With the average Manhattan rent hovering around $3,800, it can seem impossible that there was a time when one could find a whole apartment for $500 to $600 a month, let alone something in the double digits. But throughout the 1940s, rents average a mere $50 per month, with many places costing even less than that. But how far would that $50 take you in the next decade? Or the 1980s? Or even today?
To figure that out (in a very unscientific way), we calculated how much $50 of 1940s currency would be throughout the following decades, and then we searched through archived Village Voice classifieds to find apartments that fit the budget. Rents and inflation did not rise on an even scale, so as the years go on, the choices get much slimmer.
[The Lower East Side map in the 1943 market analysis]
Average Rent: $50
In 1943, four major newspapers published an extensive analysis of the market (recently digitized by CUNY's Center for Urban Research), which shows that while $50 may have been the average, there were a whole lot of places cheaper than that. Housing across nearly the entire Lower East Side was less than $30. Greenwich Village was more of a mixed bag, with a decent amount of housing in the $50 to $100 range. Around Washington Square Park, rents even reached above $150.
Average Rent: $60
$50 in 1940 Is Now: $75 to $90
The Village Voice launched in October 1955, and for the first several months, only a handful of apartment listings appeared in the paper's classifieds, most of which were for more than $90. But one could still make out well in the double digits. A three-room unit in an elevator building on the Upper West Side at West End Avenue and 88th Street was asking $98, and a live/work unit with a kitchenette on Waverly Place wanted just $89.
Average Rent: $200
$50 in 1940 Is Now: $90 to $105
In the 1960s, rents averaged about $200, but one could still find a lot of housing for $100 or less. On East 92nd Street, a three-and-a-half room apartment was going for $95 in October 1960, while the following year, you could get an air-conditioned studio with a fireplace in the West Village for $110. Ads from the middle of the decade offer an Alphabet City place for just $49, and a different West Village unit for just $67 (although it comes with a tub in the kitchen). In Brooklyn Heights, studios close to the promenade were asking $56 to $80, but as the above ads show, there were a lot of things much higher. A studio on Bank Street ran $139, and a four-room apartment on Washington Place was listed for $220.
[Ads from Januaray 1971, May 1972]
Average Rent: $335
$50 in 1940 Is Now: $115 to $140
In the Village, less than $150 would be more than enough for a shared apartment. Every week, dozens of apartment shares were advertised. In May 1972, a young person could share a brownstone garden apartment on Grove Street for just $100 or an Upper East Side apartment for $135. That same price could also rent an efficiency in Downtown Brooklyn or any number of apartments in the Lower East Side. On the higher end, a two-bedroom brownstone apartment on Prospect Park was listed for $315, while townhouse units on the Upper West Side started at $425.
Average Rent: $1,700
$50 in 1940 Is Now: $250 to $310
Average rents may have been pretty high, but crime rates were high and many parts of New York were more than gritty. As such, there were a lot of cheap places to live, especially Downtown and in Brooklyn. The Lower East Side offered a lot of options for the $300 price range; June 1982 ads show a Ludlow Street studio and a two-room East 2nd Street apartment (in a "well kept locked building") both for $275. For a real bargain, one could rent a four-room unit at 332 East 4th Street for $295. Across the river, a "charm 4 rms" on a "beaut blk" near BAM was listed for $325, while units in a Williamsburg walk-up were asking $275 to $325.
Average Rent: $3,200
$50 in 1940 Is Now: $435 to $480
In the '90s, New York, along with the rest of the country, had rebounded from the recession during the '80s, and the quality of life was increasing as the crime rate was dropping. Rents soared, which means that $50 of 1940s money was not renting very much, but finding housing for around $450 per month was not unheard of. A few ads in October 1994 tout rent stabilized studios for around $440, and studios in Astoria were listed for $450 in 1990. But more likely, a renter with this budget would be sharing an apartment. In September 1990, a room in an apartment near the Brooklyn Museum was listed for $450, including gas and electric. The place came with two roommates.
Average Rent: $3,800
$50 in 1940 Is Now: $600 to $650
Rents have been super high for the majority of the 21st century, but in the early aughts, gentrification hadn't yet reached neighborhoods like Crown Heights, so rents there were still well below the city average. Ads from 2000 and 2004 have two-bedrooms in the neighborhood for $1100, and there's even a three-bedroom asking just $904. In Park Slope, a two-bedroom garden unit was listed for $1350, while up in Harlem, roommates could split a two-bedroom for $700 each.
Average Rent: $3,800
$50 in 1940 Is Now: $780 to $830
Today, $50 in 1940 is only about $800, which won't rent you much in New York City, even if you share an apartment. Two-bedrooms below $2,000 are not very plentiful, but they do exist. StreetEasy has a 2BR/1BA in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens for $1,700, another in East Harlem for just $1,500, and a third way up on West 175th Street for $1,750. To find a private apartment for the same $800 price range, one must go to the far reaches of the city: here's a studio in New Dorp, Staten Island for $875, a studio in Far Rockaway for $799, or an unspecified unit in Coney Island for $847.
· Village Voice archives [Google]
· A Century of New York City Real Estate [Miller Samuel]