Patience, persistence are keys to finding a new home.

Shannon Kerr came to New York in 2001 and landed in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where this small-town girl was shocked to find herself learning “to play dominoes on the stoop while drinking beers out of brown bags.” The beer was courtesy of a neighbor who happened to be a drug dealer. Kerr later moved to Astoria, Queens, where her landlord’s wife once locked her in the backyard “like a dog.”

Every day actors come to New York to follow a seemingly impossible dream, only to find themselves with two: a career on stage and screen, and an affordable place to live. There are no shortcuts for either goal, and finding an apartment in New York can be overwhelming for struggling actors on a tight budget: Do I really have to spend $2,000 a month on a studio apartment? Is that Brooklyn neighborhood safe enough to walk through alone? Will the commute from Queens prevent me from enjoying New York’s nightlife? Will the roommate I found on Craigslist turn out to be a psycho?

Aid for Aimless Actors

Thankfully, Lucy Seligson is here to help. Seligson is a social worker and housing specialist with the Actors Fund, which provides a variety of services for anyone who works in the performing arts and entertainment. That includes free seminars on affordable housing in New York, with a focus on subsidized housing. “If you have affordable housing,” Seligson says, “it really enables you to pursue your career in a whole different way than if you don’t.”

Although there’s little subsidized housing specifically for actors, the Actors Fund and other organizations are trying to turn the stigma of “the projects” upside down. Common Ground, for example, offers supportive housing for the homeless and low-income working professionals, with buildings in Chelsea, Times Square, the Upper West Side, and the Flatiron District. Each building has a waiting list; how long you wait depends partly on your annual income. Kerr added her name to the list, and after three years she got into the Prince George residence on East 28th Street, between Madison and Fifth avenues in Manhattan.

“I called every few weeks to see if they had anything for me,” Kerr says. “They told me no and no again. Many people in a lower-income category get in in a matter of weeks or a few months, but it has absolutely been worth the wait.” Kerr pays about $700 a month for her spacious studio apartment, in a building with 24-hour security, a gym, a rooftop garden, laundry facilities, free yoga, and free acupuncture, among other amenities.

The Actors Fund has also joined forces with Common Ground on two buildings. The Aurora, a 30-story luxury building at 57th Street and 10th Avenue in Manhattan, was converted into 178 shared residential units. It’s like any other apartment building in the city, but with more artistically minded residents. And Schermerhorn House, a 217-unit residence for single adults currently under construction in downtown Brooklyn, will begin accepting applications this week. Its amenities are comparable to those at the Prince George and other Common Ground buildings, and include a performance space and multipurpose room that can be used for auditions, rehearsals, performances, films, exhibitions, and other cultural activities.

Another option is Manhattan Plaza, centrally located on West 43rd Street and Ninth Avenue in the theatre district. It was originally conceived as a luxury apartment complex, but the builders declared bankruptcy and the buildings were converted to subsidized housing about 30 years ago. Richard Hunnings, the buildings’ director of operations, has lived there since before the complex officially opened.

“It’s the same apartment, same services, same everything as the people who might be paying $5,000 a month in rent,” Hunnings says. “It’s a highly desirable place to live. In this business, you could be on Broadway and making a lot of money, but in a few months the show closes and you’re back on unemployment. And your rent is adjusted accordingly. It can go up and down.” Although the waiting list is currently closed, Hunnings says potential tenants can contact the building and request that an application be sent when the list reopens.

But where will you live while you’re on a waiting list? For starters, it might be best to forget Manhattan.

Of Bridges and Tunnels

Actor Bill Barclay and his three roommates each pay $825 a month to live in a two-story brick house with a lawn and private roof in one of Brooklyn’s most vibrant and exciting neighborhoods. “You get only two out of the following three things in your New York City housing: good price, good neighborhood, or good space,” he says. “Make your priorities and search accordingly. If space is not the least important factor to you, don’t start looking in Manhattan.”

A subway ride to Astoria or other parts of Queens or to Prospect Heights, Greenpoint, Flatbush, or Bushwick in Brooklyn, among other neighborhoods, reveals a cheap but still convenient alternative to Manhattan. The Bronx is also booming. If you must live on the island that locals call “the city,” Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood are possibilities, but you might also consider the mainland: New Jersey.

Phil Rivo, a real estate agent at the Armagno Agency, has lived in Jersey City for about 20 years and says it’s “closer to Manhattan than most of Manhattan. At midnight you can drive into New York in five minutes. If you go at rush hour, you take the PATH or the bus right to Midtown. And it’s literally a mile away. If you want to go to a bar in Manhattan and stay out until 3 a.m., it’s probably going to take you longer to get home if you live in Brooklyn than if you live in Jersey City.”

Rivo stresses that Jersey City, though it feeds off the life of New York, is a vibrant city in itself, with many bars and restaurants as well as its own arts scene, all significantly cheaper than Manhattan. “Plus,” he says, “we have the better view.”

Going for Brokers

Wherever you start your apartment search, real estate brokers will be there to offer you help in finding the home of your dreams, generally for a fee equal to 15 percent of the first year’s rent. For example, if a broker finds you an apartment for the reasonable price of $1,000 a month, you would need to pay $1,800 on top of the first and last month’s rent and a security deposit, and suddenly that affordable apartment is costing you $4,800 up front. Unless you have substantial savings or a steady income and plan to stay in the same place for a few years, the cost can be prohibitive.

Don Everett is a real estate broker with Corcoran and a card-carrying Equity member. “Sometimes if you have no money and a really low budget,” he says, “then the best thing to do is go on Craigslist and try to find somebody who needs a roommate, and take a friend with you and go to meet those people. That’s sort of the guerrilla approach.”

Everett says brokers and landlords are not necessarily prejudiced against actors, but he and Seligson agree that it’s especially important for actors to present their income up front – and honestly. “The biggest challenge that I find for people in the arts is that they don’t have consistent income,” says Seligson. “They may have contracts throughout the year and fill it in with various kinds of supplemental work. Sometimes buildings and landlords are very thrown off by somebody who comes in with a million W-2s, a bunch of 1099s, and pay stubs from a dozen different employers. So I try to help people figure out how to be as organized as possible in presenting their income.”

“An actor one year can make $1 million and the next year make $15,000,” says Everett. “Landlords just want to be able to see that they’ll get their check.”

Be realistic about your financial situation, but don’t just settle for the cheapest place you can find. Affordable apartments can be found in all but the ritziest neighborhoods, but it takes legwork. “It isn’t all investment bankers,” Everett says. “Shoot for the high mark, then decide what your compromises are going to be.”

“The people who get these affordable apartments are the people who repeatedly apply to everything that comes along,” says Seligson. “The best way to be successful is to cast as wide a net as possible. Don’t just say, ‘I will only live in midtown Manhattan,’ because you probably won’t be successful.” Like submitting headshots to casting directors, she says, “the more you throw out there, the more likely it is that you’re gonna get something and increase your opportunity.”

Visit http://www.actorsfund.org for more information, including a housing bulletin board that’s updated whenever new opportunities are available, tips for finding an apartment in New York, and links to other city housing resources.

The “Welcome to New York” spotlight was published in the Jan. 31-Feb. 6, 2008 issue of Back Stage and online at BackStage.com.

Advertisements