Home ownership is turning into an impossible dream for many New Yorkers trying to raise families and cope with rising prices, debt and a challenging job market.
It's tough to get traction in a city where the median income of $50,886 has remained almost flat since 2000 and 30% of the residents pay more than half their incomes for rent, a "severe burden," according to federal standards cited in a report by City Comptroller John C. Liu.
But the current squeeze is exacerbated by several overlooked trends, said Philip Kasinitz, a sociology professor at CUNY Graduate Center: Rising rents and fewer rent-regulated apartments; increasing numbers of affluent people who once migrated to the suburbs but now wish to raise kids in Manhattan; and more parents wishing to escape private school costs by moving to neighborhoods with good public schools.
Areas in the outer boroughs may have family friendly housing, "but they tend to be in places where the schools suck," Kasinitz noted.
Nationally, households headed by adults under the age of 35 had a stunning 68% less wealth than their same-aged counterparts had in 1984, according to a 2011 Pew Research study. The same study showed that the number of households headed by adults under the age of 35 who have incomes below the poverty line almost doubled from 1967 to 2010, going from 12% to 22%.
The home-owning picture for the younger people is especially grim in New York, where many are trapped by high rents that don't allow them to save enough for a down payment on a home.
"We live hand to mouth, pretty much. It's robbing Peter to pay Paul," said renter Zoila Sylvester, 28, a marketing director for Mayimba Music, who is engaged to Zach Darton, 28, a graphic artist with whom she lives in Carroll Gardens.
Having given up on being able to afford a home to buy, she dreams of finding a large, rent-regulated apartment.
How to have a family in the city where she grew up, "is something I stress over all the time," said the writer Nona Willis Aronowitz, 28.
Aronowitz, who rents an apartment in Crown Heights with her husband, an independent filmmaker, is working on a book called "Generation Crash" about the diminished possibilities facing people her age.
"I feel kind of indignant, like, 'you're not going to push me out of my own city!'" Aronowitz said.
Three-bedroom homes of all types in the city increased only 14% to $418,800 from Feb. 2003 to December 2012, according to the Zillow Home Value Index, but the devil in the increases is in the details. Manhattan three-bedroom homes increased 525% since Sept. 1997, from $400,200 to $2.5 million.
Two bedroom homes in Brooklyn rose 12% - from $465,300 in April 2005 to $521,300 in December 2012. But homes in high demand neighborhoods with great schools and low crime rates easily command millions, Realtors said.
"There is a lot of frustration," among prospective buyers, said Elizabeth Kohen, a broker at Garfield Realty, which specializes in Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Park Slope.
Many want to take advantage of low-interest rates right now, but "the buyers who have all cash and have a substantial amount to put down are the ones who wind up owning," Kohen said. The market right now "is on fire," with young couples often being staked to their first homes by affluent, older relatives, Kohen said.
"You can't get an apartment for less than $300,000 and for that price you can't raise a family in it," said Aislinn Forbes, 28, of Brooklyn Heights.
There are distinct winners and losers in the home-finding musical chairs game. Finance professionals and hedge fund wunderkinds are winning bidding wars, but "creative types" and blue-collar workers who aren't incubating sizable nest eggs are out in the cold, experts said.
Average home listing prices, by county, for the week ending 2/27/13, according to Trulia:
Bronx Co.: $369,082
Queens Co.: $411,577
Richmond Co.: $476,998
Kings Co.: $679,675
New York Co.: $2,396,537
How Couples Cope
Facing the harsh calculus of what it takes to support a family in the city, couples reach different conclusions and make different trade-offs.
While some find themselves raising their kids in places smaller than they ever imagined, others bolt the area entirely, finding family-friendlier shores in other states.
Some, like Evie Nagy, 36, reconcile themselves to commuting across a river. "There's no way we could ever have afforded to buy," a home in the city, said Nagy, who lives in Jersey City Heights with her husband and their young daughter.
Nona Willis Aronowitz, 28, said she plans to ask her dad Stanley Aronowitz, (the distinguished sociology professor) to sell his Manhattan apartment and help her and her husband buy a house.
She envisions her 80-year-old father living on the first floor while she and her husband, and future children bunk upstairs, not unlike the multigenerational arrangements in many immigrant families. "By necessity, multi-generational living has to come back," Aronowitz said.
A lucky few beat the odds and win one of the income-restricted HDFC or Mitchell-Lama lotteries for affordable housing. Brooklyn Heights resident Aislinn Forbes' fiancé, Jesse Cohn, 29, a lawyer, won a lottery for a $36,000 one-bedroom apartment Mitchell-Lama co-op.
"I don't know where we'd be if we hadn't got this apartment," Forbes said. "After we have a child - not when we're pregnant - but when we have a birth certificate, we can put our names on a waiting list for a two-bedroom," Forbes explained.