After flood damage chased us out of our so-called ‘luxury’ basement apartment in Park Slope, my husband and I, and our young daughters, ages 4 and a half and 1, scrambled to find housing. First we spent a week at a hotel, because after dealing with contaminated water, mold and packing up our apartment for the second time in two months, we were exhausted. After that, we spent three months moving from sublet to sublet, four in all.
Staying in strangers’ homes was definitely the weirdest NYC housing experience I ever had, even though we never went far from our own neighborhood. And I certainly learned a lot along the way about being displaced with young children.
Why did we need to stay in so many sublets? I had found a new apartment in a brownstone for our family to rent, but it was being gut renovated and it wasn’t clear when it would be ready. If you’ve ever tried to move on extremely short notice (and within a tiny but highly desirable Park Slope school zone) you know that if you find something decent, you need to commit to it.
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So finding temporary apartments while we waited for our rental to be completed became my new job, along with taking care of our daughters. At the time, Airbnb was in its infancy and the best source for short-term apartments was on Craigslist, in the “vacation rentals” section. These were apartments available for short stays of two or three weeks, but not longer.
We limited ourselves to sublets near our neighborhood because my older daughter was going to summer camp and had doctor visits and other appointments. I wanted to keep up our normal routine as much as possible, even though it meant trudging long distances to go to her regular playground to see friends, rather than a different one close by. Somehow, I had convinced myself that it was my duty as my parent and that everything would be ok as long as I duplicated our usual schedule, even though it left me frazzled.
Stay where the toys are
For our first temporary apartment, we stayed at an apartment belonging to friends who were away for a few weeks. This was our easiest move. We were close friends and it felt very comfortable to be somewhere familiar. Plus, the kids had a bonkers amount of toys. If you have kids, try sublet from someone who has kids.
For example, one morning, as I was making my daughter’s lunch to take to camp, I saw that her name was no longer visible on her lunch box. I needed a Sharpie to relabel it and we were running late. Did my friends keep a Sharpie in their utility drawer like me? Yes, they did. That little epiphany—that families more or less set up their apartments the same way, was very comforting.
Our second stay was not as comfortable. It was in a co-op where the pilot light in the oil burner in the basement blew out and my husband had to go down there to light it with a match. He had no way of knowing that the super kept parakeets in the basement. They. Freaked. Him. Out. Who keeps parakeets in a basement? That apartment felt like it was teeming with secrets and I tried not to look around too much, but I couldn’t help notice there was Botox in the fridge and boxes of blond wigs spilling from a shelf in the linen closet. Don’t snoop in sublets, it will only make you feel weird.
A cat is a good distraction
But the apartment also had lots of toys, which belonged to the children that lived there, and a cat for us to take of, so my kids were thrilled. After that I deliberately searched for apartments with cats.
In fact, I was beginning to realize that my kids were actually ok with our itinerant situation. To them, moving to a new apartment every few weeks was an adventure. They thought it was exciting to arrive somewhere new, and would race around, checking everything out, when we first arrived at a new place. That realization also brought me a little peace.
So did my husband’s very good sense of humor. We had a running gag around mealtimes. My husband thought I could create a reality cooking show called “Sublet Cooking.” Contestants would be required to create child-friendly meals on demand in a strange kitchen where you didn’t exactly know where the colander or the spatulas were stored. And then once you figured out where everything was and were starting to feel comfortable, you would move to a new place and start again.
When we packed up our flooded apartment, our focus was on putting all our furniture in storage and taking very little with us. We figured we could get anything we really needed out of storage later. But one thing that I threw in my bag made a big difference: the kids’ nightlight. When you’re waking up in the middle of the night in strange places to comfort a child, or just use the bathroom, and you don’t want to turn on a lamp because your baby is sleeping in your bed, that tiny little light was a big help.
Keep fingerprints off the art
When the weather turned from summer to fall, we sublet an artist’s loft in Greenwood for our third place. The owner worked in a studio on the ground floor and was not happy to have us there. There was art and knickknacks everywhere; there were also planted terraces and walls were done in jewel-toned Venetian plaster. We were warned not to leave handprints on the walls. It was beautiful but not a place for young children. I shifted everything that I thought was a child hazard, or something that my children could break, to safer spots in the apartment. When it was time for us to leave, before we were even out the door, the artist rushed in to move everything back into position.
With the change in season, I was starting to feel even sadder. It was taking forever to get into a permanent situation. My older daughter picked up on my mood.
“We’re homeless,” she told the parents of her friends.
“We’re not homeless,” I told her. “You can say, ‘We’re between apartments.’”
I thought making a joke about it sounded better. And after all, we had just sold an apartment and had money in the bank. How could we say that we were ‘homeless?’ It seemed gross to compare our situation to people who were really suffering, yet I think we caught a closer glimpse than most.
The lightness of being keyless
The day we moved from one sublet to another was always very strange. Like a hotel, checkout is in the morning, but you typically don’t check in until the afternoon. One of those check in/check out days, I felt completely unmoored and weightless. For the first time in my life, I had no keys in my purse: no apartment key, no building key, not even a mail key. We don’t own a car. We had nowhere to be for a few hours and we were pretty tired of it all.
We ended up at a temple block party. Coincidentally, it was the celebration of Sukkot, a Jewish harvest festival, which is all about temporary shelters, in this case the ones that farmers built to dwell in while they brought in the crops. My kids happily colored pictures of apples and made paper chains for decorations.
I remember that day vividly because I was thinking that no one there knew we had no place to go for a few hours. Most importantly, our children didn’t realize it. We were going to be ok, I thought. Our housing situation—our crisis —was just temporary.
A few hours later, we moved into our last sublet, a garden apartment in a brownstone that was very dark and strangely damp. At that point I was counting the days, because two weeks later, we would move into our freshly renovated apartment that was bright and thankfully, very dry.
One final note: even then, I knew that short-term rentals under 30 days are illegal in NYC. I will forever be grateful that there are plenty of decent people willing to buck the law (and earn a buck, sure) by renting out their apartment. By all means, tax them, regulate them, do whatever is needed. But don’t force short-term rentals out of existence, because apartments can flood, landlords can screw you and sometimes you need a place when you’re in between apartments.
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