For the past few months, native New Yorker Annemarie Dooling, director of programming at the Vox site Racked, has been on the hunt for an apartment. But her search has resulted in frustrations that will sound familiar to many New Yorkers who’ve tried to buy in the city’s fast-paced, high-priced real estate market. “Everything I want is getting snatched up immediately,” she says. “If you do find something, it goes for way over asking price, and for all cash.”
But Dooling’s apartment woes aren’t in Manhattan or Brooklyn—instead, they’re happening on Staten Island. “The market here is on fire,” says Dooling.
Her experience isn’t unusual; buyers, brokers, and developers will all tell you that Staten Island’s residential real estate market is on the up and up. In 2016, the average price for a home in the borough was $486,073—an increase over the year before—and nearly 3,000 homes on the island sold, according to SILive.
And as home prices rise, noteworthy new projects—including the 900-unit, amenity-heavy rental Urby, and Lighthouse Point, a mixed-use development with 115 rentals, retail and a hotel—are making waves in the previously untapped luxury rental market, with the goal of attracting the upwardly mobile professionals who have pushed real estate prices ever higher in Brooklyn and Queens.
But Staten Island isn’t likely to follow the same patterns of change as New York’s other outer boroughs. Unlike Brooklyn or Queens—or even a place like Jersey City, where an influx of new developments has elevated prices by 14 percent in the past year—the borough has long operated independently from the Manhattan market. Some would argue it’s been outright ignored by the New York real estate market.
“Staten Island has typically been very closed off,” says Greg Vladi, a broker with TripleMint who lived on the island for 20 years. And according to Robert DeFalco, president of DeFalco Realty, which has offices in Dongan Hills and Rossville, the island’s real estate is largely run by mom-and-pop firms.
“Out-of-borough companies [like Corcoran or Douglas Elliman] have had little to no impact here on the Island,” he says. “Buyers and sellers tend to stay with the name brands they know and trust.” Residents, too, are known to stay in the borough and buy property for their families, resulting in neighborhoods that feel a lot like close-knit bedroom communities.
The lack of Manhattan brokerage firms is coupled with a lack of international investment, the cause of rapid price gains, particularly in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “The international money, which really drives those other markets, hasn’t been a huge factor for us yet,” says James Prendamano, managing director of Casandra Properties Inc., a firm located right off the Tompkinsville train station in the North Shore. “Our pricing is significantly off from Manhattan and Brooklyn—we’re talking 60, 70 percent off. And it’s crazy because we’re a 25-minute boat ride from Manhattan.”
Staten Island has a wide variety of property types, but some homes are easier to find than others. “We run the gamut from studio condos in the $150,000 range to luxury estates into the millions,” DeFalco says. There’s a high concentration of single-family homes, with neighborhoods like Todt Hill boasting grand properties priced into the millions.
Then there are the more reasonably priced homes, which have begun attracting priced-out residents of other boroughs. For the first quarter of 2017, Douglas Elliman tracked a median sales price of $822,100 for a home in Brooklyn: an 8.9 percent increase from a year ago. In Manhattan, Zillow tracked a 15 percent increase of Manhattan home values over the past year to $1.242 million.
“I’ve noticed [a spillover] in the past year and a half,” says Lisa Lonuzzi, a Corcoran broker who started taking potential Brooklyn and Manhattan buyers to Staten Island as those markets peaked. She’s closed 15 deals in Staten Island in the last few months. Lonuzzi notes that “price point is the number one attraction, and then we start exploring neighborhoods.”
Neighborhoods along the North Shore, closer to the ferry, express bus, and Verrazano Bridge, are most popular with those buyers, she says. The area also boasts landmarked blocks like St. Paul’s Avenue or Van Duzer Street, which attract old-house lovers who can’t afford a Brooklyn brownstone. For between $500,000 and $800,000, according to Lonuzzi, you can get at least a three-bedroom freestanding home in a neighborhood close to public transit. “That’s the most popular price point,” she says.
