Letter From America: Apartment Living

New York's tabloids are agog over Gotham's latest grisly murder. Three thugs burst into a man's apartment, beat him brainless with a baseball bat, strangled him, dumped him into a bathtub, drained his blood by slitting his wrists, then sawed him into bits. One of the suspects, it turns out, had strangled a neighbor only a few months before. The motive then, as now: they needed a place to live. Their likely plea? Insanity.

Sure, the crimes were horrific, macabre, tragic. But insane? In a town where the average apartment now sells for $870,000, what could be more rational? Last week I viewed an $8 million apartment on Park Avenue. The real-estate broker had called me out of the blue, wanting to drum up publicity for her exclusive. "I want the building address and my name in the piece," she told me in no uncertain terms. Of course, I rushed right over. In New York, nothing seduces like real estate. It's all people talk about--at cocktail parties, over dinner, in bed. It drives everything in the city, from relationships to how many kids we have to who gets murdered and carved up.

The place did not disappoint: 4,500 square feet, 10 rooms, an elevator opening into a private vestibule, views in three directions. But ugh. That Louis XIV furniture. Carpeting as deep as quicksand. George and Barb Bush framed in gold. The broker called it a "grande dame" apartment and suggested it was perfect for CEOs with "important" art collections. Goya's "The Red Boy" had once hung in the 40-foot living room, she added, as I thought of my husband's tacked-up movie posters back home.

I tried not to be upset. Last month we bought our first apartment in New York. The entire thing would fit in the Park Avenue place's kitchen. The bedroom faces a concrete wall. On hot summer evenings the rats on the block rummage through the garbage. But it has a certain gritty charm, I tell myself. Panhandlers and salsa music permeating the streets certainly have more character than the shrubbery and doormen of Park Avenue. Right?

Alas, the indignities of living in New York. The Wall Street boom may be foundering, but the real-estate market hasn't looked back. New Yorkers now spend more than 35 percent of their income on rent. That's more than in Hong Kong (29 percent) or London (about 18 percent, including rent and mortgage payments). For buyers the picture is downright bleak. Property values have doubled since the early '90s. A decent (more than 700 square feet) one-bedroom: $300,000. A two-bedroom: $550,000 minimum, but more likely $750,000.

Finding the "place of your dreams" is only half the battle. Most New York apartments are cooperatives. That means tenants are shareholders in the building and have the right to pick and choose their neighbors like a private club. And in these flush times co-op boards can afford to be as choosy as they wish, demanding obscenely large cash down payments. The co-op board interview--yes, there's a formal, sit-down session where members decide if you're up to snuff--is like Judgment Day. Prospective buyers submit an application the length of a legal brief and the board picks through everything. If you do manage to pass, your neighbors will know how much you earn, how large a trust fund your granddaddy left you and how late you were on last year's car payments. We're lucky to have made it through on our second try. Two of our friends, struggling artists raising two kids, have been turned down by so many co-op boards they've decided to move to Rome.

Obviously, this process tests relationships. Tama Janowitz's classic, "Slaves of New York," is replete with loveless cohabiting couples bound together by their inability to afford places of their own. Today, the problem has spread to divorces. An acquaintance recently found out his wife was gay. Unable to buy each other out of their apartment (purchased years ago for a pittance and now worth about $1 million), they've worked out an arrangement. They take turns living with the children in two-week shifts. On off weeks, the husband stays in his rented one-bedroom. Alternately, his wife moves in with her girlfriend.

And then there's the city's First Family. Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his wife, Donna Hanover, estranged for years but only now divorcing, are locked in a titanic struggle over the mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion. The famously autocratic mayor has somehow been forced out of his home's grand, upstairs living space and into the humble guest room downstairs. Adding insult to injury, his wife had a judge bar his mistress from the house. And Donna refuses to budge. Why? Because the couple's pre-mayoral apartment has been sublet, and she wants her kids to have their own rooms. It makes you want to kill.