New York Rents Appear Close to Bottom

After a year of record price declines, lease signings are up and landlords are pulling back on rent concessions.

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After months of record price cuts and concessions, New York City’s rental market appears to be turning the corner, but it could be at least a year before prices return to their pre-Covid peak, according to two new reports.

In May, the median rent in Manhattan, including concessions, was $3,037 a month, up 8.8 percent from the previous month — the biggest monthly increase in nearly a decade, according to the brokerage Douglas Elliman. Even with the sharp increase, the price was still 11.1 percent below the median rent a year earlier, and 14 percent below the recent peak, when median rent reached $3,540 in April 2020.

While the warmer months tend to see increased activity, the rise suggests more than a seasonal upswing, said Jonathan J. Miller, a real estate appraiser and the author of the report. There were 9,491 leases signed in May, breaking the record set just one month prior for the most signings since 2008.

“The market, with all this new leasing activity, is beginning to stabilize,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s finding a bottom.”

The same is true in Brooklyn and Queens, where the median asking rent has begun to rise after several months of decline or stagnation, according to a report by the listing site StreetEasy. In May, the median rent in Brooklyn, not including concessions, was $2,499, up from $2,400 in April; in Queens, it rose to $2,100 from $2,050.

But renters haven’t necessarily missed their opportunity at discounted apartments, said Nancy Wu, an economist with StreetEasy.

“Just because more and more people are getting vaccinated and are coming back doesn’t mean these incentives will disappear with the snap of a finger,” she said. Concessions, including one or more months of free rent, remain higher than pre-Covid levels, as do other sweeteners.

While New York State recently upheld agents’ ability to charge broker fees, many landlords are still covering those fees to entice renters, Ms. Wu said. On StreetEasy, 81 percent of listings from January through May advertised that tenants would not have to pay broker fees, which can add up to 15 percent of an annual lease — the highest share of no-broker-fee listings on the site since 2015.

It’s a sign that the recovery will be slow. In Manhattan, there were 19,025 apartments for rent in May, Mr. Miller said, down 26.5 percent from a peak of 25,883 in January, when many affluent renters had decamped to nearby suburbs and workers in hard-hit industries struggled to pay the rent at all. But the current inventory remains more than 50 percent above long-term norms. The unemployment rate in New York City — which has an outsize effect on renters and curtails new leases — was still 11.4 percent in April, compared to 3.8 percent in March 2020, the last month before the pandemic took its toll

And there are thousands of New Yorkers at risk of losing their homes later this summer, when a statewide eviction moratorium is expected to end. The pandemic drastically deepened debt for low-income renters who were already at risk of eviction. While a roughly $2.4 billion state program for emergency rental assistance opened to applicants on June 1, some tenant groups have questioned whether the funding and outreach will be sufficient.

New York’s price reset is part of a nationwide trend spurred by tenants seeking lower rents and more space, said Brian Carberry, a senior managing editor with Apartment Guide, a listing aggregation site.

In April, among 100 U.S. markets, Las Vegas had the biggest average rent increase for one-bedroom apartments at $1,653, or 44 percent higher than the same month in 2020, according to the site. It was followed by Virginia Beach, Va., where rents for a one-bedroom rose 32 percent to $1,603, and Mesa, Ariz., where they rose 25 percent to $1,268.

Among the cities with the biggest average price declines for one-bedroom apartments from the same month last year were San Francisco, down 19 percent to $3,137, Washington, D.C., down 17 percent to $2,181, and New York, down 15 percent to $3,684.

“If you always wanted to live somewhere expensive, now is the time to go there,” Mr. Carberry said.

But while deals persist, some landlords are starting to draw back on those sweeteners.

“The prices are coming up, and the concessions are coming off,” said Beatriz Moitinho, an agent with Keller Williams NYC, noting that some buildings that once offered four or five months free on a 16-month lease in the winter are now down to one or two months free.

There has been especially strong activity downtown, in neighborhoods like the East Village, Ms. Moitinho said, where inbound college students — or their parents, more likely — are once again bidding on apartments sight unseen. Areas like the Upper East Side have been slower to rebound, but there, too, prices are rising.

“We’re seeing things change daily downtown, and weekly everywhere else,” she said.

Renters are sensing the shift. In an analysis of the last two and a half years of lease terms, tenants signed the shortest leases in January 2021, an average of 13.2 months, an indication that they believed prices could dip further by the time they renewed, Mr. Miller said. In May, the average lease jumped to 15.6 months, the longest during that period, suggesting that renters want to lock in their current prices.

“Renters are seeing the window close on declining rents,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean an immediate rebound to pre-Covid levels.”

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