Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
Why low-tech personal networks still help us find housing.
In Roots Cafe, a narrow coffee shop in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood, there’s a hand-drawn sign tacked up on a message board between ads for dog walkers and drawing lessons. "Are you looking for a super awesome roommate?” it asks. “Me too!"
The words are spelled out in bubble letters, scribbled in colored pencil. The sign looks like something out of a diary or a yearbook. It flaps whenever someone opens the door.
It was scrawled by a new Brooklyn transplant whose sublet fell through. When her roommate (whose name was on the lease) decided to rejigger the apartment layout to make room for more tenants, moving out seemed simpler than looking for legal recourse. But finding a new place is proving to be tougher than she thought.
“She came up to the counter and started sobbing,” says Amanda Simpson Neill, who co-owns the cafe with her husband, Christian.
Neill stepped in to help broker a new living arrangement. She introduced the unmoored newcomer to other regulars who might know of people looking to rent out a room; she encouraged her to post a sign people might spot as they breeze through the door.
And this isn’t an unusual move for the staff. When the landlord of a nearby building was looking for new tenants, she enlisted the shop to spread the word, too. (She even sometimes left keys behind the counter, in case the baristas had a minute to step away from the espresso machine and show prospective renters around.)
The trope of the young ingenue trying to find a place to roost in the big city has spawned a whole genre of books and essays. Despite all of the words devoted to the topic, it’s still tricky to accomplish.
City residents have been complaining about the apartment-hunting process seemingly ever since there were apartments to complain about—in New York and further afield. In 1919, a story by a Paris correspondent for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle screeched, “renting a furnished flat in Paris is almost enough to drive a person in Seine.” A recent Time Out New York story offered tips for sharing an apartment with an ex, when awkward cohabitation is preferable to the financial strain and emotional maelstrom of looking for a new place.
The idea of an ally in the process is also a factor underpinning the current rise of roommate-matching services, which take the form of apps and in-person events such as “speed room mating.” The latter is a lightning-round of interviews with fellow searchers; think of it as Tinder for housemates. “You really have to put yourself out there,” one participant explained to a reporter. “You kind of have to be aggressive. There's a small window of opportunity, and it may never come again.”
But if these methods seem impersonal, that’s because they are: they're often evaluating compatibility based on a quick, performative chat or responses you submit, gauging whether your avatar can peacefully co-exist with another one without throttling them in their sleep.
And that’s the thing: people don't choose an apartment based solely on specs. Yes, you want to make sure that there's a bathroom, and enough space for your stuff. But apartment hunters are also looking for a sense of community, of belonging to a place, of being recognized and validated. There are tons of high-tech ways to find a roommate. But for some people, it feels strange to leave a living situation up to an algorithm.
Neill thinks that the cozy environment of the cafe fosters a sense of familiarity that puts customers at ease, and encourages them to speak up about what they’re looking for. “It feels like your grandmother’s house, instead of being in a huge, anonymous building,” she says. One customer told her, “this place is my living room, my kitchen, and my psychiatrist’s office.” Most of the customers are regulars, Neill says—and as she chats with folks en route to the train, she starts to recognize their stories: who’s looking for a roommate, who’s got a room to spare. Better yet, she knows that it will be easy to make a match—people will be reachable the next time they stop by for coffee.
Beyond the cafe, apartment hunters still leverage all sorts of decidedly uncomplicated social connections. One friend told me that she’s found most of her apartments via a network that began in graduate school. When she moved from D.C. to New York, she sought out fellow seekers through alumni message boards. Even if she didn’t glean much info from these postings, they served as a vetting process. “I think a lot of the initial trust was placed on the fact that we had a shared experience and common ground,” she says.
That’s where coffee shops come in, as well. Becoming part of a community of regulars involves entering the fold of a support system. My colleague Eillie Anzilotti recently wrote about this phenomenon as it plays out in bars, reporting that there are measurable upsides to convening at pub. According to new research from Oxford University, regular patrons “have more close friends on whom they can depend for support, are more satisfied with their lives, and feel more embedded in their local communities.” Perhaps the same can be true of relationships we foster over cups of coffee. When we rally our social networks to help us find a place to live, we’re getting an implicit stamp of approval—and maybe someone to share a latte with, too.
“I know how sucky it is to find an apartment, but it’s part of the New York story,” says Neill, who moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee. “It’s always stressful. Once you get a place, you have so much appreciation and empathy, because you remember your own story.”