The New York Times
By: Natalie Kitroeff
June 8, 2014
For young people, moving to New York City hasn't made much mathematical sense for decades. The jobs don't pay enough, the internships don't pay at all, and the rents are prohibitive by any sane standard.
But now add a new economic fact of life to that list: soaring student loan debt. More students are taking out bigger loans than ever before, and in the last 10 years alone, education debt tripled, reaching over $1 trillion. A record number of college students are graduating knee deep in a financial hole before they begin their adult lives.
Still, new research suggests that college is working, economically. Four years on campus nets the average graduate almost twice as much in wages as someone without a degree. Those odds may be comforting in the long run, but not when you're young, deeply in debt and trying to nest in New York City.
For many people in college and recently out of it, the pressure of debt seems to be colliding in new ways with the problem of finding a place to live in the city, adding a layer of complication to something that was already plenty complicated.
When Tierney Cooke arrived in New York City in 2010, she faced a daunting choice: pay rent or pay off her student debt. She had taken out loans to put herself through four years at the University of Washington in Seattle, and her first job as a nanny barely paid the bills.
The total loan payment ''was coming in close to $1,000 per month,'' Ms. Cooke said. ''There was no way that I wasn't going to pay rent. I didn't think of it as a choice.''
Ms. Cooke, 26, a California native, eventually landed a job in digital advertising, but still couldn't find the money to pay the rent and the debt collectors at the same time.
Several missed payments dashed her credit score and that of her father, since he had co-signed the loans. Ms. Cooke stifled her dream of living alone.
''I take my responsibility for my part and not being on top of it,'' Ms. Cooke said, but added that she signed on the dotted line as a clueless teenager. ''At 18 or 19, agreeing to take on thousands and thousands of dollars of debt, I had no idea what it meant.''
Data released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York suggests that the relationship between student loan debt and the housing market has turned ugly fast. People with student debt used to buy homes at higher rates than peers who had not taken out loans, partly because going to college meant earning more money, according to the report.
But in 2012, the New York Fed reported that for the first time in at least a decade, 30-year-old student borrowers were less likely to take out home mortgages than other young people. Among people around 30 years old, homeownership was plunging fastest for student debtors.
Economists are worried. Last month, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said that student loan debt was taking the life out of the housing recovery, and the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz called the rising debt ''an educational crisis'' that is ''affecting our potential future growth.''
But if it is a crisis, then it begins long before twenty something's turn 30 and start to think about white picket fences. From the moment they leave the classroom and enter the real world, young people are often on a delayed schedule, unable to take even baby steps toward real estate maturity.
Eventually, Ms. Cooke moved into a two-bedroom in Manhattan that housed four women, one boyfriend and two dogs, including Ms. Cooke's cockapoo, Oliver.
''I couldn't take it,'' she said. ''They were all in college.''
But she couldn't move into her own place without saving up some money first, and she couldn't do that without cutting out one of her two biggest expenses: rent and her recently resumed loan payments. This time, she chose to keep up the loan payments.
She moved out, and for two months, slept on friends' couches and air mattresses in divided bedrooms and spare nooks. Oliver, the dog, was not always welcome where Ms. Cooke was, so he had his own itinerary of abrupt relocations. She shed any remnants of an REM cycle at her sixth pit stop. ''I was basically sharing a living room with a guy who snored and talked in his sleep,'' she said.
When two landlords rejected her, Ms. Cooke put a housing-wanted ad on Craigslist and found a landlord in Bedford-Stuyvesant who looked past her credit score and let Oliver charm him out of a no-pets policy.
The joy of her own address has not done much to ease Ms. Cooke's financial anxiety. ''I think about what happens when I meet someone and we want to get married. Then my debt becomes their debt,'' she said. ''These are all adult things that I never thought about when I was 18 and agreeing to take on a student loan.''
For some young people, a home in New York is an ever more distant prospect.
