When New Yorker Ismail Kheir graduated from Hunter College in 2019, he didn’t think he’d end up leaving the city for Morgantown, West Virginia. Having just acquired a computer science degree, he would spend the turbulent year of 2020 working as a software engineer in this small college town, close to West Virginia University.
“Of all places.” He chuckles, “While I was living there, I was hanging out with college kids all the time. Even though it was just a two or three year age difference, it was weird because their problems were not my problems anymore.”
Ismail’s move from NYC to West Virginia just happened to coincide with the COVID-19 renter migration. A flood of renters left New York for what was perceived as “greener pastures” in more rural or suburban areas. While Ismail only left NYC to start his new career, he recognizes that living in West Virginia during the pandemic was very different from what he likely would have experienced in New York.
“West Virginia wasn’t necessarily a dangerous place to be for the pandemic, because the population density just isn't there. Whereas in New York, it's very easy for that sort of thing to get out of control.”
At first, Ismail didn’t exactly know what to expect from Morgantown, compared to how he lived in New York. The 23-year-old, who hails from Westchester, New York, is the son of two dentists who immigrated to the United States in the early 2000s. He had spent the majority of his life in New York, but knew he needed to start his career, even if the right job took him away from home. “Every semester of college, my parents paid for my classes and paid for my education. I did a lot of work to make sure I had a job lined up after I graduated.”
Despite being transplanted into a college town, Ismail sought to find and foster a community. However, COVID-19 posed a challenge to his chances at making lasting friendships. West Virginia University’s campus went remote, and the town grew quieter as a result.
Despite the pandemic, Ismail was not going to give up on one of his absolute passions: latin dancing. He was able to develop his skill for salsa, even outside of consistent classes in New York. He laughs, “West Virginia wasn’t exactly in the big leagues when it came to salsa dancing.”
He was only able to attend a few in-person dance classes in West Virginia, which eventually went virtual as the pandemic grew more severe. The virtual classes were uniquely challenging, and one of his teachers and neighbors left the troupe when cases started to climb. When he could, he chose to safely gather a handful of interested dancers to lead his own classes based on online videos that he could find.
Finally after two years working and living remotely in West Virginia, Ismail received a well-timed job offer that he couldn’t refuse. In July 2021, just as NYC was waking up from a pandemic, he took a job as a software engineer at Reddit, Inc.
Ismail was coming back to NYC, which meant coming back to COVID-era apartment hunting, a whole new animal compared to what it once was.
When Ismail started his apartment search in August and September of 2021, he couldn’t get brokers to respond to his inquiries. “I assume it was because I started looking in the off-season, so my options were already limited?”
If we’re talking timing, Ismail was definitely at a disadvantage.
During the pandemic, the cost of rents hit a record low, decreasing 15.5% in Manhattan and 8.6% in Brooklyn and Queens. Renters who opted to stay in the city cashed in on concessions and found exceptional deals on housing in some of New York’s most expensive neighborhoods.
By July 2021, renters who had previously left New York during the exodus, were ready to return to the Big Apple. In-person offices, campuses and schools were re-opening, some without hybrid learning or remote work as an option. “As soon as they start trying to bring people back to the office, that's when I got a job offer.”
The demand for rentals skyrocketed, and the rental market responded: StreetEasy reports that their site visits from renters increased by 59% more renter visits and 76% more renters tried to contact brokers regarding rental listings. Newly-listed apartments were taken in mere hours, and the competition to tour a place in-person was fierce.
The price of rent had also started to spike as a result of the surge in demand. The median rent across all of Brooklyn rose to $2,600, with trendy neighborhoods like Greenpoint costing renters an average of $3,395 per month, well above the pre-pandemic price of rent.
“I looked at places in Downtown Brooklyn, and in Bed-Stuy. One apartment in Bushwick by the J-Train. But it didn’t have a rooftop.” Ismail says, “Only a few places responded, like The Denizen. I think that The Denizen may have had more inventory.”
Ismail’s apartment search ended at The Denizen, and based on its website and apartment listings, you can see why.
Nestled in artsy and rapidly developing Bushwick, this luxury apartment community was developed from what was once a historic brewery, with over 900 rental units split between two buildings that span two city blocks. The building’s facade is bright — with paintings from local artists in its windowed corridors — and architecturally-engaging, taking inspiration from Bushwick’s renown street art and industrial landscape. The community also has ample greenspace with a roof deck that is described on its site as a “personal High Line” for residents.
The Denizen’s light-filled one, two, and three-bedroom apartments are built with floor-to-ceiling windows and private balconies, and more importantly, the modern amenities often missing from other New York City rentals.
“A lot of New York apartments don’t have washer and dryer, or dishwashers in them. I don’t like the idea of leaving my apartment to do my laundry.” Ismail clarifies, adding that he grew up in the suburbs and felt uncomfortable without these necessities.
That’s right, apartments at The Denizen have the coveted in-unit washer and dryer that so many renters seek and never secure.
(These types of modern apartments are less difficult to rent now, thanks to Rhino. Ismail saved $2,891 on his security deposit when he moved in using Rhino, offered by the Denizen to help their residents save on the cost of living. “Due to the time value of money, I didn’t want to pay a month’s rent on a security deposit. I was able to more quickly save a few months of expenses. One of my goals is to gain financial independence and retire early.”)
While Ismail cites the washer-and-dryer as necessities and Rhino as a game-changer, he’s also interested in telling me about his new neighborhood and what he likes to do in the city. “Bushwick is close to Williamsburg, where I go to latin dance class, and not far from Manhattan.” He tells me, before detailing the distinctions between on-one and on-two salsa dancing.
Outside of being a talented dancer, Ismail is also a skilled guitar player and avid reader. He shows me his electric guitar proudly over Zoom. You can tell that he has a knack for socializing with strangers, a skill that is so often under-appreciated in New York.
When he’s not ferociously pursuing his passions, Ismail chooses to see family often as they are now just a short train ride away from his apartment. “My parents still live in Westchester, so I get to visit them every weekend now.”
Because he is able to live and work nearly debt-free, he is able to help his parents with their own. In speaking with Rhino, he told us that he likes to give back to his parents for supporting his education and career: “Their university degrees and the house they bought were financed with debt, so I’ve chosen to try and help them out with some monthly payments. We recently paid down one of the loans that they have, one for my mom’s business.”
When he’s hanging at home, Ismail likes to spend a rare day off work relaxing on The Denizen’s sprawling rooftop, which showcases spectacular views of Manhattan and Queens. With the entire city stretched before him and the cool air on his face, he likes to connect with his fellow residents, perhaps looking for more friends who might be interested in salsa. While renting in New York might not always be predictable, especially as we continue to ride the waves of a persistent pandemic, good neighbors like Ismail make it a warmer welcome than you might expect.