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Notebook Lifestyle

Renting for one

(Krieg Barrie)

Society

Renting for one

By choice or by chance, more New Yorkers and other Americans are living alone 

When Sarah Yim had roommates, she could barely cram her juice into an overcrowded freezer. Her new, roommate-free apartment is smaller, but the freezer has room to spare. Yim, a designer for J.P. Morgan, now pays fees and utilities alone, and groceries can be tricky: Her soy milk once turned chunky before she could drink it, and buying lettuce means eating salad for a week or watching it go bad. 

Yim, a 24-year-old resident of New York City who has lived alone for nearly a year, is like an increasing number of Americans. As young people marry later and seniors live longer, the share of single-person households has risen nationwide from 13 percent in 1960 to 28 percent in 2018. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 33 percent of New York City households were single-person in 2017—higher than the national average, but lower than other cities.

Young city dwellers with means might downsize to escape inconsiderate roommates. Older residents might remain in an apartment as family members die or move out. Whatever the reason, living alone in New York comes with specific challenges and benefits.

New York City is expensive, and living alone can be even more so. An analysis by real estate website StreetEasy found that singles who move to New York City often live in Manhattan, in neighborhoods with plentiful one-bedroom apartments and high rents. 

Yim pays $1,800 a month plus utilities for her studio apartment, a third-floor walk-up in Lenox Hill, a wealthy neighborhood in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. According to a 2019 report from Apartment List, that’s twice the national average of $827, but just below New York’s average of $1,889 and below Lenox Hill’s median of $2,200 on StreetEasy.

But her apartment, decorated with her original paintings and filled with furniture she chose, provides peace and solitude. She’s been there almost a year, and the clerks at her local grocery store know her well enough to help find her favorite items.

On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Art Muchow also lives alone. Muchow, 87, has lived in the same three-bedroom apartment for more than 50 years. It’s where he raised two sons with his wife, who died in 2004. 

Seniors who live alone often become lonely as their peers move in with children or into assisted living. With lower incomes and diminishing community, they may struggle to age in place. But Muchow’s building is part of a middle-class affordable housing program, and he estimates he pays a third of the market rate for his apartment. Many of his neighbors are also longtime residents, and with the help of affordable housing rates, they have been able to stay and keep their small community.

“There is something particularly excellent about growing very old with a large number of people whom you know well,” Muchow said.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Living alone can come with risks. The U.S. Department of Justice reported rising crime against never-married individuals, who are more likely to live alone, from 2015 to 2017. But Yim and Muchow have found ways to minimize the risks. In her previous sixth-floor apartment, Yim and her roommate once woke to an intruder at the window. She chose her current apartment partially because the police station is a block away, and she feels safe leaving a window open for fresh air.

Muchow, surrounded by friends and neighbors, also sees no reason to worry about his safety and likes the city’s easy access to everything he needs. His grocery and bank are within a few blocks. His 27-floor building has laundry machines and a gated back patio for parties amid potted flowers and plastic lawn chairs. A public bus takes him to a favorite coffee shop.

People living alone in New York City also find businesses and restaurants eager for their patronage. Subway posters advertise 10-slice loaves of bread, an alternative to freezing or trashing unfinished slices from larger loaves. Charmin offers extra-large toilet paper rolls, more convenient than storing extra rolls in a small apartment.

People who live alone are more likely to eat out, and many New York restaurants welcome solo dining. Some require it: Ichiran, a Japanese ramen chain, forces diners to eat alone with “flavor concentration booths,” where bamboo shades block distractions from the meal. 

Living alone might seem guaranteed to increase loneliness, but a study published in Developmental Psychology suggested that it depends partially on whether someone chooses to live alone, as Yim does. She meets neighbors while dog-walking or working out at a local gym, and with a little more effort, she can see friends for dinner or drinks. But Yim still said she misses the ease of hanging out with roommates, meeting their friends, and always having a buddy for brunch. 

As single-person households become more common, churches have an opportunity to fight loneliness with Christ-centered community. Rosaria Butterfield, author of a book on hospitality called The Gospel Comes With a House Key, said in an interview with the Desiring God ministry that churches often foster loneliness, but can intentionally build community instead. For instance, she recommends church elders compile a list of homes that are open, no invitation needed, for holidays. 

She also emphasized the value of living near other church members. Muchow attends a parish church a few blocks from his house, which allows him to occasionally see other congregants while running errands. He also attends an evening lecture now and then and helps count the offering on Monday mornings.

Muchow says he and his neighbors are content in their apartments: “We all feel we should be carried out in a box.”

—Esther Eaton is WORLD’s New York intern