Brittaney Barbosa, 24, has been living in a motel on Long Island for the last two months while she scours New York City for an apartment.
The numbers are not on her side. She has a 2-year-old son, a full-time job and a student loan bill of $30,000. Ms. Barbosa defaulted on her loan payment, joining 600,000 students across the country, or 15 percent of recent borrowers who have defaulted on their loans within three years.
''It's affected my credit, it's affected my apartment-hunting process,'' she said. She has seen more than two dozen apartments in eight weeks. ''You have to make 40 times the rent, and I don't. They don't want me.''
In the meantime, most of what she earns goes toward the $100 a night she spends on the motel room.
Ms. Barbosa said she took out a loan to study fashion merchandising at Bay State College in Boston, but left the program after a year. Her debt followed her back to her hometown on Long Island, where she gave birth to her son. She eventually began taking classes again at Queensborough Community College.
She is in school until 2 p.m. most days, and works in customer service at an oil company from around 4 to 11 p.m. Her mother and her child's father take turns watching the toddler during the day.
Life in the motel, which shares a spread with the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, can be dreary. ''It's seedy and weird,'' said Ms. Barbosa, recalling a recent tattoo convention during which the motel acquired both visitors and a pungent smell of marijuana.
''I'm at the end of my rope here,'' she said. She's been staring down the numbers for months and is starting to believe that there is no place for her in New York. She has already begun seeking a rental in New Jersey.
Some young people are opting to leave town rather than trying to tackle New York rents and debt all at once. Joseph Trout, a Philadelphia-born chemist with about $19,000 in loans coming due and a long history of barely getting by, has decided to back away from the city altogether.
A soon-to-be former doctoral student, Mr. Trout, 22, has never counted on outside funding. He went into the foster system at age 14, emerging two years later to become the valedictorian of his high school. He earned a spot at Temple University, he said, which he financed with a hefty student loan.
He was obsessed with his studies. ''I realized that if I didn't graduate I was going to fall back to where I came from,'' he said. ''I'm not letting this become my destiny,'' he told himself. ''I want something better.''
He came to New York about a year ago as a graduate student on a full scholarship to study chemistry at New York University. His apartment, a shared two-bedroom in Stuyvesant Town, is partly subsidized by the university, but Mr. Trout isn't impressed with the $1,100 a month in rent that comes out of his own pocket.
''The fact that people think it's a good deal makes me think people here are brainwashed,'' he said.
There's a lot about New York City that loses its shine when Mr. Trout is doing the looking. He sees Manhattan as ''just a place,'' doesn't know why he should subsist on noodles ''just so I can live in an area with a few parks nearby'' and is troubled by the New York tax on a simple sub. ''Knowing there are people on this planet who think their sandwiches are worth $10 apiece bothers me immensely.''
He has decided to leave the graduate program, partly because he feels overwhelmed by the work and partly because he does not feel he has much in common with the other students. That means finding a new apartment and a job, and in about six months, starting to pay off his loans.
The impending payments and the pressure of shouldering rent and utilities alone has forced Mr. Trout to look far beyond the city limits. He has contemplated moving back to a rough area of Philadelphia; he says rents decline with the increased likelihood of being mugged.
''There's utility in having jerk neighbors,'' he said, ''because it makes sure you have enough money in your own pocket when it comes time to pay the rent.''
He is also considering moving to Rockland County to be near his fiancée. He has found some rooms in the area for around $500 per month, which is far lower than the average rent in New York City.
No stranger to struggle, Mr. Trout said that, if things get bad, he will invest in keeping himself afloat before trying to keep the collectors at bay.
''If I don't get all the income, then my survival comes first, because what are they going to do, milk a rock? They can't take money from me that I don't have,'' he said.
He regards a future of juggling rent and loan payments with some dread. But he says he is better off with the debt than without it.
''My upward mobility completely depended on getting that education,'' he said. ''Debt or no debt, I would do it again, because it was my only way out.''