But the borough has a dearth of larger multi-unit residential buildings, especially condos. For those looking to buy an apartment, things get trickier—and very competitive. “It’s not so much that people can’t afford apartments; it’s that we don’t have enough of them,” Prendamano says.
Zoning has mainly discouraged dense development, though the city has mulled a rezoning proposal for the North Shore. In 2004 there was actually a massive, borough-wide rezoning that established the island as the city’s first “Low Density Growth Management Zone.” The zoning initiative—not quite a downzoning, but close—came with strict regulations to curb development as a way to help preserve the suburban feel of Staten Island, prevent the overcrowding experienced in boroughs like Brooklyn, and limit any stress on the island’s already overloaded infrastructure.
Prendamano says that in the North Shore district, only two new condo developments, the Accolade and the Pointe at St. George, have hit the market recently; the Accolade launching in 2014 and the Pointe at St. George in 2012. Pricing for both was higher than that of the average Staten Island condo, with a penthouse at the Accolade originally asking $1.095 million, and the average sales price at the Accolade hovering close to $600,000. But you wouldn’t be able to get a condo in either one now: Both projects sold out quickly.
Dooling, who has lived on Staten Island for 12 years, has found that the increasing competition means prices have gotten too high for her. She was able to purchase her home in Rossville, on the western end of the borough, eight years ago for $310,000. After upgrading the place, she was hoping to sell it in the high $300s, but wasn’t expecting the current market to be so fast paced. In the meantime, she ended up renting an apartment at URBY, a rental development that opened last summer.
Urby has been hailed as a sort of game-changer for the borough, and has garnered plenty of press for its amenities—including a pool and an urban farm—which sound more appropriate for Williamsburg than Stapleton. It’s also gotten attention for its prices, which are higher than what’s typically found on the island. When Urby launched, rents started at $1,508 for studios, $1,933 for one-bedrooms, and $2,507 for two-bedrooms. (According to Zillow, the median rental on Staten Island is now $2,176/month, a 2.4 percent rise over the past year.)
“We did look at existing property values and rental prices, but had to make some leaps of faith relative to what we could achieve building new construction,” explains Dave Barry, president of Urby developer Ironstate. He noted pricing “is high compared to existing Staten Island rentals, but affordable to any Manhattan property with similar amenities.”
But Ironstate isn’t marketing Urby solely to priced-out Brooklynites and Manhattanites. “Staten Island has had a problem demographically of a lot of young people fleeing the island because there were no housing choices for them,” Barry says. “In the long term, I see the outer boroughs as continuing to strengthen. The barrier of the river is continuing to break down and the North Shore is particularly well-positioned in that regional landscape.”
The firm’s goal was to build something distinct enough to lure upwardly mobile young professionals out to Staten Island—and to retain the ones that were already there. Hence Urby’s perks, many of which are engineered to appeal to a millennial audience—in addition to the farm and pool, there’s bike storage, a bespoke coffee shop, and plenty of outdoor space.
Triangle Equities is also betting on the North Shore with Lighthouse Point, a mixed-use project that will have 115 rentals when it opens in 2018. “It’s an untapped market,” says Elysa Goldman, Triangle’s director of development. “It’s going to be a sort of live/work/play environment that exists nowhere else on Staten Island.”
Dave Maundrell, executive vice president of new developments for Citi Habitats, was taken on to consult on pricing for the project. He calls URBY “the first kid on the block” and thinks it has set a pricing benchmark for future rental developments.
Besides convincing new residents to take the Staten Island ferry, he’s hoping to tap into the local market, too. “It’s the college graduates with roots in Staten Island, working in Manhattan, and I want them to come live here,” he says. “I want the people who would love to stay in Staten Island, but the housing stock isn’t right at this stage in their life. The folks that are gonna leave … I’m going to give them a reason not to.”
And as for Dooling, she’s committed to staying on Staten Island—even with the fluctuations and uncertainty in the market. “For all of the faults that this particular borough has, there are a lot of unique things you can't find in the rest of the city,” she explains. “I love that I can own and rent at the same time for less than most of my friends just rent. You cannot find this amount of space or privacy for this price anywhere else in the city.”