $1,700 a month.

“The amount of rental supply that has come on the market in the last two to three years has simply not kept up with demand,” he said.

It is important to remember that New York’s rental market is not monolithic. Although the rental averages calculated by the brokerage firms are based on market-rate units, the majority of apartments in the city are rent-regulated in some fashion and are not included in the averages.

Similarly, it is hard to get an accurate snapshot of the rents that small landlords are charging, since many do not use the services of a major brokerage. Renters often find that small landlords are more willing to negotiate because they do not want to have an apartment sit vacant for a prolonged period.

Joseph Rosati, 25, and his roommates adopted a different strategy: Pay more for more.

Last year, Mr. Rosati and two friends were living in Murray Hill, paying $3,700 for a two-bedroom apartment that they had converted to three. When the landlord decided to raise the rent to $4,300 last July, Mr. Rosati decided to shop for a new place.

The group could not find anything acceptable for under $4,700. They decided that if they were going to shell out that kind of money, they might as well spend a little bit more to be in a neighborhood they liked better.

They found a two-bedroom apartment with an office at 37 Wall Street for $5,400. Although they are paying more, they are happy in their new quarters. They signed a two-year lease, fearful that they would get hit with another increase if they did not.

“I did not move to New York City to live in Hoboken or Jersey City,” Mr. Rosati declared.

Jonathan Wilf, a principal of Skyline Developers, which owns 37 Wall Street, says landlords looking to get top dollar must set their properties apart. That means renovated apartments and lots of amenities. His company also owns the building at 75 West Street. But prices there are more stable, he said, because the building is older and has not been renovated to the same degree as 37 Wall.

What would bring a halt to spiraling rents? It took a financial meltdown in autumn 2008 to topple the last rent peak. After the fall of Lehman Brothers, big landlords, able to pivot on a dime, started offering incentives like two months’ free rent on a one-year lease. Those incentives lingered until 2010.

Barring a similar event, experts say it may simply be an issue of supply and demand, and woes will ease once developers start to bring more new units to market. But for now, more pain may lie ahead: Mr. Malin of Citi Habitats said he did not expect relief for renters anytime soon. “This summer,” he said, “everyone is gearing up to push their rents until tenants say, ‘This is just too much for me.’ ”

Of course, one escape from the gut-twisting rental market is to leave it entirely.

Kimberly Kreuzberger and her husband, Bryan, both 32, were thrilled when they first moved into their loft studio at 666 Greenwich Street in March 2009.

The rent was $3,200 a month, but with the two free months they were offered, it worked out to just over $2,800. Last year, when the rent was bumped up to $3,450, they reluctantly signed on for another year. It was a lot to pay, but they loved living in one of the rare doorman buildings in the West Village.

Then they got word that the landlord was planning another increase this June. The rent would rise to $3,795.

“We were furious when we got it,” said Ms. Kreuzberger, who works in advertising sales. In the elevator, the increase was the sole topic of conversation among neighbors. “People will be like, I got hit for 13 percent, someone else 7 percent,” she said.

The couple made up their minds to move; but rents for the kinds of two-bedrooms in elevator buildings they desired would be at least $6,000 a month.

Their broker, Scott Elyanow of Citi Habitats, urged them to think about buying an apartment, and to look in neighborhoods they might not have considered.

At first, the idea of leaving the Village “was like a death to us,” Ms. Kreuzberger said.

But the more they saw of the rental market, the more convinced they became that the time had come to buy.

The couple settled on a two-bedroom apartment at 100 Jay Street in Dumbo, Brooklyn. They paid just over $1 million, putting 25 percent down, and recently moved in. Their monthly outlay is $4,250, which covers their mortgage, common charge and taxes.

“It was such a leap,” she said. “But we could not be happier.”

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